If there has been anything that has been drowning me lately in mixed feelings – it’s been the subject of HASHTAGS! They’ve evolved. They aren’t what they used to be. I find myself writing copy with hashtags and asking myself if this is even necessary a LOT more often! People aren’t USING them the way they did five years ago – and therefore expectations around what hashtags should do and how hashtags should be used needs to change as well. And while I’m not 100% clear (more like 80%) on what we should expect from hashtags, I’m excited to start the conversation and see where it leads.
Let’s start with the #HistoryofHashtags.
The hashtag made its first appearance on Twitter. The purpose of the hashtag at it’s infancy was as a collection tool. It collected conversation in hyperlinked “keywords”. In this sense, it was also a promotion tool and search tool. Hashtags allowed you to talk about something you cared about, find others talking about the same thing, and be found by people who are talking about the same thing you are talking about.
Hashtags allowed you to have and hold a conversation digitally through social media platforms like Twitter.
Twitter was the perfect platform for this. Unlike its counterparts (at the time), Twitter was built for conversation. So individuals and businesses benefited from using hashtags to join conversations, start conversations and promote what they needed to say.
Hashtags took off!
- America’s popular ABC Show #TheBachelor started overlaying hashtags in the bottom corner of the stream so that people taking to Twitter for commenting about how all sorts of crazy the women were acting behind the Bachelor’s back (I actually really enjoyed Twittering during the Bachelor.)
- Popular brands like Coke started using hashtags on their packaging and billboards so that when people shared their name bottle cokes, they also used #ShareACoke
- Conferences, especially in technology started using hashtags on all of their promotional materials. They knew thought leaders in the tech industry had a strong presence on Twitter and would be conversing about the conference, so to collect all the thoughts together – conferences like #SMWNYC (Social Media Week NYC) successfully provided hashtags for conversation.
This worked quite successfully – and consumer brands, products and shows caught on quickly to the notion that if they wanted to get someone talking about their brand or marketing campaign – it needed a hashtag. And the bigger the hashtag, the more participation – correct? Hashtag usage and adoption became a BIG success metric for marketing campaigns – and if the hashtag failed to provide adequate action, the campaign could be considered a failure.
By that metric, more hashtag campaigns actually fail to meet expectations for adoption than those that actually succeed. Especially for lower budget campaigns that didn’t have the luxury of putting ad dollars behind the hashtag.
What’s changed? How is it that something that used to be so popular and easy is becoming harder to implement as time goes on?
Consumers are USED to and now expect to engage directly with brands on social media. They don’t need a hashtag to grab the attention of a brand anymore. Where it used to be that conversation may exist about a brand on social media, but the brand may not have been online – almost ALL brands are expected to be online. You can now talk directly to a company using their @handle instead of a #hashtag. And if you want to engage with other people who like, let’s say United Airlines, it’s easier to do that within the communities that the brands have built through their social media profiles than to try and start a conversation on your own and see who replies. Brand profiles have now become the central means for communicating with other fans of the brands, making brand hashtags a little less relevant.
Hashtags are part of pop culture now. Parents make fun of their children for hashtagging. Children make fun of their parents for still calling it the “pound sign”. You can #hashtag in the middle of a text conversation. Some people speak in hashtags (guilty.) And with this intro to pop culture comes new functionality for the hashtag – it’s now a statement. It’s a way to show creativity and edge. Where hashtags were previously short and succinct (typically one word general terms) the MOST popular and widely used hashtags by volume are now pop-culture related hashtags like #sorryimnotsorry, #nofilter (Instagram specific, now widely used), #WCW and #MCM (now dedicated days for you to talk about how much you love your significant other!) or if you’re single #FlexFriday to talk about how much you love your muscles. Bottom line, the introduction of hashtags into pop culture has created the expectation that hashtags be hip, humorous and popular with others in order for them to be used by people when posting. People want to choose their own hashtags that reflect their identity, not be told what hashtags to use when speaking about a company or brand.
From these changes, I’ve made a few tweaks to the way I personally view the use of hashtags and the way I help manage the expectations about what hashtags can do.
- For everyday use: There is no doubt that using relevant and popular hashtags can help promote posts and extend the reach of content. So research relevant hashtags to your community and interest groups and continue to use hashtags to optimize the content (especially via Twitter and Instagram) you put out. Watch trending hashtags as well – especially pop-culture hashtags. Proper use of trendy, pop-culture hashtags aids in your “coolness” factor and will also help promote your content and overall creativity and relevancy as a brand. Consider integrations like using #WCW and #MCM to talk about employees at your company, or even your product in a humorous way!
- For branding: This is no longer a popular practice – or even necessary. Big brands no longer try and push OUT hashtags through their own brand assets with the expectation of user adoption. But if you choose to go the route, choose one relevant hashtag that acts as a tagline for your brand and don’t change it! Hashtags are more successful when they are repeated over a long period of time for the LIFE of your brand. Consider that, if a fan uses this hashtag, does it say something about them? A good rule of thumb I like to use is if a hashtag can follow the phrase, “I am _____”. Remember that a big draw of social media community is the want for people to be involved in something that is bigger than themselves, so consider a hashtag that brands an individual as part of a bigger community. If you have time, consider letting your fans choose a hashtag and see what catches on in the community!
- For events: I think this is going to continue to be a popular practice. Annual events, conferences should continue to use the same hashtag year after year to facilitate conversation about the event on social media. Any event or activity that draws cameras draws social activity, and this will both help out the brand and allow you to easily view the way your event was portrayed through the public use of that hashtag.
- To Group Themed Content: Because, why not use a hashtag to notify users that the content is part of a bigger series? I recently saw a Youtube video ad by Quest Nutrition use the hashtag #15SecondVideo. Though I doubt the expectation is for users to engage on the hashtag, it does a GREAT job of signifying that the piece of content is part of a bigger series that occurs across a variety of digital channels – in Quest’s case, Youtube, Instagram, web and even Snapchat.
- For campaigns: I typically started advising against it, if the expectation is conversation occurs on the hashtag or the whole campaign is centered around getting people to converse. This becomes truer if your campaigns or brand themes change quickly. With one HUGE exception…
HASHTAGS are now also TRENDS. They must start somewhere – and they follow the same “rules” as fashion… it’s the tastemakers who decide what’s popular. If you have centers of influence continually push out a hashtag, it will get traction over a shorter period of time. Notice how I said influencers and not AD DOLLARS. The only way to get people to know you are suppose to “use” a hashtag is to show other people “using” a hashtag. So if working with people of influence in their perspective interest communities is part of your brand strategy, by all means – creating hashtags will allow you to track the strength of your influencer network in supporting your brand. Make sure to communicate with the influencers consistently and repeatedly about the was you would like them to create buzz around your brand hashtag. Vice versa, if you want to use hashtags as part of your campaigns to create brand buzz consider who will be pushing out your hashtag before setting your expectations for adoption.
What other ways have you seen hashtags change and what other tweaks should marketers make in their expectations or use of hashtags in brand strategies?