We need to talk about hashtags. They used to be an interesting online quirk. They were a cool little addition to online communication, something marketers could throw into a post in order to feel relevant. They helped to build a social media community too, most early adopters found huge success in making hashtags a part of their Twitter conversations. But they’ve gotten a little out of hand.
The hashtags have escaped Twitter, and now they are littered throughout social media engagement across every channel. They’ve taken on a life of their own and some reports today suggest they’ve taken a dark turn. The birth of little Hashtag Jameson this week has take things too far. The hashtag has grown beyond the social media engagement tool it was designed to be and now is the time to discuss it. Because, when you think about it, it has never really fulfilled the marketing role that many got excited about a few years ago.
Creating a Hashtag
Most hashtags these days are invented on the spot. They’ve become a way to summarize a post. This is handy for one-liner gags or making a point, but not a for social media marketing. In theory, the functionality of hashtags makes them ideal for social media engagement. They should allow you to create and track a keyword and give users a simple way to talk about and promote your product.
Pre-planned hashtags rarely work though. The problem with the hashtag is that they are totally public and available to anyone. You can create one but you can’t control what people use it for. All you can do is encourage them to use it the way you wanted. McDonalds tried this earlier in the year with their #McDStories hashtag. Instead of nice brand appropriate anecdotes, they got urban myths about unpleasant ingredients and tales of unsanitary washrooms. They created the hashtag, but clicking on a hashtag just gives you search results, results totally out of McDonalds’ control.
Hijacks like that, and this week’s Republican hijack of Barrack Obama’s #My2k campaign, show that hashtag campaigns are a risk. A risk that frustrates most marketers; because the hashtag itself has had huge penetration. Look at the recent disaster on the East Coast. The official name for the storm was Sandy, but you’d forgiven if you thought it was called #Sandy. The word Sandy actually looks unfamiliar without a hashtag. The public understands them and connects with them. But so far, they have not become a measurably useful social media engagement tool.
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Making Hashtags Work
Think about how you use hashtags. In content marketing, there are certain hashtags that are used to get content into a particular conversation. Tags like #b2b and #socialmedia are ones we use a lot. They are really useful for finding content you want to read. The thing is, all the # adds is the ability to click on the term. If you tweet something #b2b and I just mention the phrase in a tweet, we both appear in the search results. You could argue that the # in that instance is just a waste of one of your precious 140 characters.
For marketers, the question is, what can hashtags do for you? There must be some value available. They’ve spawned the name for a historic event and even named a tiny human. Hashtags account for a significant portion of social media engagement, but they don’t seem to drive it. Based on recent experiences, campaigns based on hashtags could create PR disasters while they offer little value as a content marketing tactic. So what are they for?
Hashtags have become a big part of the modern lexicon. It’s hard to go through 24 hours without encountering one. But they don’t drive traffic to your website. There is no concrete evidence that posts with hashtags affect conversation any more than engaging posts that are hashtag free. They’ve created a strange social media engagement paradox. A massively popular element of social conversation that has no natural use in social media marketing. Please let us know what you think in the comments. #ItsAConundrum
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