Are Hashtags Actually a Useful Social Media Engagement Tool?

social media engagementWe 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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Discuss This Article

Comments: 3

  • I don’t really agree with this article. Hahstags are useful! Many times you can find information you need faster thanks to them. About that little girl called Hashtag, parents wanted to impress, that’s all… For those who use Twitter a lot, hashtags are important in my opinion.

  • Alicia Chittum says:

    Dear Mr. Murphy,

    As a current student at the University of Southern California who hopes to soon begin a career in marketing, I am very fascinated with learning all that I can about the current trends and strategies that work within in the industry. Your repost was interesting, current and controversial, leading readers to look critically at the points made about how useful hashtags are today. The use of the McDonald’s #McDStories hashtag example to demonstrate how marketers can create a hashtag, but “can’t control what people [or audiences] use it for” was enlightening, showing the large power followers posses with responding and engaging to twitter posts. With this understanding of the problems that can come from using hashtags, you express concern that “hashtags account for a significant portion of social media engagement, but they don’t seem to drive it.” Recently though, the infographic embedded in this article shows the positive, compelling influence of hashtags as it illustrates that there is a 21% higher engagement rate when tweets include up to two hashtags clarifying that a concise use of these terms actually drive communication with target audiences.

    What’s more, deeper in the post your argument that hashtags “have not become a measurably useful social media engagement tool” comes to light. Although this is an interesting proclamation, I feel like there is a lack of concrete support to help understand this viewpoint. Conversely to your statement, bloggers today, such as Allen Harkleroad of Designer Today, express how they do see a “strong correlation between an increase of website visitors and [the] increased use of hashtags.” Supplementary, the website Hashtags just put out an article that includes Twitter’s recent study that there is a positive correlation between promoted tweets and actual sales. Furthermore, “the results show that a more structured Twitter presence will, indeed, lead to higher earnings for your business.” Do you feel that your argument of the irrelevance of hashtags applies more to the general public who use it frivolously, being that hashtags tend to be more successful engagement tools for larger businesses and celebrities? On another note, Chris Messina, the inventor of Twitter hashtags, has said that he thinks “that there should be different types of metadata markers, for instance /via, /cc and /by” to accompany the growth of the hashtag, to promote further engagement and create clearer distinctions of topics. Do you agree then that the hashtag is simply an evolving social media tool that promotes engagement and will continue to be in our marketing lexicon? Thank you for your thoughtful post and for engaging with me in this topic.


    Alicia Chittum

  • Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond in such detail.

    The point, I think, is that hashtags are very much a developing social media tool. But at the moment, they may be more useful to the casual user and celebrity than they are to marketers.

    The research you mentioned is certainly interesting, however, it is difficult to accurately measure the success of hashtags, because it’s difficult to create unbiased research on the subject. That research proves only that those tweets saw an increase in engagement, there are too many variables to prove that the hashtags are the only factor. You will find research that claims adding questions marks, exclamation marks or numbers will increase engagement.

    What these studies fail to explain is why these factors drive engagement. Without that information, it’s impossible to confirm the findings. They provide only indicators.

    The fact is, engaging content drives engagement. The functionality of hashtags adds little to an engaging tweet. If hashtags are increasing engagement, it is likely a credibility and perception effect, rather than any other significant effect.

    We have a blog on our website on the use of these kinds of studies.

    I would be happy to hear your thoughts on it.

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