#Hashtags have cemented themselves as one of the most effective marketing tool within the social media landscape.
It’s a great way to promote your brand, follow trends, create conversations, generate feedback from customers, and make your brand easier to find on social media.
But there is a dark side.
While hashtags can help you gain the positive viral exposure everyone is after, if improperly used or used in the wrong context, they can also have the opposite effect and create a public relations nightmare for your brand.
You can never predict social media behaviour 100%, but taking the time to do a quick side search can save you the embarrassment and headache of becoming the next to be added to the social media fails list.
Do yourself a favor and learn from hashtag fails and social media blunders from the past, so you don’t end up in hot water like the following companies:
Unfortunate Hashtag Oversights
Giving your hashtags a once over is always a good idea. Combining words and creating acronyms could lead to some very interesting results. The following companies probably should have given some more thought to these unfortunate hashtag fails:
This hashtag was created by the PR team for British singer Susan Boyle, and while the idea was to promote her new album, I think we all know why this was branded as one of the worst hashtag fails of all time.
While the intention for this hashtag was “Susan-album-party,” it was interpreted in another way by users on Twitter. “Su’s-anal-bum-party” caught on like wildfire and was trending in no time. Just not for the right reasons.
This one is downright embarrassing and one of the biggest hashtag oversights to date. On the bright side, it did create a huge buzz online and got Susan Boyle a lot of attention. Not sure if it helped her sell her album, though. To put out the fire, the PR team deleted the tweet, but the damage was already done.
The Lesson Learned:
When combining words to create hashtags, always read it over and look for potentially embarrassing combinations. Capitalizing each word – #SusanAlbumParty – in the hashtag could have avoided this issue, especially when creating custom hashtags.
We apologize for the poor image quality, but I think the fail is pretty apparent here. It has become fairly common for companies to make job announcements on Twitter, and many have started to use hashtags to promote job openings. Canadian tech company, Research in Motion (RIM), the creator of BlackBerry, did just this to announce they were hiring. The only issue was that the hashtag they chose had a slang meaning that they overlooked, causing the company a great deal of embarrassment. It also didn’t help that local newspapers picked up on the mistake and used it to create some pretty cheeky headlines themselves.
The Lesson Learned:
Always consider alternative meanings when using hashtags. You may even want to consult Urban Dictionary just to be on the safe side.
Acronyms can get you in a lot of trouble on Twitter if you don’t do your homework before using them. Burger King found this out the hard way. While the intended meaning for the hashtag #WTFF was intended to mean “What the French Fry” to promote the company’s new low fat fries, they overlooked the fact that the acronym stands for a profane statement.
“Many individuals who were posting random things on Twitter or simply wanted to rant online by using the common hashtag were immediately funneled to the same conversation,” says hashtags.org, derailing the company’s promotional efforts with the conversation becoming buried within the mix of rants, and uses of the hashtag for other reasons.
The Lesson Learned
If you are going to use an acronym for a hashtag campaign, make sure that you are abundantly clear about other potential meanings.
More Unfortunate Hashtag Oversights Worth Noting
Here are some other hashtag oversights that ended up going viral for all the wrong reasons:
- Intention: Now Thatcher Is Dead
- Interpreted: Now That Cher Is Dead
- Result: A viral rumor was spread about Cher being dead
#therapist – a tough one for all therapists out there!
- Intention: Therapist
- Interpreted: The Rapist
- Result: Entering into a completely different conversation online
Sabotage Times provides some other examples of how combining words to create hashtags can lead to unintended meaning:
#PowerGenitalia – Powergen Italia
#LesboCages – Les Bocages
#BlackHateBook- Black Hat eBook
The lack of space and the necessity to combine words can lead to some epic social media fails if you are not careful. Now let’s move onto hashtags that created an unintended Twitter backlash.
Hashtags that Created Twitter Backlash
Even if you have good intentions, hashtags do not always yield the results you anticipated, enter hashtag fails that were completely avoidable. McDonalds and the NYPD found this out the hard way and felt the backlash from Twitter as a result:
In an attempt to create some positive buzz about the company, McDonald’s launched a marketing campaign around “McDStories” to encourage customers to share fun stories about their Happy Meals. However, it did not go according to plan as unsatisfied customers used the hashtag to bash the company and share their negative experiences.
McDonald’s removed the hashtag immediately, but the damage has been done. Word has spread, and posts were retweeted and shared, creating more negative publicity than positive stories about the company.
The Lesson Learned:
Companies need to consider the potential effects when using hashtags for marketing purposes, or they could end up experiencing an unanticipated backlash. In this case, McDonald’s should have had the foresight to anticipate people would hijack the hashtag to bash the company.
#MyNYPD and #AskACop
In an attempt to show how police have a good relationship with citizens in New York, the NYPD asked Twitter users to share photos of themselves with police officers. Not surprisingly, people responded with images of police violence:
Another similar situation occurred when CNN used #AskACop so viewers could submit questions to police officers as part of a special “CNN Tonight” episode titled, “Cops Under Fire.”
“On the heels of widespread protests against police brutality, particularly in communities of color, the questions that poured in were mostly thinly veiled criticisms of outrageous police abuses. As CNN tweeted, #AskACop succeeded in trending nationally. It just neglected to mention precisely why,” says Kali Holloway.
With many in the United States having a distrust of police in light of recent incidents, it wasn’t hard to see the potential negative backlash the hashtag could create. And it did:
The Lesson Learned:
Be sensitive to societal tensions and current events. Timing can play a big role in the reaction you will receive. Always consider how a hashtag could be perceived, and think about your intentions from multiple perspectives. Making these hashtags more specific could have also helped minimize the negative backlash.
Hashtag Hijacking Fails
There is no shortage of companies that use trending hashtags as a means to gain exposure for their tweets. You can be successful if you can create a connection between the hashtag and your brand. What you don’t want to do is come off as an opportunist trying to benefit from the misfortune of others.
There is a time and a place for hashtag hijacking—you just need to be able to decipher when is the best time to capitalize, and when you should hold back. Hijacking a hashtag that you do not understand, use in the wrong context, or use insensitively, can lead to a whirlwind of backlash and bad PR, as these companies found out:
The issue here is not the hashtag itself. Gap enraged storm victims by using the hashtag as an opportunity to promote shopping on Gap.com.
American Apparel also used #Sandy as an opportunity to promote itself:
The Lesson Learned
Don’t use the misfortune of others, like a natural disaster, as a promotional opportunity.
Joking about the misfortune of others is not an effective strategy. Unfortunately, for Kenneth Cole, it created a huge PR crisis. “He tweeted an insensitive joke about the revolution in Egypt with the #Cairo hashtag (that was trending at the time). People weren’t amused, and the Twitterverse spent the rest of the day railing on Cole and his brand,” says Kim Bhasin from Business Insider. Cole later deleted the Tweet and apologized, but it was too little, too late.
The Lesson Learned
Humor can be a highly effective marketing tool, especially on Twitter. However, it can also severely backfire, especially when joking about sensitive topics, and these hashtag fails were hopefully a lesson learned immediately.
8 Quick Tips for Rules for How to Use a Hashtag
Now that we have shared a number of examples of how NOT to use hashtags, here are some rules to follow to avoid being the next social media fail to go viral:
- Check for existing content. Search for how the hashtag is used on Twitter.
- If you hijack a hashtag, make sure you know what it means.
- Always check the meaning of an acronym before using it.
- Make hashtags as narrowly focused as possible.
- Do not use trending hashtags to capitalize on the misfortune of others.
- When combining words, always review for alternative interpretations. Capitalize words to eliminate confusion.
- Run hashtag ideas by multiple people.
- Read it out loud. Read it again. Out loud.
Hashtags can be a highly effective way to reach your audience online, however it can also be a source of embarrassment and cause a PR nightmare. Word combinations, acronyms, context, and timing all play a role in successfully using hashtags. Take all of thing into consideration when planning your next marketing strategy or you could end up as one of the next social media fails and go viral for the wrong reason.