In our introduction piece to hashtags, #History, we discussed the origin, evolution, and common uses of the hashtag in social media. Now, we will be delving into the strategy and research needed to see marketing success with your hashtag campaigns.
There is no denying that hashtags can be an incredibly powerful marketing tool. They have a reach and viral potential unlike almost anything else, but no one has yet discovered a sure fire way to harness the hashtag.
Another very real concern with hashtags is having them backfire; this is an all too common event for brands venturing into the wild west of viral marketing. But with some forethought and strategizing on the crafting and deployment of your hashtags you can maximize their potential for success. With that in mind, let’s look at some best practices for crafting your hashtags to get the most out of them.
Match Your Hashtags To Your Goals
Are you trying to grow your brand awareness? Are you promoting a particular product with a call to action? Are you encouraging people to use your product as part of a particular activity? Or are you trying to connect your brand to a relevant viral trend? All of these require a different approach, and you want to have this goal in mind when crafting your hashtag.
Once you have identified the goal of your hashtag campaign, you want to choose the most succinct and relevant words for your hashtag possible. Too short and your hashtag may be too broad, too long and it can be too specific and/or difficult to retype. You’ll want to choose words or a short phrase that speak to your goal. You can use your brand or slogan if your goal is branding, such as Coca Cola’s #ShareACoke campaign. Use a call to action if you’re trying to engage your audience and encouraging them to take some kind of action (register, like, repost, etc.) such as with Red Bull’s #PutACanOnIt picture sharing campaign.
Do Your Research
If there is one practice that is more important than any other when it comes to hashtags, it is to do your research. See if the hashtag you have in mind is already in use or if there is a similar one in use. Search for hashtags similar to yours, and see how they are being used. If there’s a hashtag campaign being run by another brand that is similar to what you have in mind, see how it was received. This prevents you from using a hashtag or hashtag phrase that already has an association with another brand or concept, and minimizes the chance of your hashtag backfiring.
How can a hashtag backfire if not properly researched? There are three common situations that lead to this: choosing a hashtag that is viral or already has an association without first finding out what its meaning and relevance is, not considering other meanings and readings of your hashtag, and not considering the potential for abusing a hashtag by internet users. The internet is littered with examples of all three missteps, so let’s take a look at some of the most egregious hashtag #FAILs:
- For an example of not researching the meaning of a viral hashtag before jumping on board, look no further than DiGiorno Pizza who in September of 2014 posted this to their Twitter account:
What DiGiorno failed to realize was that the hashtag #WhyIStayed had started trending in response to the release of the video of professional NFL player and failure of a human being Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancee, with thousands of women using the hashtag to bring light to domestic abuse and to discuss their harrowing and tortuous experiences in abusive relationships.
It should be clear that given the context, DiGiorno’s tweet had an overwhelmingly negative reception. DiGiorno spent the following days responding to hordes of angry Twitter users, issuing personal apologies to them. Other brands in similarly disastrous situations have been left with no choice but to abandon or close their Twitter account, so this is a scenario to be avoided at all costs.
“Look before you leap” is as true and wise an anecdote today as it was when it was first coined.
- Next up, let’s look at why it’s important to examine all possible readings of your hashtag. In October of 2012, singer Susan Boyle’s PR team was promoting the release of her album by having her answer questions from Twitter users. At first they asked people to use the hashtag #SusanBoyleAlbumParty to ask their questions, but when they needed more space for their posts they shortened the hashtag to #susanalbumparty.For those who are fans of Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit, you already see the problem; for those unfamiliar, here is a helpful clip:
So when crafting your own hashtag, write it out in all lowercase first and see what hidden words and meanings might be lurking within your hashtag before setting it loose on the internet. In the case of Susan Boyle, even though the tweet with the original #susanalbumparty was deleted almost immediately. Unfortunately that was still long enough for it to go viral and become a global phenomenon. While it did raise awareness of her new album, it was not in the context that her PR team was hoping for.
- For our final scenario, we’ll look at how a hashtag can be turned around and potentially abused by internet users. While many times this is the work of internet trolls, this also frequently happens to entities and brands that don’t take into account any scandals or criticisms associated with them. This leads to hashtag campaigns that brands not only lose control of, but that also make them seem oblivious and ignorant. It’s hard to find a better case of this happening than when the NYPD started their #myNYPD campaign in April of 2014:
To the NYPD Public Relations department’s credit, they did get an almost immediate response to the hashtag:
For the benefit of those who are just coming out of a years’ long coma, there has been a large and growing amount of controversy surrounding the NYPD’s record of abuse and racial profiling in recent decades. Unsurprisingly, the internet was also aware of this and immediately appropriated the #myNYPD hashtag to highlight the department’s laundry list of abuses.
The lesson here, beyond not being mired in scandal and controversy in the first place, is to think about the absolute worst way someone could put your potential hashtag to use because inevitably that will happen (take it from a Murphy). So adjust your hashtag to eliminate or at the very least minimize that possibility.
Timing Is Everything
Timing is another key pillar of successful hashtag deployment and also one of the hardest elements to quantify and judge. Viral trends happen at (literally) the speed of light these days, with a single tweet or post able to trigger a global trend in hours or even minutes. The practice of harnessing a viral meme or news item by making your brand or company part of the conversation is called newsjacking, and doing so can allow you to direct some of the visibility being generated by said meme or news item to your brand.
Sometimes viral memes and their hashtags occur organically. Other times they are centered around a particular event or news item, whether an award show, championship game, or national controversy. For events that are planned in advance, such as the Superbowl, you can have a strategy already in place to direct some of the attention going to the event toward your brand.
When dealing with spur of the moment trends and events, the key is to make sure that you first do your research and understand the context of the trend (see DiGiorno above for how not to do that) and to be sure your brand has something relevant to add to the conversation centered around the event or hashtag (again, see the DiGiorno example for what failing at that looks like).
A great example of this that speaks to both spontaneous and planned viral hashtag campaigns is when the SCOTUS ruled last June that marriage equality is the law of the land. Beaucoup brands made posts supporting the ruling using #LoveIsLove and #LoveWins, not only adding their voices too and engaging in a vibrant national and global dialog, but also gaining some of the visibility garnered by the hashtags; #LoveWins alone netted more than 4.5 billion impressions!
Here are some of our favorite examples:
By following these simple but essential principles of Goal, Research and Timing, you can setup your hashtag campaigns to have the best potential for success while also minimizing the chances of any of them having a costly #FAIL.