Of all the recent innovations in digital communications, the hashtag is among the most misunderstood and misused conventions.
Necessity is often the mother of invention, and in the case of the hashtag, it evolved from Twitter users’ desire to categorize their thoughts into groups. As the legend goes, @chrismessina, an early adopter of Twitter, suggested in a 2007 tweet, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
The idea, of course, was to provide context and organization for his missives. Without such a utility, many of the communities that exist on Twitter may never have materialized. Likeminded users would struggle to find each other, and it could be argued that the platform as a whole may have stagnated without the semblance of order that hashtags provided in the early days.
Five years later, the convention has morphed dramatically. Far too often, the hashtag is misused for attempts at humor, sarcasm, irony, or simply to avoid using spaces, given that the 140 character restriction can be a bit, well, restrictive.
But it’s not just individual users who misuse whimsical 45-character hashtags. Sadly, many brands and “gurus” have poor understandings of how to use them. Plenty of them have been blindsided when their marketing plans blew up in their face.
But when used properly, hashtags are powerful tools for spreading your message, as well as measuring audience volume and sentiment. A well-promoted hashtag creates and curates online conversations about your topic, while categorizing that content for searches. Many vendors have built businesses around delivering relevant content powered in large part by sourcing hashtag content, which can then be embedded in your website, integrated into your broadcast, or ingested and displayed in venues via digital media displays.
For advertisers, buying sponsored tweets against a hashtag is still a nascent method for reaching a target audience, and if poorly executed, the purchase could end up doing more harm than good.
Spammers (and even mainstream marketers) often attempt to do this for free by tweeting unrelated content against trending hashtags. It even works sometimes. Trending hashtags can become the gateway to generating extra exposure for their Viagra offers on the backs of otherwise interesting and innocuous trends.
There’s much to evaluate when launching a hashtag campaign. Since there’s no handbook, here are five guidelines for using hashtags in your marketing:
- Keep them short and sweet – While there’s no official convention, I’d suggest that anything over 20 characters is way too long for a tag that you’re going to ask people to use and retweet. In general, shorter is better, as long as the tag is specific enough to be absolute in its meaning. About 10-15 characters is probably the sweet spot. After all, you’ve only got 140 characters to use, so the longer your tag is, the less room users will have to share meaningful thoughts about the topic.
Make them clear – You’d like to think it goes without saying, but casual twitter users too often create lengthy tags that convey little to no meta information about their tweet. In fact, usually the “hashtag” itself delivers more punch than the tweet. But the best hashtags are unambiguous.
For instance, Fox Sports recently used #Rivalry on screen during a Red Sox and Yankees national TV broadcast. While it was clear to viewers that Fox was referring to the age-old rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, #Rivalry lacked context for Twitter users not watching the game; the hashtag was far too generic. Remember, hashtags on TV aren’t just for your viewers, but they’re also free advertising to reach potential viewers who will be exposed to your tag in their timeline.
- Consider how it might be used against you – If you’re going to promote a hashtag, consider the fact that it could blow up in your face. Of all the classic examples, #McDStories is among the most notorious, as the fast food giant’s detractors commandeered the generic tag by sharing horror stories about McDonald’s, turning their marketing dollars against them. Mitigate that risk by considering what might go wrong before handing your branding over to the public.
Promote it…without being obnoxious – Twitter users understand what a hashtag is when they see it, but not everyone is familiar with the platform. So while the hashtag should be prominent enough to be recognized, there’s still a universe out there that doesn’t even use or understand Twitter. Displaying your tag persistently on screen during a commercial or prominently in a print ad is an effective way to generate buzz and encourage use, but be mindful of cluttering your message with information that’s not necessarily relevant to a large portion of your audience.
Comedy Central was among the first media outlets to fully embrace the on-screen hashtag, tagging its Charlie Sheen Roast program with a #SheenRoast bug in the lower left hand corner of the entire broadcast. It was subtle, but effective. Similarly, NBC Sports is currently using the #StanleyCup hashtag just below their iconic peacock logo just next to the score at the top of the screen, away from the on-ice action but conspicuous enough to generate plenty of activity.
- Don’t expect it to trend – Set realistic expectations, and don’t gauge your success on whether or not your hashtag managed to trend. Most trending topics happen organically, briefly, and with little fanfare. Instead, set specific, measurable goals for engagement. Then analyze the number of users tweeting your tag, the nature of the conversation around your brand, and finally, identify commonalities among influencers participating in your campaign. Your most invested fans will likely join the conversation by using the tag you’ve provided, but how effective was your tag in reaching your existing audience, as well as a new audience?