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Increasingly, businesses are embracing the hashtag as a way to connect conversations with their fans, friends, and followers across social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Google+ and Pinterest. According to the Interbrand 100 list, 97%of the top 100 companies in the world posted at least one tweet that included a hashtag in the last quarter of 2013. The hashtag has real capacity to be an incredibly valuable marketing device. It also has the potential to drive an otherwise successful social media campaign off the rails within seconds. Its vital that marketers fully embrace the hashtag: its history, how it works and, most importantly for marketers, how to turn the hashtag into a clever marketing opportunity.
A brief hashtag history
Hashtags originated on Twitter in 2007, when user Chris Messina, a well known social media interaction designer in San Francisco, asked what his followers thought about using the # (pound) symbol for groups. The idea caught fire with Twitter users—almost literally—when the symbol was included in informational tweets about the devastating 2007 San Diego fires. Twitter officially adopted hashtags in late summer 2009 as way to categorize tweets. In 2010, Twitter placed Trending Topics on its homepage, which let users know which tweet themes were garnering the most original tweets, retweets, and conversations. These can change literally minute-by-minute.
Hashtags have essentially become part of everyday “conversation.” Depending on which social media platform users are on, hashtags are used to categorize topics (Twitter), to brand (Pinterest), to build community (Instagram), to relate to other relevant posts (Google+), and to categorize interests (Tumblr).
How to use hashtags most effectively
Clicking on a hashtag in a tweet or a post shows the user all the other messages that contain the same hashtag. This way, users can follow all the tweets, posts, and conversations on a given hashtagged topic. An effective hashtag can make your business “findable” on Twitter and other social media platforms. A study of 1.2 million tweets showed that tweets with one or more hashtags are 55 percent more likely to be retweeted.
As a marketer, your goal is to entice people to retweet, reply or comment on the hashtagged post. That’s why marketers have to make sure that the “#” and the words don’t get lost in the hourly shuffle of trending topics.
Your brand can create its own hashtag or use established hashtags that you can find using a variety of hashtag tools like Hashtagify.me, Ritetag, and Tagboard.
Creating your own hashtags is great when you want to track the reach of a particular campaign. When you’re running a short-term social media campaign, you’ll want to create a hashtag that is distinctive to your business. Charmin toilet paper ran a terrific hashtag campaign: #tweetfromtheseat. After all, 40% of people admitted in a survey to taking their mobile devices to the restroom with them so the hashtag gave them something to do while they were in there. The campaign was irreverent, entertaining, and relatable and at the same time, gave people something to do…. “tweet from the seat.” The hashtag #tweetfromtheseat was a call to action. It was also tied to a contest where followers won Super Bowl tickets.
On top of the trends
Tying a hashtag into a contest is a great way to engage your followers. Another thought to keep in mind when developing hashtags are those trending topics mentioned earlier. When you see a trending topic that seems a good fit for your business or your social media campaign, include it in your tweets. The advantage is that your content update will be visible to anyone in the social media audience, not just your followers or fans. Be sure, though, that the trending topic actually relates to your business or campaign. Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating the audience, who are savvy and will see through a blatant attempt to commandeer a hashtag.
There are a number of resources that can help you find trending topic hashtags that you can tie into your business. Check out:
When your hashtag is hijacked
One of the interesting and unpredictable aspects of social media platforms is that the audience can abscond with a hashtag and turn what should have been a nice engagement tool into a way to mock a company. One of the most famous instances of this is McDonald’s #McDstories.
McDonald’s intended its #McDstories to be a platform for their followers to share their positive experiences at McDonald’s restaurants.
Almost immediately, however, the hashtag shot up to the top of the Trending Topics list for the worst possible reason: people from all over the Twittersphere tweeted McDonald’s horror stories. Tales of food poisoning, rude treatment by the fast food chain’s employees, dirty restaurants, and moral outrage against McDonald’s in general exploded across Twitter. McDonald’s scrambled to recover, but the damage was done. Marketers still cite the incident—which happened in 2012—as the ultimate example of a hashtag fail.
Changing the way we market
Until recently, many businesses missed the value of hashtags. It’s very different now: using hashtags is vital in virtually any social media marketing campaign. They help companies track engagement, gauge influence, and are a great way to inspire dialogue about the topics businesses put out there. As marketers, it is our job to find the most innovative ways to use hashtags to garner positive attention for our brands.
If you have an insight you’d like to share, we’d love to read about it in the comments section.
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