A term pervasive, oversaturated and to some, irritating (ask my parents to press the hashtag button on their landline and stand back).
What are hashtags good for? And why not just call them pound signs?
HASHING UP A LITTLE HISTORY
In the United Kingdom and some other countries, the symbol has long been called a “hash”, as “pound” refers to currency.
The symbol has been used heavily in computing and programming since the 1970s. In information systems, a “tag” is a keyword assigned to a piece of information, and is used to index and organize. Tagging has been an important feature of the internet since the early days of Web 2.0, when social media was in its infancy.
In 2007, the term ‘hash tag’ surfaced, describing people using the symbol to tag certain topics on Twitter. In 2009, Twitter began automatically hyperlinking hashtags, connecting tweets from all over the world; it wasn’t long before Instagram, Facebook and even Pinterest followed suit.
Today, hashtags are everywhere. Where are you?
AS A BRAND, WHY SHOULD WE BOTHER?
Hashtags are a simple way to get involved in discussions, appear before target audience members and organize campaigns.
Trending topics often have a corresponding hashtag. Participating in hashtag trends can reinforce a brand’s position and promote customers’ familiarity with it.
Many popular hashtags are slow burns, never trending but maintaining an influential place among large groups. If used correctly, they can be used to cleanly target specific psychographics. A personal example: as a graphic artist, I pay close attention to #Inktober, a month-long “art marathon” that attracts illustrators from all over the world. A graphic pen brand would be wise to use the hashtag, as it would guarantee thousands of well-targeted impressions.
The most challenging use for a hashtag is creating one from scratch to unify a campaign. There are different degrees to which these tags matter. An original hashtag is a visual component of an ad that can be used across several platforms to promote continuity. These are often written like tiny synopses of the campaign; an example is #ReadBridge, used to encourage people to read Bridge Magazine.
At their most complex, original hashtags are meta-networks devised by brands to promote interaction between audience members. Red Bull famously achieved this with #PutACanOnIt, a challenge to take photos of creatively-placed Red Bull cans. The tag exploded on Twitter and Instagram, and people began creating product placement ads and distributing them for free.
HOW SHOULD WE DO IT?
Sparingly. Studies show Facebook posts begin to hemorrhage engagement when they include more than two hashtags, and on Instagram and Twitter, average engagement rates were actually slightly lower on posts with even one hashtag. The takeaway? Only use a hashtag when you have a strong reason to.
Properly. Syntax is important: punctuation and spaces will end a hashtag prematurely. Capitalization should be used to make it comprehensible. Nobody wants to try and figure out what #thisisaverylongandcomplexhashtag means, but #ThisIsAVeryLongAndComplexHashtag is manageable at a glance.
Creatively, but not too creatively. Unless your audience is actively aware your brand is behind the hashtag, you may be wasting your time.
Cautiously. Brand hijackers love hashtags. Just look at what happened to McDonalds’s interactive hashtag campaigns. If you’re trying to change public perception or dealing with a lot of negativity surrounding your brand, a hashtag campaign is the worst possible method. Social media has already given your detractors a platform. Don’t give them a megaphone.
Simply. Don’t try to put words in your audience’s mouth. A hashtag like #ILoveThisProductAttribute is far less likely to be used by an audience than #ILoveThisProductBecause. Social media is about individuality and expression, so encourage that!
ALRIGHT, WRAP IT UP.
If you haven’t been using hashtags, consider starting! If you have, pause and think about why! “Hashtag” might be an annoying word, but it could mean a world of opportunity for your brand.
Travis Root is a student practitioner at Martin Waymire. A senior at Michigan State University, Travis studies creative advertising arts and is minoring in graphic design.