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Hashtags in Social Media Marketing: Ally or Enemy?

By July 24, 2014Social Media

Part I

A Fellowship is Formed

“Umph.”

This sound, the vocal equivalent of eye rolling, is uttered every now and then by Ayelet, our Community and Social Media Strategist. And it can only mean one thing.

It’s hashtag time.

Youre it_hashtag

Hashtags in social media marketing cause certain grief for Ayelet and others who manage online communities (more on that in a bit). And as the one with the pleasure of being her officemate, I have long played the role of counselor during these trying times.

Until the day when everything changed. Rather than offering commiseration and gummy bunnies (oh yes, they’re real), I engaged in a spontaneous mini-brainstorming session in which we worked through the pain together. What we discovered was that I actually enjoy the process and associated wordplay, and Ayelet prefers the metrics and measurement side of things. And so a partnership was formed. (Although I prefer to call it a fellowship, but alas no ring of power is involved. Yet.)

Gandalf_2fly2die

And as is the Mack Web fashion, we developed a process for approaching this elusive campaign asset, harnessing its power and using it for good instead of evil. We’re still testing and measuring and all that jazz, but as is our calling, we aspire to share with you some tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way. And since this is a true partnership, we even joined forces to bring you this post.

The Hashtag: A History (sorta)

The # has an involved and, at times, a somewhat unverifiable history. Much like Lord of the Ring’s Gandalf, this symbol goes by many names: pound, sharp, space (for you copy editors) and even the etymologically-challenged octothorpe.

Symbol

Today social media has adopted this multi-purpose symbol and its use has exploded. Now most commonly referred to as a “hashtag,” the # is used before words or groups of words on a variety of social platforms (such as Twitter, Instagram, and Google+). What makes hashtags really special? They are searchable, clickable, and measurable.

As this triple threat has grown in popularity, so have the numerous ways social sharers choose to utilize the hashtag in their tweets, pins and posts. Some are clever and strategic and worthy of our praise, while others make community managers want to rip those four little lines apart limb from limb, or slash from slash, or whatever.

On that note, let me turn things over to my “umph”-grunting Fellowshipper Ayelet, who is well-known in these parts as our social media & community savant. And I do believe she has something to say on this subject. But never fear – I’ll be back next week with our follow-up post Hashtags: A How-To for Success. Take it away, Ayelet.

Hashtags as Your Ally

Hi everyone! So, #YOLO and #SorryNotSorry aside, hashtags honestly can be a valuable tool in your social media campaigns. Hashtags can do a lot to further your strategies and help you connect with the people you want to build relationships with. In fact, there are a number of benefits to using hashtags.

They Boost Searches on Social Media & Help with Brand Recognition

The number one reason to use hashtags is because they can be used to file and find specific topics that otherwise would be hard to group together on social media. This works in two ways. First, when someone searches for a specific hashtag, all of the conversations and updates that contain that hashtag will show up in the search results. Second, when someone clicks on the hashtag within her news feed, it shows all the conversations that are using that hashtag. Both ways of searching make it easy to group discussions that relate to that hashtag for the person who is interested in it.

Using a hashtag allows you to reach people beyond your current followers but who still share in your interests, which increases your brand’s recognition and awareness among a new, awesome audience.

They Unify an Event or Campaign

Conferences use hashtags to keep track of what’s being said during the conference (often in live tweeting form) and to unify the messages that they’re sending out. When you see a conference hashtag that you know about or are interested in and you see that hashtag used either by the organizer or an excited attendee, you immediately identify with that hashtag and pay closer attention to see what’s new.

For example, MozCon happened recently so my news feed was bombarded with all the great information people were learning at the conference. Because I know it’s an awesome conference, I paid closer attention to the hashtag #mozcon on Twitter and kept up with all the good learning to be had from the conference.

#mozcon posts

Hashtags also make contests possible on social networks where contests are hard to run otherwise. For example, Facebook allows handy third-party apps to manage contests on its network. However, Twitter and Instagram don’t have that capability. So people use hashtags on those platforms to group contest entries together (and to make life as an online contest manager that much easier).

Also, Twitter chats (where people get together to discuss topics through a Q&A-style format on Twitter) would be impossible to do without them – people wouldn’t be able to understand the purpose of the Twitter chat, find the conversation, follow along, or participate in it without hashtags.

hashtag of #cmgrchat Twitter chat

Hashtags also can be used across social networks (with varying degrees of success), which can unify a campaign that runs on different social networks and encourage more interaction. A fan might use the hashtag not just on one network, but maybe two or three of her favorite social networks (especially if she has a strong motivation to do so, like a contest). This would spread your campaign beyond just one platform and let people take the campaign to the social networks where they already interact.

They Help Build a Sense of Community

As I mentioned with the conference example above, when you see news about a conference you’re going to, you pay closer attention. That’s because you’re part of the conference community. Hashtags help bring that community closer on certain social networks by identifying potential friends you haven’t yet met.

Similarly, as we’ve seen with news events around the world, hashtags support activism and knowledge about current events. When you see a hashtag related to a world event popping up more and more in your news feed, you start to wonder what’s going on and seek out additional information about the situation. That is likely to lead to expanding your community to include new people who are equally concerned about the issue. You may even take action on what you learn from each other to help make the situation better.

They Increase Engagement on Social Media

Research shows that hashtags improve engagement on social media (well, only on certain social networks that is). Buffer wrote the book on the science of hashtags, but we can give you a summary of their findings:

  • Tweets with hashtags are more likely to be retweeted.
  • Posts on Instagram with 11+ hashtags (seriously?! I don’t think I even know 11 hashtags) get more interactions.
  • Posts on Facebook that didn’t have a hashtag did better than posts that did (this is not unusual because Facebook predates the use of hashtags and users have been unwilling to adopt them).

Facebook

They Can Be Used as a Trending Tool

You know in high school, when all the cool kids showed up to school wearing striped shirts and pretty soon everyone was wearing striped shirts? If a high school equivalent of Twitter were around, you could monitor the hashtag #stripedshirtsrock (or some such hashtag) and be in the know before the mainstream. Similarly, using a real-time, trending hashtag that’s relevant to your brand could earn you some major wins on social media.

You also can look at trending hashtags as a pattern to help influence and boost future campaigns of yours. For example, if you’re a marketer for a football jersey company, you would want to monitor the hashtags being used around certain teams and then incorporate those hashtags into your social media updates for more exposure.

The screenshot below shows what trending hashtags look like on Twitter (you can find them to the left-hand side of your news feed). The trends change based on what your peers are saying or what you’re interested in (not everyone cares about Denver or Colorado as much as we do since we live here). There are lots of hashtag trending tools  if you’re interested in looking beyond your own trends.

trending twitter hashtags

Hashtags as Your Enemy

But as beneficial as hashtags can be, there also is a sinister side to them. It’s the side that can derail your campaign or strategy the moment you let that hashtag loose. Check yourself to make sure that you’re not falling into any of these hashtag traps.

Are you focusing too much on the wit of your hashtag rather than what it’s supposed to accomplish?

You’re going to run into serious issues if you focus way too much on the hashtag and way too little on your actual strategy. Goals should always come first, always. Remember why you’re using a hashtag  and what that hashtag is doing for your campaign. Make sure that the hashtag complements and furthers your goals. An awesome hashtag is gold, but a solid strategy is priceless. (This point is so vital that we’re going to repeat it again very soon.)

TIP: Beware of premature brainstorming. Don’t start the brainstorming process too soon. Make sure your critical campaign assets (landing page copy, product name or title, etc.) have been developed before you start the wordplay.

Are you hijacking the traffic of a trending hashtag?

Many companies get excited about the conversations that happen on social media when breaking news hits. As it unfolds on social media, the surge in activity and promise of impressions can easily lure companies into jumping on the bandwagon, leaving all of their common sense behind. If you see a trending hashtag and want the extra boost it may give you, think very carefully about it. It’ll work for some situations, but not for all.

klm world cup tweet

For example, during the World Cup, the #NEDMEX was trending and KLM Airlines tweeted the above after the Netherlands beat Mexico. Needless to say, Mexico’s fans did not take kindly to it and there was a huge uproar. The tweet was deleted and you can bet someone got a reprimand… or is looking for a new job.

It’s also common that companies try to ride on the coattails of weather-related and/or sports hashtags and this has backfired dramatically on many brands. Let’s say you’re a sock company and the trending hashtag is about a hurricane. Whatever you do, do not hijack a hurricane hashtag and tweet about how now is a great time to buy new socks because the ones you used to have are being washed away. By doing so, you would be taking advantage of a tragedy to peddle your wares and it will not reflect well on your taste, class, or heart. Go ahead and press that delete key, and then face palm yourself a few times.

Are you using a hashtag that doesn’t convey anything?

Listen, there is an art to hashtag creation. I know because I don’t have it. At Mack Web, we call Rebecca the Hashtag Queen and rightly so. She would never craft and approve a hashtag that was overly vague or too cryptic for anyone to figure out.

You may think your hashtag is creative and expresses your brand perfectly, but your followers may not get it (and that’ll make them feel stupid, which goes against basic social media etiquette). So what’s the test to make sure a hashtag is appropriate for a campaign? Run it by a few people who aren’t overly familiar with the campaign (but are active on social media) and listen to their feedback. Don’t say to yourself, “Oh, they don’t get it, but our followers will.” If they don’t get it, your followers won’t. Get thyself back to the drawing board.

TIP: Don’t be a snob. Let’s be creative, but keep control of those wordsmithing reins. Don’t sacrifice brand recognition or basic understandability for a chance to pat yourself on the back for your amazingly clever wit. If fans don’t get the inside joke, then there’s a disconnect with your community, and that’s no good.

Want more tips like this with a how-to process for your team? Then tune in next week for Part II: A How-To for Hashtag Success.

Author Ayelet Golz

More posts by Ayelet Golz

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