How (Not) to Kill a #Hashtag

We recently did a study for a client on hashtags used by eight brands in a certain industry and the results were nothing less than horrific. While we’re not allowed to share the study or its detailed results with you, we can and feel compelled to share a few lessons that businesses using hashtags anywhere are obviously in dire need of.

Think before you post – (Re)search before you hashtag

We see a lot of brands attaching all sorts of hashtags to their posts just because they seem like keywords that maybe, possibly, sort of might go with their industry or product. Every single one of those randomly used hashtags is a liability for your brand. It’s just a matter of time before you post one that damages your brand. But they’re just words, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a hashtag as simple and innocent as #3in1 could see your tweet posted alongside explicitly pornographic content using the same hashtag. Best case scenario – using random words for hashtags like colors, #green or #orange, could get your tweet or post lost in a sea of noise of users talking about something entirely different or nothing at all.

Before attaching any hashtag to a post, even if it’s one familiar to you, go give it a quick search on that social network first and see what the conversation is under that hashtag. Even worldly and usually positive hashtags like #CannesLions, #Paris, #Orlando and #Istanbul have been known to have their bad (or tragic) days. If the conversation related to that hashtag is appropriate on that particular day, use it. If not, don’t. Simple as that.

To brand or not to brand a hashtag?

Should you be using your brand name as a hashtag or not? No. Except maybe yes.

Turning a brand name (or your business name) into a recognizable hashtag that might actually bring some sort of results is no small feat. How serious are you about employing social media marketing to promote your business and sales? Unless the answer is “dead serious and we have a nice budget to boot” – don’t bother.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to focus on social media marketing over the next couple of years and really put some time, effort, and a decent budget into it, then, by all means, let’s turn that brand name of yours into a trending topic hashtag!

To do that, take a step back. We’ve already discussed brand definition and how to build an online presence using that brand definition. Start there and create your social media (and overall public relations) messaging. This should be one or three points that you are clearly trying to transmit to your target customers across all channels and that differ from other messages out there, especially those of your competition. If you’re a local business, this will be much easier to do by connecting your message to your local community or city, but the principles are the same.

The next step in popularizing your brand name as a hashtag and developing a viable and ongoing conversation around that hashtag is involving your online community and brand ambassadors in it, as well as continuously using that hashtag daily, along with quality content that will interest your audience.

Join the party, but don’t be a dud

We see a lot of businesses desperately trying to join already popular hashtag parties on social networks. And then doing nothing with it.

We’ll put it in simple terms. Tweeting a popular hashtag once and leaving it at that is just like showing up to a rocking party and then standing in the corner doing nothing – it makes you look weird and it makes everyone else who sees you feel awkward.

Joining conversations using popular hashtags or hashtags related to events is a great way to get your brand or campaign seen, but also a great way to engage an audience and demonstrate a brand’s personality. Let’s say you’re business is sponsoring an event, even if it’s a small local conference or a charitable gathering – log into your business’ social media accounts and join the conversation. Respond to other users using the hashtag, retweet, drop a LOL or a mild-spoken opinion here and there. Especially if it’s local or in involves a small niche community, be an active and visible part of that community.

What’s your point?

Let’s forget about hashtags for a second and just consider why your business is on social media in the first place. What’s the point? Are you looking to bump sales, find new customers or communicate with existing customers? There’s plenty method to social media madness and your business goals should be well-represented on your accounts or you’re just wasting your time and, probably, money.

A great comparison of brands that are on Twitter to build relationships, acquire new users, and reach business goals, and those that are just there for the sake of having an ‘active’ Twitter account just because, are @Firefox and @GoogleChrome.

A couple of years ago I was having a bad tech day. One of those days when Windows is being a douche and your browser keeps crashing on you. So I took a minute, as we usually do, to express my frustration with Google Chrome on Twitter, as I waited for it to reboot. I decided to be humorous about it and tagged both big brand browser accounts, Google Chrome and Firefox, my secondary browser, in the tweet. I expected some of my geekier fellow twitterers to share in my first world exasperation with me, but never even occurred to me that anyone from Google or Firefox would be paying attention on the other end. If I had, I might have cleaned up my French a little before tweeting.

Best conversation I’ve had with a browser. Ever.

And, as far as Google Chrome goes, I was right – no one was paying any mind to what was being tweeted straight @ them and their product. The Firefox social media team, however, saw the opportunity and shot right back with the response in the image below, using the same tone I had and following the storyline I’d set in my tweet.

First, they brightened up my tough day, if for but a few minutes. Thanks, Firefox. Second, they sparked my interest as a communications professional. Over the past three years, I’ve been following what both browser brands have been doing on Twitter. Firefox is engaged, active, and has a strategy behind their social media presence. Google Chrome sees Twitter as just more of a billboard. I guess all Google is able to see these days is ad space. SMH, Google. It’s social media, not oh-look-a-place-to-post-my-marketing-collateral media.

The end result, in terms of external communications, is that Firefox, even with half of the Twitter follower count compared to Google Chrome’s, has a community gathered on Twitter and one that will most likely stand by the brand in times of trouble, bad news, or glitches. A community that will be more open to receiving information about new products and offers, just because they regularly see the brand active in their feed.

With 3 million Twitter followers more than Firefox, Google Chrome responds to nothing and no one, except for the occasional retweet from @Google’s main account. And users direct tweets at Google Chrome daily, sometimes even asking about products and possible purchases. But Google is, clearly, a typical multi-national corporation and they use entirely different channels for user acquisition, disregarding social media entirely. Unfortunately, if a public relations crisis should ever hit this multi-national, I honestly can’t see more than a dozen of their almost 6 million Twitter users backing them up or standing up for them. In fact, I see their Twitter account as an open liability for additional complications in that crisis and an all around public relations social media disaster.

Firefox, on the other hand, is part of Mozilla Foundation, an international non-profit, and they seem well-aware of the fact that relationships matter and that they have less room for screw-ups. See? A couple of tweets my way from their account and still have me praising them three years later.

Back to the subject at hand. Notice that @firefox uses hashtags. If and when they do, they use branded hashtags related to Mozilla’s products and projects, like #internetfreely. If you don’t know what #internetfreely is, well, that’s exactly what the hashtag is for – follow the link and find out what it’s all about through the extensive conversation about the topic on Twitter.

Worse things could happen

The only thing worse than a badly placed # is an automated badly placed #. Please don’t use automation tools, unless you’ve invested hours of research and time to perfect that automation.

Our agency has always had a love/hate relationship with automation. While we would love nothing more than to find the perfect automation tool to do half of the regular, daily stuff we know needs to get done on our clients’ social media accounts, we know better than to trust automation tools to behave like sentient, socially adept human beings.

More often than not, we’ve noticed that accounts that prefer to use automation tools, thinking it will bring them more social media engagement and visibility, also like to add (usually a bunch) of hashtags to those automated tweets, replies, and direct messages. Social media giant Facebook found out the hard way that not all automated tools are a great idea, when their initial version of the “On this day” app on the social network brought more grief than engagement to their users.

What the nostalgia-inducing app was meant to do was remind people of all the great times they had shared with friends via the social network and, as the platform was facing a drop in users creating and sharing original content, to revamp the oodles of old content we all have stored on Facebook for a new round of user engagement. What Facebook forgot, however, is that people share bad times on Facebook too, love fails, marriages end, friends and loved ones pass, businesses fail – Facebook’s memory-enhancing app reminded many of us of that and very successfully. They ended up tweaking the app a bit and keeping it, but not before it brought the company plenty of backlash that had to be dealt with.

Now, if the likes of Facebook, international airlines and airports have had trouble perfecting their automated news feed apps and responses, what makes you think your small business is ready to take on that challenge on social networks?

Social networks are public venues for customer outreach and business-to-client communications, and that’s exactly what businesses should be doing out there – communicating in person, live, and in real-time. If you don’t know what the conversation is about, don’t use the hashtag. If the hashtag wouldn’t fit in a face-to-face conversation, don’t use it. (Same goes for LOLs and ROFLs.) And if you’re not ready to invest time in the continuous conversations on social networks, hashtags won’t help. Just shut down your social media accounts entirely and set them back up again when you’re ready to talk to the world.

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