I originally wrote this in May 2014, but it’s just as timely today, given the continued ubiquity of hashtags in social media and advertising campaigns.
How ubiquitous has the once-humble hashtag become? Look no further than the Mucinex “#BlameMucus” campaign. As unlikely a match as secretions and social media may seem, it’s becoming more surprising to see hashtags omitted from messages than to see them included, regardless of the advertiser.
Given how often we’re seeing hashtags, many business decision makers see them as necessary add-ons or even central features in campaigns of all kinds, from sales pitches to fundraising efforts. However, it’s important to do some critical thinking before developing your hashtag campaign — and equally as important to consider whether you’d be better off without one.
Here are the three most important questions to ask:
• What do you really want the audience to do? Consider the example given above — an effort designed to generate sales. There’s a chance that a hashtag campaign could create conversations about your product, attract the attention of new prospects, or move an existing prospect to buy. However, there’s also a chance that encouraging qualified prospects to participate in conversations via a hashtag campaign could delay or even prevent them from making a more substantial commitment.
To understand this, consider your call to action from the audience’s perspective. There’s a good chance you provide your audience with a Web address and a phone number — excellent choices if you want to move them through the pipeline. But in today’s environment, your call to action likely also promotes your social-media presence (“like us on Facebook” or “follow us on Twitter,” to name just two of the most likely suspects). You may even include a QR code.
What happens when you add a hashtag into the mix? For the audience, it may be too much information, leading to confusion about what they should do next, and that may inhibit them from taking the action best aligned with your goals. If you’re communicating with a well-qualified prospect audience, therefore, it may be better to leave everything out except an offer to buy and clear direction on how to do so.
• What resources will you have to expend to get traction? One of the most underappreciated aspects of hashtag campaigns is that they “go viral” only very rarely, and always with the audience’s consent. You can’t make it happen; you can only influence whether it does.
One of the most fundamental aspects of this is promotion. Like any other message you want the audience to hear, you’ll likely have to promote your hashtag in order to get a response — and even then, it may fall flat. This could come at the expense of higher-priority messages (see above) or may require standalone efforts that require an outlay of resources greater than the likely return on investment.
It’s also important to think about the resources you’ll have to expend if your hashtag campaign is a success. That’s a good problem to have, of course, but it’s still a problem if your staff can’t effectively continue the conversation.
• Are you putting your organization at risk of a backlash? Hashtags are subject to one of the most basic truths of social media: It merely amplifies reality; it doesn’t change it. Since the audience dictates the terms of the conversation, a well-meaning but poorly thought-out hashtag campaign can quickly be used against your brand if you’re not performing well in the real world or if the intended message of your hashtag isn’t consistent with the audience’s experience.
Take, for example, the recent “#myNYPD” campaign. The New York Police Department’s goal was to encourage the audience to share photos of themselves with officers, thereby creating some positive buzz about the face of the force. What the audience shared, however, was something very different: photos showing police brutality appended with the “#myNYPD” hashtag. This is just the latest example of brands misunderstanding who controls the social-media conversation and how quickly it can turn negative if you don’t think before you post.
Does this mean you should avoid hashtags? Not at all. But it’s equally as important to avoid thinking of them as some kind of magic bullet. Give your campaign a little bit of thought, starting with the three questions above. And don’t be afraid to opt out if the response would likely be negative — or even, with a pun intended for which I will #BlameMucus — merely phlegmatic.