As hashtags become more mainstream, there lies before marketers an opportunity to amplify their use of hashtags to make brand interactions more appealing.
What started as an experiment in grouping tweets has become a cross-media phenomenon. Since being named the 2012 Word of the Year, the hashtag has gone on to appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and break a record in this year's Super Bowl.
OK, hashtag. You've got our attention.
And why shouldn't it? Brands have come to rely on hashtags to promote campaigns and help their users follow online conversations. Yes, they've been hijacked and misappropriated (see McDonald's Cheers to Sochi campaign). Sometimes, hashtags get lost in the shuffle, such that campaigns that rely on them to seed and spread content fall flat. But they continue to add context and value to messages of all kinds, and they're fast becoming the de facto method of tracking content across the Web.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week about Twitter that highlights what its writer refers to as a problem with indifference. Twitter wants to go mainstream and "reach every person on the planet," but its 140-character count doesn't necessarily suit the pre-text generation, and connections on Twitter are "looser" compared with Facebook, something not everyone finds attractive. Others find fault with the glut of content. To a Twitter newbie, the experience can be overwhelming.
At the same time, as the article notes, Twitter has become a platform for news distribution, activism, literature - often in short fiction form - celebrity gossip, and of course, brand advertising. In some ways, the question brands face about marketing online is the same one confronting Twitter proper: How can we stay relevant?
Hashtags may be in a position to help. Because they're well suited to content discovery, consumers can use them to find what they seek. And since Facebook is fully supporting them now, it's likely even light and future Twitter users are getting to know them and learning how to use hashtags to better navigate the Web.
What does this mean for brands? It means there lies before marketers an opportunity to amplify their use of hashtags to make brand interactions more appealing. Take Instagram, which since 2012 has been running a Weekend Hashtag Project devised to engage users. Each challenge revolves around a theme - #flyflyaway, #somethingoldsomethingnew, #sentbymail - that's intended to provide inspiration for an original photograph. With flexible guidelines for content and composition, users have the freedom to interpret every unique project as they see fit as long as they include the obligatory hashtag. The best submissions are selected by Instagram's Community Team, and showcased every Monday on the social site's blog.
Twitter's recently launched #Sochi2014 photo grid also marries photographs and the hashtag. In this case, Twitter curates the most-shared Olympic-themed visual tweets and organizes them by category to create an image-based overview of the Winter Games. Users can view tweets by country or by date, and follow featured Twitter users without leaving the microsite. Content is timely and current, and offers a look at the global event at a glance.
Both of these projects acknowledge the hashtag's potential as a tool to help Internet users uncover desirable content and contribute to communities online. Both reimagine how hashtags can put content into context, presenting them in a way that everyone, even those unfamiliar with Twitter procedure, can understand. For brands, a similar approach might give them back some degree of control. Instead of losing consumers on Twitter, cull the content you want them to see and box it up for their enjoyment online. Deliver campaign messages with up-to-the-minute posts that remind users why they follow you, and what you have to offer that others don't. Make the experience easier, and invite them to take part.
Hashtags are evolving, and in exciting ways. It's never too late to experiment.
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Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.
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