Alphabet Soup: Making Sense of Hashtags

Jumping off the page with a luminescent blue hue, few modern marketing tools appear sexier than the hashtag. In many cases—most cases—hashtags prove to be effective complements to any digital-first campaign. They are, at their core, intended to collate and index online content, and are a natural addition to any internet-based community building. However, few tactics are as widely practiced and yet broadly misunderstood as the hashtag. Starting with the basics, hashtags come in two varieties: branded and unbranded. However, it’s important to bear in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each when planning a digital campaign.

To decide which is best for your company, take time to do some honest research. Define your desired audience. Then perform a deep-dive and analyze how your audience uses social media. Devise a list of your brand’s products, values and identity, and the topics related to its businesses. Conduct searches on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—whichever platforms you have chosen—and evaluate the conversations surrounding your brand. How is it discussed? Is it an aspirational symbol of social status or a lifestyle, and does it encourage a way of life over any particular product? What are fans posting about your brand? For this purpose, what they are not saying can be equally as important. For users who are discussing your brand, are they already using hashtags, and if so, which ones? Are any hashtags used property of other brands? If not, look to see how you could piggyback on these existing hashtags for viral marketing.

Branded hashtags can be a good choice for well-established brands, especially lifestyle and luxury companies. These hashtags require a nuanced execution, as they do not occur in organic user conversations, and require additional support for success. Luxury and lifestyle brands may circumvent this via their status as symbols of particular groups, activities, or socio-economic class. One great example of a branded hashtag campaign is Coca-Cola’s #ShareACoke campaign. #ShareACoke drew on Coca-Cola’s century of history and association with freedom and the American dream, and highlighted the frequency with which Cokes are opened to celebrate the small things in life. However, it was connected to a larger, physical campaign that saw massive outdoor advertising and activations, with the incentive of user-generated content being converted into larger works of art. Many people drink Coke, and the activation of putting consumers’ faces onto billboards was the extra incentive needed to top the trending charts.

However, unbranded tags can be ideal for building a brand’s identity, especially when launching an initial online presence. Powered by associational learning, unbranded hashtags allow brands the opportunity to piggy-back onto organic conversations while simultaneously improving search-engine optimization of your brand’s social media. However, it is vitally important to envision how a campaign’s unbranded tag will play out in user conversations without brand-directed messaging. What is the likelihood of a chosen hashtag appearing in organic user conversations? And critically in this day and age, how will it be used? For this reason, it is often better to look at the topics trending in your brand’s market sector and co-opt a hashtag that is already trending. Successful unbranded hashtags will focus not on your brand but what consumers are already discussing online. The best unbranded strategy is oftentimes to research which hashtags are trending in your brand’s market sector, and implement a strategy to co-opt organic conversations.

Before starting any online campaign, consult your fans. Who are your online allies and how do they use hashtags? Whether you pick branded or unbranded, original or community-sourced, keep in mind that the success of your campaign is entirely dependent on your hashtag’s ability to trend.

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