The Internet has birthed a number of new modes and means of communication. On social media, one of the most important means is hashtagging. Such is its prominence in the vocabulary of social media, it has now also become an important part of how public relations and advertising professionals connect with consumers. If used correctly, hashtags can capture a large audience, giving companies a significant platform to communicate their key messages. Used poorly, and a hashtag can lead to negative publicity and sentiment. I will attempt to uncover how PR and advertising professionals can leverage hashtags effectively.
Surprisingly, it was not until 2009 that Twitter introduced hyperlinked hashtags, allowing users to search for topics or issues that are being tweeted about. Soon after other major social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram also began to introduce hashtags. They have since become a powerful vehicle for mobilising support for causes and movements, as they allow users to connect with other users beyond their own ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. By simply adding a hashtag to a word or phrase, you can start a new topic/movement which anyone can contribute to. The potential to reach a large group of people interested in the same issue/topic/hobby was not lost on the corporate world, as hashtags have become an important part of their marketing communications strategies.
Indeed, many companies active on social media have attempted to capitalise on potential of hashtags. According to an analysis conducted by Simply Measured, 97% of the world’s top 100 brands posted at least one tweet that included a hashtag. They use them to promote products, generate brand awareness or weigh in on an issue. To illustrate how influential hashtagging has become to companies and an idea of how to successfully use hashtags, I will outline 3 hashtag fails and successes from the last few years.
- McDonalds: in January 2014 the company’s social media team started the hashtag #McDStories on Twitter, intended to give fans a platform to share their good experiences with the fast food chain. Instead, the hashtag was overwhelmingly used to share bad experiences such as these below.
- Qantas: in 2011 the airline started the hashtag #QantasLuxury, whereby travellers could win a free pair of first class pyjamas if they wrote a tweet about what Qantas luxury meant to them. This attempt to generate goodwill for Qantas backfired horribly. The airline had just left over 60,000 people stranded at various airports across the world, leading people to use Twitter and the hashtag to voice their disappointment. This hashtag exacerbated the negative sentiment towards Qantas, and was awarded PR disaster of the year.
- Blackberry: the company used to be operated by parent company ‘Research in Motion’. To promote jobs within the organisation on Twitter the hashtag #RIMJobs was conceived. Needless to say, it was a PR disaster.
- Charmin: In 2013 the U.S. toilet paper company launched the Twitter hashtag #tweetfromtheseat. The humorous hashtag tapped into research conducted by Time magazine that 40% of young people tweet from the toilet. The company also offered six Super Bowl tickets for the best stories. The hashtag proved to be a success, gaining many contributors with funny stories. It served to display Charmin’s sense of humour and personality.
- Domino’s Pizza U.K.: In 2012 the pizza company started hashtag #letsdolunch on Twitter. It gave users a reason to tweet: cheaper pizza. From 9am to 11am on March 5, the price of the Pepperoni Passion Pizza was reduced by one pence every time someone used the hashtag. The hashtag received over 85,000 tweets, reducing the price of the pizza from £15.99 to £7.74 for 11am to 3pm that day.
- Ben & Jerry’s: in 2011 the ice cream company launched the hashtag campaign #FairTweets. Coinciding with World Fair Trade Day, the company set up a microsite where users could type their tweets. Any tweets shy of the maximum 140 characters would be filled by Ben & Jerry’s with a plug for Fair Trade Day.
The Power of Hashtags
These fails and successes illustrate the power and influence of hashtags on social media. By exposing your opinions to users beyond your followers, you are also exposed to wider criticism. Thus campaigns must be carefully thought through. These are the major lessons social media PR and advertising can take from these examples:
- Give users an incentive to use the hashtag. Whether this is by offering discounted/free goods or contributing to a good cause, users have no reason to care about your campaign otherwise.
- Make it fun. Domino’s made it a competition and Charmin made it humorous. On the other hand, McDonalds wanted users to contribute their good experiences with the fast-food company. As the epitome of fast-food – unhealthy, cheap, poor quality – this was an awful idea and simply not interesting at all.
- Be careful about the wording of the hashtag. A hashtag like #RimJobs is just asking for trouble.
- The timing must be right. Like any marketing/PR campaign it makes no sense to launch a campaign in the midst of bad press, as Qantas should have known. Also, timing the campaign to coincide with a major event can be an easy way of attracting users, as Ben & Jerry’s did.
How companies have used hashtags demonstrates the power hashtags now have on social media as a means of communication. The campaigns that failed led to negative publicity, which had an effect on the perception of the brands beyond Twitter. Successful campaigns can be equally powerful, resulting in positive publicity and brand awareness.