Hashtags are everywhere, and they're generally awful. We give lip service to how important social media is in how we market, even how, as a I society, we communicate, but brands don't walk that walk in execution.
Think about it: How often is a hashtag too long (taking up valuable real estate in a 140-character environment), misspelled or easily hijacked. Companies that spend a ton of time and money working on brand voice, a great site environment and a calculate inbound marketing program, make a hashtag almost on the fly, to disastrous results.
Hashtag fails abound. Because these are multiple words, unseparated by spaces or punctuation, they often take on unintended meanings. So, when Susan Boyle’s handlers wanted to combine Susan Album Party into #susanalbumparty, they foolishly thought the sniggering middle schoolers in all of us wouldn’t be drawn to the “anal bump” part -- and comment on that, with a healthy amount of adult snark, on Twitter.
Related Book: Ultimate Guide to Twitter for Business by Ted Prodromou
So how should you approach your hashtag strategy?
Understand your hashtag is your brand.
Hashtags are brand extensions, and – if they are successful in going viral – they will be the driving force behind overall brand recognition for your company. So they are an extension of your brand, a close cousin to your advertising or marketing slogan. Nike is the best example, with its #JustDoIt hashtag in most messaging from its @Nike account. That has spawned countless weekend-warrior athletes to use #JustDoIt when they tweet photos of their own playground exploits wearing Nikes.
One of my favorite brands on Twitter is DiGiorno Pizza, which finds a way to inject its #RisetotheOccasion messaging into popular hashtags that are already trending. That usually works well. When #SingleBecause was trending, DiGiorno chimed in with “you probably forgot to pick up pizza at the store.” Yet, as good as DiGiorno is, it also suffered one of the worst gaffes in Twitter history. The hashtag #WhyIStayed was trending, as victims of domestic violence shared their poignant stories about their abuse and lives. DiGiorno tweeted, “Because You Had Pizza.” The backlash was -- quite appropriately -- harsh and DiGiorno has to apologize and admit it had no idea why #WhyIStayed was trending in the first place.
Know your audience.
Companies feel like the world loves them. Truth is, even popular, heavily-consumed brands have detractors and social media is a great place for Festivus-level airing of grievances. When Dr. Mehmet Oz decided to solicit Twitter questions through the #OzsInbox hashtag, doctors who had long complained about Oz’s popularity – and his approach to medicine – hijacked the hashtag with comments about how he was no longer a “real” doctor and how he was hurting patients. Among the feedback: “Can you go an entire show without mentioning ‘miracle,’ ‘toxin’ or ‘belly fat?’” Similarly, McDonald’s wanted to start a conversation about how its customers felt about eating there, with the #McDStories tag. It received a steady stream of complaints, ranging from fingernails in burgers to prolonged vomiting sessions – and that was just in the two hours the company ran the hashtag before (wisely) pulling the plug.
Hire an IP attorney.
The Olympics and the U.S. Olympic Committee received a lot of criticism when they warned that only companies that sponsored the games could use hashtags like #Rio2016, #TeamUSA and even #Olympics. Yet, that made sense: Hashtags, like slogans, can and should be trademarked. They are your intellectual property and should be protected and defended. This approach also prevents other companies from hijacking your creativity and your brand message.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
Yes, mistakes happen, but social-media posts tend to suffer more errors than most corporate messaging. Cosmetics retailer Sephora infamously launched a hashtag around #CountdownToBeauty for store openings, but carelessness and inattention led to the first “o” being omitted for the campaign. That decidedly NSFW hashtag gave Sephora the kind of Twitter virality it wasn’t seeking. Edit once. Edit twice. And then edit again.