Social Media Trends: It's Time for Brands to Retire the Hashtag
Marketing Social Media

Social Media Trends: Is it Time for Brands to Retire the Hashtag?

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against hashtags. I’ll chuckle at an artfully sarcastic tag. I dig Jimmy Fallon’s read-aloud Tweet sessions on #momtexts or #drunkestievergot.

But brand hashtags? As far as social media trends in marketing go, I’m not a fan.

I can’t remember ever clicking on a brand-created hashtag because I was enthralled with their marketing campaign. I’ve never seen a hashtag in a commercial or on a billboard and felt compelled to investigate online. When marketing meetings turn to the hashtag question—”What hashtag will we use for this event/campaign/promotion?”—I cringe.

Brands are so eager to use every trick in the book to attract attention, they tend to forget that some social media trends are ineffective. Branded hashtags—the vast majority of them, anyway—fall into this category. They’re noisy, gimmicky and serve no strategic purpose. Overused and ignored by users, the hashtag may even be counterproductive to marketing goals. In a 140-character Tweet, the hashtag consumes valuable real estate and can obscure the real call-to-action. And, in the worst-case scenario, that awesome hashtag developed in a marketing meeting generates backlash and becomes a branding #fail.

“Brands often find well-constructed hashtags become the playthings of haters and trolls, while most people use them as a form of Internet humor,” Jeremy Woolf, global digital and social media lead and SVP of Text100, told PRWeek. “It’s time to move on.”

Some marketers already have. Usage of hashtags during Super Bowl commercials has declined in recent years. This year, hashtags were in 45 percent of Super Bowl ads, down from 50 percent the previous year, Marketing Land reported.

hashtag trends

Furthermore, research shows that including a hashtag in a Tweet distracts people from doing what a marketer actually wants, like visiting a website or installing an app. A Tweet that doesn’t include a hashtag or @ mentions will generate 23 percent more clicks, Re/code reports. The extra distraction hurts, not helps, social media marketers.

Hashtags: the Good and the Bad

Not all hashtags are problematic, but marketers do need to tone down their expectations and approach the hashtag question in a different way. Used correctly, hashtags can help brands be more relevant and engaging to consumers. Only the most powerful influencers will actually be able to drive conversations via hashtags.

“Hashtags aren’t meant to be owned by a brand or campaign,” said Anastasia Lopez, VP of social media at PadillaCRT on PRWeek. “They are meant to plug you into the consumer zeitgeist and make you more relevant to your consumer, not the other way around.”

The spectrum for effective hashtags is narrower than marketers may think. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t. Here are four areas to consider.

1. Events

I used to think it was corny when couples promoted a wedding hashtag; now I get the utility. With a hashtag, lovebirds can easily collect all the photos and videos taken on their special day, allowing them to experience their event from others’ eyes.

Like in the wedding scenario, using a hashtag via Twitter or Instagram can bring together many different voices over a common theme. Want a kaleidoscope of viewpoints on the Academy Awards? #Oscars brought thousands of voices together to talk about Red Carpet fashion, award winners, and the diversity controversy.

Given the flurry of Twitter activity around big events like the Oscars, you might think brands are throwing the hashtag around left and right. You’d be wrong. Boursin Cheese, for example, had a cutesy Academy Awards Tweet but nixed the hashtag; same with Pizza Hut.

boursin cheese tweetpizza hut tweet

Brands are coming round to the fact that hashtags aren’t what they used to be. When characters are tight, better to keep the message simple.

2. Humor

The Internet is a snarky kind of place. Hashtags were invented as a way to index conversations around a topic, but over time they’ve evolved into vehicles for sarcastic and self-mocking humor. Self-deprecating hashtags, like #facepalm or #epicfail, become punch lines at the end of a Tweet.

Now the overuse of hashtags has generated the ironic use of hashtags. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake roasted the phenomenon in a hilarious skit.

Brands that want to use hashtags to imitate their audience are wielding a double-edged sword. Adopting the latest Internet-speak can help brands sound more human and appeal to a younger audience (read: Millennials). But brands need to make sure the language they use fits the brand. Serious brands shouldn’t be #YOLOing. Brands with a bent on Millennials—the IHOPs and DiGiornos of the world—may fare better.

I’ll begrudgingly approve Pedialyte’s take on Millennial-speak, though. Instead of getting cute with the hashtag #BroScience, it turned it on its head and kind of refuted it. This is one subtle Millennial dialect I’ll endorse.

pedialyte tweet

3. Q&A Engagement

Remember that Internet snark we talked about earlier? It comes out in force when brands try to do Q&A sessions on Twitter. The Twitterverse is littered with the corpses of dead “AskTheBrand” Twitter campaigns. Brands of the world, you must stop with this madness. Not everyone likes you. Your followers will not come to your defense when the haters come out in force. Things will get ugly. Don’t do it. Ever.

You’ve been warned.

4. Trending Topics

Real-time marketers love to hijack trending Tweets to their advantage. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this tactic—why do I care what Crocs has to say about the late David Bowie?—but I’ll admit, brands do seem to get a good bit of positive interaction when they get it right.

Still, whether the hashtag is required for these real-time marketing efforts is debatable. Take two brands’ responses to the #DamnDaniel phenomenon, as seen in Adweek. Clorox moved quickly with a bleach-related response, complete with #DamnDaniel hashtag. Vans, which got a huge amount of free PR from the viral sensation, responded as well, but sans hashtag.

For me, the Vans spot wins it with the superfluous poll. These days, hashtags are old news; polls and video content are fresher (for now at least).

Jumping on trending topics isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Brands who latch on to hashtags without fully understanding their meaning risk major social media fallout. Brands also tend to lack nimbleness. By the time a major brand is Tweeting on a trending topic, it’s a sure sign the hashtag is on its way out.

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