The Twitter hashtag has become one of the most powerful marketing tools in social media. Besides serving as an indicator of virality, the hashtag can be associated with trends and trending topics. More importantly, hashtags have created public spheres on the web, using Twitter as the platform to create and participate in conversation. Whether or not a hashtag is trending, the use of it opens a discussion on a relevant topic. Hashtags are used in many different ways. Users often create their own hashtags to compliment a tweet, either to create a discussion or to add some flavor to their 140-character microblog entry. One can use a hashtag to join a conversation or multiple conversations simultaneously. President Barack Obama held the first ever live Twitter Town Hall where he answered questions directed to him using the hashtag #AskObama, opening up an extensive online dialogue.
For many years post-launch, Twitter avoided traditional advertising methods. In an effort to implement a revenue model, Twitter launched “Promoted Tweets” (and added extensions such as “Promoted Trends” and “Promoted Accounts”). Brands can pay to promote their accounts, specific tweets, or a handcrafted hashtag trend related to their company or as part of their marketing campaign. While this sounds like a significant promotional tool, there are negative implications to be aware of.
Before deciding to use a hashtag as a marketing tool, brands need to be aware of the implications of that hashtag. This analysis includes how the hashtag could be misconstrued or, if it is already trending, why it is trending. One of the first things to consider is the combination of words. A hashtag cannot be two separate words; rather it can be a single word or a combination of words to create a hash-tagged phrase. Word combinations can easily be misinterpreted. We see this happen frequently with domain names, which play a large role in online brand equity. Sites like Therapistfinder.com, Budget’s former car rental site for Cook Islands (Budget.co.ck), and Speedofart.com, all suffer(ed) from unfortunate domain name combinations. A more recent example of this (using hashtags) was the Super Bowl phenomenon that arose from the hashtag #Superbowl, interpreted as “Superb Owl” (#SuperbOwl). While this was not a negative use of the hashtag, it does show how word combinations are open to interpretation.
I had a marketing professor who once used an example during class from his own experiences with Sears, where he expressed his disappointed and frustration with their customer service through a series of tweets. Sears responded and eventually the issue was resolved, prompting a tweet about the resolution with the hashtag #searscared. For everyone involved in this public dispute between Sears and the customer, did “sears care” or was “sears scared”?
Besides unfortunate misinterpretations, hashtags can also incite conversations that can harm brands. One of the most famous examples of this was McDonald’s use of “#McDstories” as a Promoted Trend. McDonald’s was hoping to engage Twitter users in a conversation, specifically hinting that they share inspiring stories. This hashtag instead turned into a “bashtag,” one of the newer social media terms. Twitter users started to share horror stories associated with the fast food chain. This has also been referred to as brand hijacking.
Promoted tweets or trends are not the only ways to risk your brand getting hijacked. Companies that take advantage of trends are also at risk. Take the example of Celeb Boutique. When #Aurora was trending, Celeb Boutique decided to exploit the trend and promote their “Aurora” dress. However, they failed to research why this had become a trending topic. ”Aurora” was trending due to the devastating shooting that occurred on that day. Not a good look for that brand.
The unfortunate truth is that brand hijacking is inevitable. No matter what a brand uses to engage users in discussion or to promote a campaign, there will always be participants who will revert to wit, perhaps in an effort to please their own following. However, companies must be careful as to what word combinations they choose and what trends they create or take advantage of in order to avoid creating a negative effect on their brand image (which may go viral). Check out Likeable’s three recommendations for how to deal with “bashtags” on Twitter.