Twitter on hashtags: The good, the bad and the ugly

Grant Baxter, brand strategist at Twitter Australia
By Grant Baxter, brand strategist at Twitter Australia | 18 November 2015
Grant Baxter

The subject of hashtags and their use is always topical at Twitter. Whether good or bad, the question of how and when brands choose to use hashtags is a pertinent one. In all of these discussions however, there is perhaps too much emphasis on what the hashtag should be as opposed to why it should be?

Putting the brand proposition aside, hashtags can be rallying points around which communities congregate in times of strife. Just as #illridewithyou was a positive response to the tragic events of the #SydneySiege almost a year ago, so we saw a number of positive hashtags gain traction on Saturday in reaction to the shocking attacks in Paris. The most notable was #PorteOuverte (in English, #OpenDoor), which was used by Parisians to offer up their homes as refuge to people looking for shelter.

Closer to home, the Victorian Taxi Industry’s #YourTaxis campaign made headlines for the wrong reasons last week. Whilst it isn’t the intention of this piece to assess that campaign, there is a lesson to be learned when seeking the opinion of an audience on social platforms. If you open it up to the floor, you should be prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly.

If a brand is inviting opinion through a hashtag, how they deal with the response is as important (if not more so) than the opinions of their audience.

The UK supermarket chain, Waitrose, once engaged in an exercise on Twitter whereby they sought the opinion of their audience. They asked shoppers to "finish the sentence: 'I shop at Waitrose because …' #WaitroseReasons." As expected, the hashtag drew a fair amount of comical feedback. Amidst the humour, the overwhelming majority of tweets were reflective of the audience’s love for the Waitrose brand. Despite this, the response was interpreted as being negative (as not all feedback was glowing). When assessed in more detail however, it became apparent that not a single tweet referenced poor service. Instead, the tweets poked fun at the range of products and the social status of Waitrose customers. Waitrose wrapped it all up nicely when they tweeted this response: "Thanks for all the genuine and funny #WaitroseReasons tweets. We always like to hear what you think and enjoyed reading most of them."

Getting it right

My take on hashtags is that they are often viewed in the wrong context. We sometimes focus on how we want them to be used instead of appreciating why they are used. A hashtag (on Twitter at least) is functional and does a specific job - it isn’t a campaign in itself. Having a strategy for a hashtag is usually a warning sign that the focus is on the how and not the why. Understanding the role of a hashtag is perhaps the key to using it successfully. We view a hashtag as doing one of the following:

1. It can enable individuals to be part of and contribute to a larger conversation. We see this during live events (particularly live TV) as users all around the world are able to follow and contribute to a conversation.
It is as a simple means to categorise content on Twitter. Just as we use search terms to find content on search engines, so hashtags help users discover and surface content on Twitter and Instagram.
It can be used to show support for an entity or cultural issue. #PutOutYourBats (in response to the tragic passing of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes) is an example of a hashtag used to express sympathy and collective grief. #PrayForParis, or #illridewithyou are similar examples of a hashtag used as an expression of empathy and show of support.

2. Last, but not least, it can be used to communicate ideas or illicit action. #AddaWordRuinaMovie is a way for users to share their ideas and contribute to what is an exercise in harmless fun. This is one of the more common use cases as different memes tend to trend at any given moment throughout the day. A hashtag that encourages a behaviour or an action can also prove very effective when associated with a specific campaign. Virgin Mobile’s much loved #MealforaMeal was simple for the uninitiated to understand which increases the likelihood of participation and engagement.

We’re occasionally asked our thoughts on best practice for deciding on a hashtag. This conversation usually starts with what we think the brand should name the hashtag, instead of first deciding on the role the hashtag will play in the campaign. The only best practice advice I offer is to ensure the focus is on the latter - get the function agreed and the rest will follow.

If I had to provide a list of points to consider when deciding on a hashtag for a campaign, these would be worth thinking about:

1. Don't force your brand name into a hashtag without good reason. If a hashtag won’t enhance the campaign or make a user’s life easier in some capacity then perhaps it shouldn’t be a focus.

2. Plan for negative feedback when you invite users to share their opinions/experiences. Agree on how the brand might respond to negative opinion from the audience. Thinking about this in advance will help you appreciate how a hashtag may be open to abuse or might invite negative comment. Involve your customer service team in this exercise if you can.

3. Try to set parameters on the responses you’re looking for. Lead with examples if required but try not to leave it open ended with a hashtag slapped on the end. This is asking for trouble. Clarify what you’re asking of your audience and the role hashtag plays in expediting that action.

4. Be true to the values of your brand. Think about where and how it can credibly participate in conversations or have an opinion on topics. This usually operates in tandem with point two.

5. Embrace the notion of value exchange. Deliver users something worthwhile in return for engaging with your hashtag, provide utility to your audience. Again, define the function of the hashtag in adding value or making life easier.

Regardless of your view on hashtags, it’s important to appreciate the role they play, from the perspective of society and to a lesser degree, marketing. They can be a vehicle for cultural change, a point around which society rallies to improve itself (think #BlackLivesMatter). They can spark conversations that raise awareness for a cause or an ideal (#LoveWins) that ultimately brings about positive change in our society. That is a very powerful thing and should be embraced. Focus on the why of a hashtag, not necessarily the what.

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