Of all the social media platforms, Twitter is perhaps the most confusing. Learning how to use the 140-character limit, the weird URL shorteners, and the infamous hashtag, can quickly lead to head-scratching confusion. But it’s important to understand how to leverage Twitter as part of your marketing arsenal, because you can’t ignore the fact that there are over 550 million Twitter users who are sending 58 million tweets a day. All of these tweets represent valuable opportunities to expand your company’s reach, engage with potential customers, and increase your brand presence.
And the statistics don’t lie – Twitter is quickly rising in social media popularity. And with its meteoric rise, the humble hashtag has now become a pop culture icon (just watch Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon “talk” in hashtags). But with the ubiquity of Twitter hashtags and the limitless opportunity for business exposure, come the inevitable gaffes and blunders. So before you start attaching hashtags and tweeting with abandon, it’s important to understand the advantages (and sometimes disadvantages) that are associated with the mighty hashtag.
For understanding how to use hashtags, let’s first discuss what a hashtag actually is. A hashtag is a word or phrase that people use to categorize their tweets. You can think of them as keywords or tags. If somebody were to “file” your tweets under one word, what would that word be? You can use up to four or five hashtags, but we strongly discourage it as your message can become convoluted. If you’re unsure if a hashtag “makes sense” in reference to that tweet, do a quick search of the hashtag you’re considering in Twitter’s search field, and see if the other tweets using that tag are relevant to yours. For example, if you were to tweet about this article, you might include a hashtag of #socialmedia in the tweet.
One of the more unique aspects about hashtags is that they have the capability to go viral. The exact term for this is called “trending”, and you can see on Twitter’s homepage and in the mobile app, which hashtags are trending at that moment. Some of Twitter’s most popular trending hashtags have even become a part of colloquial language, like the hashtag #firstworldproblems, which is meant to describe the ridiculous problems of privileged society (e.g. @Starbucks ran out of coffee sleeves and my venti caramel latte is too hot to carry!).
Brands can also capitalize on opportunities to use trending hashtags by attaching them to mentions of their services or products. For example, during the 2012 Super Bowl, the hashtag #SuperBowl was tweeted three million times during the five-hour span of the game. Talk about popular! So when that unfortunate power outage interrupted the game, Oreo took advantage of this trending topic on Twitter and tweeted an image of an Oreo in the dark with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark.” According to AdAge.com, this tweet was retweeted over 10,000 times in one hour.
But not all company’s can have Oreo’s creative tweeting success. You might think that if you’ve done your research to make sure a trending hashtag properly represents your brand, that your tweet will surely be a success, right? Wrong. Make sure that you or the people handling your Twitter account give careful thought to the message and hashtags you’re about to tweet. Because once your tweet is out there, there’s no way to really delete it from the Internet.
Just look at clothing designer Kenneth Cole. He sent out a tweet using the hashtag #Cairo during the Egyptian uprising to bring attention to his newly released spring collection. He thought this would be a playful way to garner awareness for his new line, but instead, he succeeded in offending a lot of people. The result was a public relations nightmare with thousands of angry tweets, mass un-following, and negative press attention around the world. While some might argue that any publicity is good publicity, this type of controversial attention provides absolutely no benefit to a brand’s goals.
So maybe instead of using trending hashtags, your company decides create its own hashtag. This can be wildly successful or an utter failure, depending on the social climate surrounding your brand. A perfect example of this is when McDonald’s attempted to start a hashtag called #McDStories. The hashtag #McDStories was attached to posts about their employees, along with “behind the scenes” images and pictures of ingredients. The hashtag caught on, but not in the way McDonald’s imagined. Instead of loyal customers tweeting positive sentiment, stories of fingernails in cheeseburgers, mechanically separated meats and various horror stories took over the hashtag, creating a brand nightmare for the McDonald’s team.
All of these examples serve as cautionary proof that when hashtags “take off” in a social space, they can quickly transform and lend unintentional meaning behind a brand’s tweet. If your organization will be using hashtags, make sure that everybody managing social media is aware of the approved hashtags and knows which hashtags to stay away from. By keeping your organization on the same social page, embarrassing and potentially devastating hashtag crises can be eliminated, and your company’s tweets will be primed for #success.