Part punchline and part conversation starter, social media hashtags give people an instant way to search, track and weigh in on topics they care about, including chatter initiated by brands.
That is, if the brand knows how to use a hashtag. We're all learning from our consumers, our competitors and our mistakes, but one thing is clear: hashtags are about engaging your fan base first, and self-talk second.
Individuals and brands play on different sides of the pound sign, and recognizing that divide is the first rule of hashtag club. Your consumer uses hashtags as commentary and comedy, picket sign and parenthetical. Generally speaking, she creates or uses a hashtag to help explain or categorize the content of her post.
Effective brand-generated hashtags, on the other hand, are designed for action. The best brand hashtags not only reach an existing group of people who are already interested in a specific category, they give those people a reason to talk publicly about the brand. Here are some best practices that every brand should implement.
Keep it to 3 tags or less per post on any social channel or you'll look like a spammer. If you think you need more, write a separate tweet or post.
Don't hijack a popular trending hashtag to get attention-especially one with any whiff of controversy-- unless you can find a solid connection. Remember when Entenmann's decided to get glib with #notguilty during a high-profile murder case? Coffee cake won't fix that faux pas. On the other hand, there are no hard and fast rules to trendjacking. It can be worth the risk-like Google's global greeting card for the #RoyalBaby or JELL-O's controversial but buzzworthy #FML hijack. The bottom line? If you're going to trendjack, do your homework, be prepared to handle backlash, and monitor, monitor, monitor.
Think of general hashtags like #donuts or #donutshop like general search terms. Yes, they will put your company's post in front of the masses, but they don't really improve your connection with the people willing to talk about your brand. A specific made-by-you hashtag, however, is more like a targeted ad campaign. Promote #DonutsForDinner and your existing fans will collectively deliver a whole world of brand-specific content to their own networks (read: soon-to-be fans of yours). Whether it's an Instagram gallery of strangers' donut meals or a long list of Tweeps upping their caloric intake with your tasty product, the conversation is 100% about YOU.
Think beyond your brand for a minute. If a consumer clicks on your gym's #LetsGetSweaty hashtag, what else will they see in that list? And does that help or hurt your brand? Find out before you tag, not after.
And then look at it again. See if someone else can catch a red flag you're not seeing. We've seen some grand hashtag mishaps that happen in a hurry, including Susan Boyle's recent international record release and an unfortunate mixup that left readers wondering if it was Cher or Margaret Thatcher in the morgue. #susanalbumparty or #nowthatcherisdead anyone?
Don't ask the public to join in the conversation if you have reason to believe they might run toward the opposite goalpost. McDonald's asked the Twittersphere for their dining experiences-- #McDStories-- back in 2012, and they didn't get glowing recommendations. Who saw that coming? Everybody except McDonald's. Even your most loyal fan won't cover for your brand's shortcomings. Play to your strengths, period.
Keep it short, memorable, and easy to spell. Think #OpeningAtAmys vs #amysartgallery. Capitalization is your friend (just ask Cher and Susan Boyle), and the social media universe gives bonus points for hashtags that can be used in a sentence.
Hashtags only work for brands when consumers use them, so you'd better tell your fans what to do with yours. Do you want feedback on a product? Asking for content? Seeking advocates for a cause? Holding a contest? Give them a reason to use what you've made. With the right call to action, your hashtag is a conversation starter that can earn you a spot in social feeds around the globe; without direction, it's nothing more than a misplaced pound sign.