As digital PR and marketing campaigns have evolved over the last decade, hashtags have become ubiquitous – not just on social media, but across traditional media also. Their usage comes with its own rules and best practice, though a slew of recent activity indicates that this may be changing, with brands and PR agencies becoming much more savvy with their social media marketing
A recent example is the #RaceTogether campaign launched by Starbucks in early 2015. Starbucks sought to facilitate discussion of sensitive racial issues across the country – another in a long list of moves aimed at cementing the company’s image as a socially-conscious, metropolitan brand.
The hashtag spread like wildfire, being used 71,000 times in the first three days after launch – although not all of the coverage was positive. Many social media users commented that the move seemed ‘phoney’ or ‘patronising’, indicating that they didn’t think a coffee shop had an appropriate platform from which to tackle racial prejudice.
Although the hashtag wasn’t eagerly accepted by Americans on social media, the campaign was still a success. Starbucks’ goal is to become a recognised ambassador for social awareness. Their strategy for doing so – the #RaceTogether campaign – may have been slightly flawed, but few doubted the good intentions behind it; and given the enormous exposure and reach that the campaign achieved, there will be many people who are now aware of Starbucks’ good intentions.
Another example of the new breed of hashtag is Penguin Books’ Mother’s Day campaign. Ostensibly, the campaign asked people which book their mum would like to receive as a gift on Mother’s Day – with respondents encouraged to end answers with ‘#yourmum’. The responses were predictably irreverent, and the hashtag quickly became the topic of a news story itself.
Whilst it is possible that a naïve social marketer coined the hashtag without realising its connotations, it wasn’t too long before commentators began to suggest that the campaign demonstrated a level of subtle sophistication that wasn’t immediately apparent.
These theories suggest that, by designing a hashtag that was ripe to be ‘hijacked’ by mischievous social media users, Penguin also created a story at which it was the centre. The more the hashtag was misused, the bigger the story, until everybody was discussing the Penguin Books hashtag and, importantly, Mother’s Day gifts, in the same sentence.
Ultimately, both campaigns have demonstrated the direction of travel of the hashtag, away from a simple mechanism to group related tweets and into a more intelligent, news-generating element of social media marketing. Both campaigns sought a large amount of interaction from the general public, using this as leverage to gain wider exposure and meet the goals of their campaign.