Hashtag, you’re it: This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

Every month, I write a column about social media for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. This one’s about hashtags–what are they, and how can businesses use them. 

Hashtag, you’re it

In June, Facebook began allowing its users to incorporate hashtags into their posts. For many, this was a much anticipated enhancement to Facebook; others, however, were left thinking “What’s a hashtag, and why should I care?” If you fall into the latter group, here’s a brief overview of what businesses need to know.

Hashtags are, quite simply, a way of organizing and discovering related content from all users on a given platform using short phrases that begin with the “#” symbol. While they’re new to Facebook, they’ve been a longstanding feature on social-media sites like Twitter and Instagram. One of the challenges with hashtags is that no one “owns” them; the audience can create them for just about anything, and there’s no way to force people to join the conversation or prevent them from starting competing or even disparaging hashtags.

A few representative uses of hashtags include:

• Trends. Anything people are talking about, including news stories, is a prospect for a hashtag. Several posts related to a recent spate of high temperatures in the U.S. southwest, for example, included a “#heatwave” hashtag.

• Events. Those attending everything from conferences to concerts often append their thoughts with a hashtag to let others— whether at the event or just following along online — join the conversation. If you’re a basketball fan, for example, you might take interest in posts tagged with “#nbadraft.”

• TV shows. In a related way, TV producers have learned that they can get people talking about their shows — and listen in to what they’re saying — by promoting hashtags (everything from “#glee” to “#downtonabbey”).

• Promotions. Hashtags can even have a direct effect on sales when tied to a specific promotion. Domino’s Pizza U.K., for example, created a “Tweet Treat” promotion that lowered the price of one of its lunch offerings every time someone used the hashtag “#letsdolunch.” The promotion generated 85,000 Tweets — and a tasty discount for Domino’s customers.

While these examples hint at the potential of hashtags, it’s important to remember that they usually won’t do much on their own. They’re best used as a minor tactic in a larger marketing effort, not as the centerpiece of a campaign. To get the most out of hashtags, therefore, it’s important to follow a few simple rules:

• First, avoid starting conversations that aren’t aligned with the audience’s honest perception of your brand or its products. McDonald’s learned this the hard way, when it promoted the “#McDStories” hashtag as a means of getting people talking. Well, people got talking all right: The posts instigated by the campaign included ones like “Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories.”

Remember that social media is nothing more than an amplifier. Asking others to join a conversation via hashtag begins with anticipating what an objective respondent might post and mitigating your brand’s exposure to negative comments.

• Second, remember that it’s often better to join existing conversations than to try to start new ones. If the audience is talking about something related to your brand or products, and you can add value to the discussion, you may have the chance to improve relationships with your customers or prospects.

Here’s one example: Let’s say you’re a running shoe retailer and there’s a big race coming up in your community. If people are asking questions about training, supplements or gear, you very well could have expertise that would be beneficial to them, so joining in the conversation and using the appropriate hashtag would be a great way to make a positive impression. Just be careful not to hijack the conversation and limit the degree to which you overtly try to sell the audience on your product.

• Third, draw upon your experience as a consumer. If you try to get people talking about something new, it may never gain momentum — especially if it’s self-serving. The best litmus test is this: before creating a hashtag, ask yourself whether, as a consumer, you’d join in on a similar conversation started by a brand other than your own. There’s a good chance the answer is no.

• Finally, make sure you know why something is trending before including the hashtag in your posts. Do a little research before piggybacking on an existing hashtag. In July 2012, the hashtag “#Aurora” was trending due to a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. Celeb Boutique, unaware of why the term was trending, tweeted, “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K[ardashian] inspired dress ;).” The understandable backlash cost the brand followers, credibility and, most importantly,—customers.

The bottom line with hashtags is that they’re not a magic bullet. If you use them strategically and skillfully, however, they can be a great addition to the rest of your social media strategy. Start by observing what other brands are doing and then try them out on your own. #GoodLuck!

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