What’s in a hashtag?

  • January 25th, 2021
  • Raj Kamal
  • January 27, 2021 10:34 am

From the protests responding to the 2009 presidential elections in Iran with hashtags #IranElection and #Neda (short for Neda Agha-Soltan), to #ShareACoke campaign, hashtags have garnered a central point of starting conversations around a common opinion or a cause and uniting the world in unique and creative ways. The indelible symbol that is now used by almost every marketeer, influencer, celebrity or an 18 year old teenager, trying to start a trend, was once signed off as a “thing for nerds”, when first put forth by Chris Messina, the Godfather of the hashtag. But little did he know that it would become such a profound medium of expression to spread awareness and become a driving force behind most viral campaigns around the world.

Take for example the famous “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” that caught everyone dumping a bucket of ice water on one’s head to promote the awareness of the disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). The simple act of nominating friends on social media with #IceBucketChallenge helped raise millions of dollars worldwide for the disease and was described as the “viral marketing gold”. And how can one forget the raging success of “Share A Coke” campaign that encouraged consumers to find a coke bottle with names that held meaning to them and then convey their personal experience on social media using hashtag #ShareACoke that generated hundreds and thousands of impressions around the world and drove sales with the clear call to action advertising through clever use of a hashtag.

Today, it is as much a necessity for brands to build an image and connect with its audience as it is a fun and creative tool for the users to express themselves in unique ways.

Becoming a trend is on everyone’s mind when it is as simple as creating a hashtag on popular social media channels. However, the simplicity of its usage masks the challenge of standing out and connecting to the right audience when the digital world is over-crowded with hashtags for every other cause, opinion, product, experience and brand, at both personal and social levels. So then how does one make their content reach the intended minds, and create the necessary buzz to become viral?

Although there is no easy answer to this question, it’s not only about hashtagging any common phrase or term and putting it out in the world to make it the next trending topic of the day. Intent matters as much as the content to strike the right chord with the right audience. While there have been many successful campaigns that went viral with the use of hashtags like Redbull’s #PutACanOnIt, Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld or Calvin’s “MyCalvins”, to name a few, that created huge user generated content for each of these brands, there have been a number of failed attempts that caused many brands to rethink smartly before putting something out in the world and become the next trolling meme. For example when McDonald’s #McStories tried to attract users by sharing their heartwarming experiences with the McDonald’s Happy Meals. Instead, it ended up receiving a huge number of negative responses and snarky tweets shared by users about food poisoning, drug use and finding nails in their burgers. Although the campaign was pulled down by the brand within 2 hours of going online but the genie was out of the bottle. Sometimes even the correct usage of the words and phrases doesn’t matter when the user experiences tell a different story and steering away from such controversial attempts is a safer option for a brand’s image than becoming viral for all the wrong reasons. Authenticity plays an important role when it comes to building conversations that can be hard to control if gone in an unwanted direction. Setting the right expectations along with voicing relevant issues and thoughts can go a long way in building awareness and recognition around any topic, be it for a brand or an individual.

Some of the tips to make hashtags for any purpose stand out:

  • Be specific and make them short and sharp (#LongHashtagsAreDifficultToReadAndRemember)
  • Context is important
  • Do A background check if the same hashtag has been used before
  • Make it fun
  • One hashtag for one campaign. Using a lot of hashtags for a single campaign makes it confusing for the audience
  • Make it relevant

Hashtags have united the world in more than just gaining followers and impressions. When the voice of one becomes the voice of the masses, it can become a medium of social change and shake the very roots of old non-working systems of oppression and stereotypes too. The viral success of movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter that started online sparked very important conversations around some of the worst experiences that people have been suffering silently around the world. While it cannot be concluded to have provided ultimate solutions to such issues but it definitely has created a meaningful momentum towards a powerful change that the world needed. There are many such conversations that can be started and supported but sometimes go unheard because they get lost under the overwhelming noise of social media. However, the right intent and the smart use of hashtags at the right time can create history by challenging the existing ideologies, thought-processes and stereotypical mind-sets.

With the advent of the internet and technology, it has become a little less complex to leave a mark and create a legacy by being a little more mindful about knowing “What’s in a hashtag?” Because, today, the world is in the hashtag!

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