How to Truly Own a Brand-Owned Hashtag
Five Key POV Takeaways:
- Step one for brands is to determine the purpose of the hashtag. From there, there are three main paths to take.
- The internet (and the media) is liable to pounce on an ill-conceived branded hashtag campaign, which means if you do not have a smart approach, you can do more harm than good to your brand. Two key lessons will help avoid a #HashtagFail.
- Concise and catchy. Brand-aligned but not too branded. Quantifiable. Following three rules will help guide the creation of an effective, ownable, branded hashtag.
- Social media is a two-way conversation. Listen (really listen) to your audience, and you might just find inspiration for your next campaign, or the star of your next campaign… or both.
- Live in the moment by examining what channels your audience is on, and how they are using them. Social media moves fast. At the same, keep your eye on the big picture. Develop a hashtag campaign with the flexibility to reinvent itself, and keep in mind the potential for a hashtag to go beyond social media and cross over into other mediums.
How to Truly Own a Brand-Owned Hashtag
Whether or not you personally #love hashtags, today they are central to the language of the internet and ubiquitous in popular culture. In fact, that #love hashtag has been used more than two billion times on Instagram alone. What started in 2007 as one man’s attempt to tag conversations on Twitter has grown into a universal symbol with the power to launch, sustain, and strengthen global movements (and brand campaigns).
Increasingly, brands have been keen on harnessing the power of hashtags. Wading too far into the deep side of the internet pool however is not without risk, especially for brands. The beauty of hashtags is that they can spread like wildfire or become unforgettable phrases. The other side of that coin is that once you put a hashtag into the very public internet sphere, it is liable to take on a life of its own, if not done right.
So, how can a brand truly own a brand-owned hashtag? In short, by striking a balance between being strategically on point without feeling contrived, by walking the fine line between catchy without being forced. No problem, right? #Follow along…
What is the purpose and value of a brand-owned hashtag?
That is the first question you should answer before jumping in.
Like with any advertising tactic or strategy, it is important to establish your goal. For brands, an owned hashtag offers great potential to build awareness, conversation, and positive sentiment in an easily trackable way, which can be brought to life in many forms.
Conversation Starter – At its heart, a hashtag should capture not only the essence of the brand but also the conversational and inspirational nature of social media. Not all hashtags need to be intended to drive massive audience participation (more on that below), but if that is the aim, then you must connect with your audience emotively, on a topic they are passionate about, and do so in a bold way.
The #LikeAGirl campaign by Always flipped the conventional meaning of that phrase on its head, in turn empowering girls everywhere, resulting in a dramatic increase in positive association with the phrase, an outpouring of positive sentiment and meaningful conversation, and public relations wins.
Campaign Activator – Coca-Cola famously spurred action via its #ShareACoke campaign, which built on the overall campaign of the same name. The original rollout of the campaign featured a “de-branding” of the traditional bottle, which included the phrase “Share a Coke with” followed by a person’s name. The personalized and interactive nature of the campaign lent itself perfectly to social media, with users proudly displaying their personalized bottles in photos, transforming them from consumers to public brand advocates.
One key lesson is that branded hashtags do not need to be confined to social media. They may launch in a different medium and then play out in social media, or vice-versa. And to keep the campaign fresh, Coca-Cola has traditionally reinvented the campaign each summer. Thinking about the big picture will lead to the biggest results; the #ShareACoke campaign has been credited with reversing declining sales numbers.
Messaging Unifier – The goal of a hashtag does not always need to be based foremost on encouraging audience adoption. If you make it clear in the upfront that the purpose of the branded hashtag is to function as a campaign unifier, then there is no reason to base the success of it on how often your target audience uses it.
In some cases, an owned hashtag is a great vehicle for a brand to naturally weave in consistent, creative messaging throughout a campaign. Similar to more traditional forms of advertising, establishing lift in brand awareness and advocacy on social media requires memorable messaging. A versatile hashtag, such as #ThatsWY for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, is one way to do just that.
How should brands avoid becoming a #HashtagFail cautionary tale?
For every branded hashtag success story, there is an example of a hashtag that never produced the intended result, or worse yet, adversely impacted the brand.
Don’t provide an opening for the masses to pile on – User-generated content (UGC) can be greatly valuable to a brand, as long as it is positive in nature. When McDonald’s introduced #McDStories, it inadvertently opened itself up to lurid stories from people who had negative experiences. Know your strengths (and weaknesses) and play to (or away from) them.
Avoid opportunism – Word to the wise: Internet users (and the media) will gleefully pounce on brands that demonstrate a lack of self-awareness or simply want to capitalize on what is #trending. Be smart, not opportunistic.
What best practices will ensure the success of a brand-owned hashtag?
The playbook on social media, and by extension hashtags, is ever-changing. That said, sound strategic thinking will always guide the way to success.
Choose a creative and ownable hashtag – When creating a new branded hashtag from scratch (as opposed to riding the wave of existing hashtags), keep these three rules in mind:
- Keep it concise and catchy. Whether you are hoping for your audience to actively use the hashtag, or if you simply plan to incorporate it in your owned messaging, we advise keeping it short and catchy, like the aforementioned #LikeAGirl. In general as a starting point, we recommend keeping in mind a three-word rule (no more than three words). The longer and more complicated a hashtag, the less likely your audience is to use it. So if the goal is audience participation, make sure that your hashtag is short enough and catchy enough for your audience to not only remember it, but want to use it.
- Make it sure it aligns with your brand (without being too branded). Could the branded hashtag you are kicking around just as easily be used by your competitor? If so, that means it is too general. Owned hashtags must be just that: ownable. At the same time, do not overly “brand” your hashtag. Trying to squeeze your brand name in there? Only do so if it is central to your campaign idea and goals, and if you are confident that your audience will embrace it, such as Calvin Klein’s #MyCalvins campaign.
- Tie the hashtag name to a specific goal. What do you want your audience to feel or do when they read or use the hashtag? Will it prompt a particular call-to-action? Ensure having answers to these questions. Branded hashtags should go beyond conventional advertising taglines. They should inspire action.
Listen. Listen. Listen. – Audi’s #WantAnR8 campaign was the result of simply paying attention to a follower who, yes, wanted an Audi R8. Instead of merely following up with that individual, Audi built an entire campaign around the theme.
Not only did this take care of the issue of creating a new hashtag in the first place, the campaign demonstrated and brought to life how Audi cares about its audience, which fostered an atmosphere of brand advocacy. Hashtags by nature are trackable. For inspiration before creating your own, we recommend monitoring hashtags that your audience is using, as well as the language and phrases they gravitate toward. Once you create (or borrow) one, keep a close eye on trends and results.
Engage and reward brand advocates – Beyond monitoring, we recommend interacting with your audience, and thinking about ways to reward or showcase brand influencers and loyalists.
That could be as simple as retweeting or sharing their post, or it could go as far as reaching out to someone who shared a testimonial and featuring them as the star of your next campaign. Use discretion however, as there is always a degree of risk when you highlight or endorse someone who is not thoroughly vetted.
Consider channel implications – Audiences on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn use hashtags in their own distinct way. On Instagram, hashtags are often used for discovery purposes. Twitter excels at positioning hashtags to build and organize conversation, and for trending purposes. Most Facebook profiles are private, which means instead of using branded hashtags as conversation starters, they function best as campaign messaging unifiers. LinkedIn branded hashtags are increasingly used for discovery.
In all cases, we suggest staying on the pulse of each channel, knowing that the nature of hashtag use is liable to evolve.
Evolve and build – Think big-picture. Many of the most sustainably successful branded hashtags have been reinvented beyond an initial campaign, such as Lay’s #DoUsAFlavor campaign, which has made a tradition of crowdsourcing ideas from its fans… fans which, thanks in large part to a branded hashtag, now rightfully feel that they are truly part of the brand.
Given how quickly the social media landscape changes, and how many considerations must be carefully balanced to successfully activate a brand-owned hashtag, we recommend reaching out to a BVK social media strategist to build a strategic roadmap for your branded hashtag.