(Note: This post originally appeared on the PNConnect Blog)
In the annual barrage of stats on Super Bowl ads and social media, one figure stood out: 50% of the commercials contained a hashtag. This was actually a drop from 57% in 2014, but easily outpaced Facebook or Twitter mentions (7% and 5% respectively), not to mention rising platforms like Snapchat (1%) and even good old-fashioned URLs (not even 45%). Why does it matter? Because a hashtag is the least managed or manageable option for making a digital connection in an ad.
The point of a hashtag, at least in theory, is to provide a single rallying point for conversation around a topic. A company will encourage social media fans to use #fillintheblank when talking about something in particular. A good hashtag should be:
- Unique: It shouldn’t already in regular use around an unrelated topic. This also helps with tracking relevant usage and engagement.
- Memorable: It should be easy to recall, for the same reason a law firm might want “LEGAL” as the last five digits of its phone number. Making a hashtag memorable drives actual usage.
- Contextual: It should make sense within the bigger picture of an event, campaign or topic.
- Functional: Most importantly, it should give followers something worthwhile to do with it. If you’re going to encourage people to use a hashtag, it’s critical to answer the question, “And then what?” Is it part of a contest entry? Are you curating the best updates on Twitter, on-domain or through a service like Storify? What value does the audience get from using the hashtag? Too often, marketers forget the next step, preferring just to show off engagement and usage.
A hashtag can be useful, but its value in a paid advertising campaign is questionable. Here’s why:
- It’s not managed: No one owns a hashtag. What’s the upside of promoting something that can’t be directly maintained?
- Long-term value is negligible: We’re no longer in a world where a 30-second spot is ephemeral. Commercials live on for years on YouTube and Facebook. That hashtag might be relevant now, but how about in six months?
- Pivoting when the conversation goes south is difficult: There are countless examples of a brand-promoted hashtag getting hijacked by someone trying to derail brand messaging. At that point, drawing attention to the hashtag only brings more eyeballs to off-brand messages.
- The call to action is often nebulous: Am I supposed to share my (fill in the blank) memory? Am I supposed to use it when I’m feeling inspired? Am I supposed to search for it and see what everyone else is saying? This tends to be unclear.
For most brands, guiding people toward managed channels like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has much greater long-term value. The call-to-action is easier to convey (“Follow/Like us…” “See more at…” etc.). Plus, if the publishing program is well-managed and the initial ad makes a clear value proposition, it’s an attractive opportunity for someone to align themselves with the brand. That means a long-term audience is being constructed that has opted-in to participate in ongoing communications with the brand.
Next time you’re planning a social conversation campaign, consider which has more long-term value: an ephemeral hashtag that is mostly outside your control or a managed channel that is tailored to offer value to your audience.