When Twitter took the world by storm, we never saw #hashtagoverload coming. It makes sense on a platform with only 140 characters available to make your point. Shorthand is necessary, and writing shortcuts have always been important--it was even a requirement for secretaries back in the day. However, it's become out of control.

Here's where hashtags went wrong: They escaped from their Twittersphere and have become an epidemic #IRL. Fist, people started using them on Facebook, which was a somewhat natural progression considering the Facebook-Twitter relationship. Then in texts. Then in actual speech. Hashtag ridiculous.

The collective voice

The original intent of hashtags was to capture things that were trending via a hash sign and collect them so that like messages were organized and easy to find. This led to the trend of "starting" hashtags which led to bragging rights. Marketers jumped on this bandwagon and have been cited as the sources for some of the most popular hashtags, such as Equinox's #preapologize. This is one of the latest hashtags from a company looking to increase visibility for a gym chain.

While ad campaigns can benefit greatly from any approach that works, including hashtags, this has proven to be a genius way to get consumers to do their work for them. If you nail the right hashtag whether you're selling laundry detergent or shoes, hashtags are an easy way to let consumers do the hard and dirty work for you. Even if those consumers don't have a clue what the source of the hashtag is, or what it's doing for a company, they've become free peons for companies to use.

They're everywhere

Teens may have started the hashtag trend, but marketing companies are the ones really benefiting from them. You can find them on billboards, buses or anywhere else there's product packaging. According to the CMO at Equinox, Carlos Becil, #preapologize came from "the unbridled confidence and lowered inhibitions" that are linked to workouts. "We find users engaging as was intended," he says.

He's on point, with the hashtag racking up well over one million "impressions". It started as an inside joke at the gym since gym rats notoriously over post about their epic workout sessions or post gym selfies by the bucketfull. It took flight, it's a little sassy, and it works for pretty much any user in some format. In other words, it's got the makings of the perfect hashtag.

You don't need to know what a hashtag really means or its roots in order to use it. Some Twitter users have asked Equinox directly for a definition, but the good ones are designed to "extend the conversation" according to a director at DigitasLBi, Alex Jacobs.

Now what?

Once a hashtag is out there, it's time to monitor it and engage it with the right responses. Jacobs says the best way to do this is via interaction with those who adopt it and have a lot of followers (or "influencers"). However, first it needs to simply make sense. A hashtag needs to have mass appeal, not obviously be marketing fodder, and be useful in many situations.

A recent example of a bad hashtag is Neutrogrena's #unseenacne, which users see as gross and not very useful in everyday conversations. According to one critic, Josh Thorp, it "caught my eye because I thought it was so awkward to tweet about acne. If you have it, typically you're trying to cover it up." That's certainly not a good hashtag for all those #nomakeupselfie pics.

The segue from hashtag to bashtag can be harsh and fast. However, Neutrogena is defending its hashtag even though it's only been tweeted 3,600 in the first month of launch. The reality is that corporate hashtags are quickly and prone to failure. Sometimes you never know what will take flight and what will crash and burn. #thatslife.

Published on: Jul 30, 2014
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