Does anyone understand the purpose of hashtags? Because the amount of sporadic hashtag campaigns brands put out there on a daily basis is astounding.

Actually, it's just plain  disappointing.

The original intention behind hashtags was to organize information (and in some loose sense, that is "still the point"). A hashtag was a way for people all across a social platform to communicate in their own "space"--the hashtag acting as the organizing feature of that one particular conversation. For example: #Rio2016 is for everyone talking about the Olympics. 

In its most simple form, hashtags serve their purpose well, and provide a bridge between people's individual voices (to their own followers) with the collective voice around one particular topic, discussion, or event.

Somewhere along the line hashtags instead became a lot of different things. In one sense, they became parenthetical descriptors people wanted to make in addition to their primary prose.

For example: I'm so tired #worklife #nosleep #grinding #goals.

Cool, except that's not what hashtags are supposed to be used for. If you really wanted people to know that you are depriving yourself of sleep because your goals mean that much to you, you would just say it. Except people don't want to say it. Because then they look self-centered. So instead, they hashtag it because for some reason that means technically they aren't saying it--they're just, you know, hashtagging it.

Now, some might argue that by using #nosleep, you can now search all the people in the world who also #nosleep and engage in conversations with them. Great in theory, except most people aren't that interested in searching out #nosleep and then eloping with each other over the fact that they are, in fact, not sleeping. It's just not a genuine conversation, and serves very little purpose.

However, this has not stopped brands from adopting a similar "user" mentality.

Worse than users who #everything, brands now feel the need to attach hashtags to any and every campaign. 

For example: BrandX posts a photo of their product in the sun, along with a caption that says: "We love the sun! Use #SunnyBrandX to share your photos!"

Let's break down why this is a horrible idea and 99% of the time does not work:

1. You Are Starting With An "Ask"

Most brands that run hashtag campaigns pull them out of nowhere. They get their Q4 budget approved, want to launch a whole bunch of billboards and train stop ads, and to top it all off, they want a new hashtag to go with it that is going to "tie it all together."

Great in theory. Doesn't work that way.

It takes a lot for people to do things. Sometimes, my own mother texts me and I don't reply right away because I'm too busy. And here this brand wants me to stop what I'm doing and, with no prior recollection of this hashtag and its emotional connection to me as a consumer, I'm expected to snap a photo, upload it, and tag them? How does that make any sense, to anyone?

You cannot start with an "Ask." You can't walk into a room and before introducing yourself and say, "Hey everyone, can you please do this thing for me?"

2. You Aren't Even Using The Hashtag Yourself

This is just absurd to me, and yet it happens every day. Again, BrandX says, "Post your summer photos and tag #SunnyBrandX!" Curious, you click the hashtag to see who else is posting, and the bucket is empty. There are no photos--or maybe a small handful, at best.

The brand that is asking you to create content and tag them isn't even creating content for their own hashtag.

If you want to have a successful hashtag campaign, you have to actually, you know, use it yourself. You want people to use #SunnyBrandX? Then you should be creating content every single day, or week, or month that reinforces that--bare minimum.

Otherwise, you're just a hypocrite.

3. Your Hashtag Has No Emotional Connection

When brands launch hashtag campaigns, it sincerely boggles my mind how many of them believe that having a hashtag is what will make them "go viral." 

"We need a hashtag," the board room of executives says--the same executives who can't even log into their Twitter accounts because they forgot their password.

To which the agency they are working with is usually no better. The agency, filled with young millennials who should understand how to properly use a hashtag, nod their heads and say, "That's a great idea!"

If you want to create your own hashtag, you have to not only rep it yourself first, and not only create content for it on a regular basis, but lastly, you have to create an emotional connection with it and your followers.

You have to prove to people that this is "a movement" and by using your hashtag, you are supporting not the hashtag, but what it stands for.

A perfect example of this is a powerlifter who goes by the name @c3muscle on Instagram. One of the core issues in the world of powerlifting and weight lifting is that so many people use bad form. They would rather load up the bar with a ton of weight to flex their ego, and do the exercise incorrectly, than to do the exercise with perfect form but use less weight.

Chris saw this as an issue and a topic of controversy within the community.

What did he do?

He created #RespectTheDepth.

Every single week, he would post a video on Instagram of him squatting 400, 500, 600 pounds, with perfect form. In the caption, he would touch on this very topic, sharing his perspective on why it is much more valuable to perform the exercise with perfect form, and then he would end the post with #RespectTheDepth. 

This is what ultimately made his following grow so quickly, and inspired a merchandise line and separate brand called #RespectTheDepth. People started posting videos of their own, squatting with perfect form, bringing the weight down as far as they could possibly go, and then tagging their videos with #RespectTheDepth. It's as if they wanted to prove that they were on the team that believed in leaving their ego at the door and doing the lift "the right way."

You want to know how you build a loyal following?

That's how you do it, right there.

If you are a brand and you want to have a branded hashtag, pick 1. Just 1. And reinforce it over a long period of time.

Pick 1 and spend less time brainstorming new hashtags and more time creating amazing content that will forge an emotional bond with the people who follow you. This has nothing to do with being clever, or witty, or trendy. This has to do with you believing in what you stand for so much, and repping it every single day, that other people can't help but join.

But if you think attaching a new hashtag to a billboard campaign that is going to run for 3 months is going to do anything meaningful for your brand, you're severely misguided. You don't need a hashtag. What you need is to provide more value.

Published on: Aug 6, 2016
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