Hashtags are not inherently dumb. In fact, they can be a pretty effective way of making sure a piece of content finds its intended audience in the chaotic swirl of the social media maelstrom. If hashtags seem dumb, it's because so many people are so bad at using them -- and some of those people tweet on behalf of big brands.
Let's look at some of the incidents that gave hashtags a bad name in 2017.
Dodge with #RoadkillNights in August 2017
To be fair, Dodge didn't do much wrong in this case. The carmaker should have reacted to the controversy more rapidly, but we can't expect brands to see the future and know exactly when a PR crisis will hit.
Here's what happened: On the same weekend that anti-racism protestor Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist driving a Dodge Challenger, that very brand was sponsoring a drag-racing event called Roadkill Nights. Dodge tweeted footage of the races along with the hashtag #RoadkillNights. Outrage mounted up quickly, but Dodge was slow to take down the tweets. It didn't help that neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer reveled in the coincidence.
Dodge didn't go looking for controversy, but when controversy found it, the company was caught flat-footed -- and with a hashtag that was beyond unfortunate.
Dorothy Perkins with #LoveDP in April 2017
D.P. are the initials of U.K.-based clothing brand Dorothy Perkins. Presumably, the people who run social media for the company weren't familiar with another sort of DP: double penetration, a hardcore sex act frequently featured in pornography. The porn-savvy public was quite amused by Dorothy Perkins's use of #LoveDP on Instagram. The brand has valiantly continued using the hashtag all year, so at least it gets points for perseverance!
#LoveDP fondly calls to mind the #susanalbumparty incident, a botched hashtag extravaganza of yore.
Greyhound Bus with #FOMOOGLF in August 2017
This one didn't get a lot of attention -- the YouTube video remains under 500 views. And that's kind of the point. The eye-roll-inducing #FOMOOGLF supposedly stands for "fear of missing out on Greyhound low fares." The cumbersome length and clumsy pronunciation of #FOMOOGLF are obviously intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but the execution is too forced to be effective. Hence the @GreyhoundBus account is the only one to have ever tweeted this hashtag.
#FOMOOGLF takes a user-generated idea and awkwardly grafts the brand onto it. This is a typical branding #mistake: trying to emulate youth culture but not quite nailing the delivery. More fuel for the subreddit /r/FellowKids.
The average brand is in much more danger of coming across as boring or out of touch, like poor Greyhound, than stumbling into accidental outrage.
Here's an example from PAAS, maker of kits for dyeing Easter eggs:
#EasterHashtag is the store-brand cereal marked "Cereal" of hashtags. There's a better effort below #EasterHashtag in #besteggever, which is something that almost 900 people have actually Instagrammed (although usually pertaining to food).
Brands often fail to consider a key pair of questions when it comes to hashtags: 1) Would an actual human use this? 2) Why? Asking why is crucial, because often, upon examination, the answer proves to be "to try and spam more likes out of randoms," which is not an activity any self-respecting brand will engage in.
Geico and Walmart provide two more illustrations of hashtags that essentially serve to signal "we know there is a social media" and nothing else:
Now listen, lest you be dissuaded from using hashtags ever, they do make sense sometimes -- for events like conferences, live Twitter chats, or for indicating the subject of a photo (e.g., #dogsofinstagram). Hashtags can even serve as amusing commentary, often self-deprecating: #GottaAdmitThatIUsedCringeyHashtagsForYears. In that case, the hashtag serves as a meta-level reference to how dumb hashtags usually are. Hashtags also come in handy for raising public awareness of a political or social issue -- think #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo.
Using a broad business-related hashtag like #insurance, however, just makes you look like you're stuck in 2007. Tech and media researcher Simon Owens blogged in 2015, "Look at the Twitter accounts that receive the most engagement, whether it's Justin Bieber or The New York Times, and you'll see they only use hashtags sparingly. This is partly because hashtags are ugly and make a tweet difficult to read."
Owens also pointed out that "most hashtags deployed on any given day are tweeted out much more often than they're actually searched for, meaning that there are many more people including the #econ hashtag than there are people going to Twitter search and plugging #econ into the field."
In summary: Just be strategic about your use of hashtags in marketing. A bad one only serves to annoy people who actually live on social media and know what's up.