Written by: Farhan Ansari
Social media has changed the landscape of today’s world. Currently more than a billion people are connected with social media and the figure is only rising. Facebook and Twitter are undoubtedly the most popular websites in social media. One of the most common and prominent aspect of social media is the hashtag label, which is denoted by the pound sign #. What was once a hardly used key in a typical keyboard, has now made headway in terms of its importance in social media. Social media is turning out to be an ideal platform for marketers to promote and increase brand awareness among its target market with ease. Hashtag is becoming a powerful marketing tool in social media as it enables companies to raise the awareness of its brands and helps consumers to be part of its community. Companies in the recent times have utilized hashtags to their own advantage. However, the beauty of social media is that it is a level playing field where the users of social media can express their views and opinions. Consumers can easily vent their frustration in response to a marketing campaign where hashtags are used to engage them. Hashtags are certainly adding a whole new dimension to social media which is a blessing and it could also well be a curse for brands.
The Rise of the Hashtags
Companies in the recent times have used social media to market their products or services towards its target group. However it is important that marketers do not get overawed by the wonders of social media. According to Barwise and Meehan (2010), the old school or the fundamentals of marketing cannot be ignored by any means as they have to ensure brands live up to the promise. Barwise and Meehan (2010) further mentions that renowned companies have successfully used social media to interact with their market. It is evident that organizations be it not for profit and profit making organizations all have a twitter and facebook account. On the other hand rise of Instagram is hard to ignore. Apart from being be able to keep in touch with the people following a page in social media, the most common feature is the hashtag. Hashtag has provided a new way to communicate in social media and it is becoming a vital aspect to have a strong presence in social media, hashtags have faced unprecedented growth ever since Chris Messina posted a tweet containing a hashtag nine years ago (Kirkpatrick, 2011). Hashtags are now widely being used by companies for its marketing campaign in social media. Importantly, hashtags and social media are facilitating companies to the process of brand building. Aaker (1996) mentions that in order to have a successful brand building process it is important to know what the brand is all about and to convey the message of the brand in the right way. Social media has opened the doors for companies to do various activities and ensure the brand building process is smooth. Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) mentions that social media not only has enabled companies to build connections in social media but also have paved the way for companies to directly interact with its followers in their social media page. Hashtag is surely proving an effective method in ensuring consumer engagement. Hashtags helps to filter down the overflow of online content. Once a hashtag is introduced it has its own page in social media. Therefore all the posts that has a pound sign followed by the same characters are accumulated in a page (Suh et al. 2010). Which is why hashtag is proving to be a very powerful tool which the companies find it irresistible to use. A study on Interband’s top 100 brands showed that in the fourth quarter of 2014 majority of the top 100 companies have used hashtags as 97% of the companies used a hashtag once in Twitter and 15.6%, 4.6% and 1% of the companies used 2 hashtags, 3 hashtags in a tweet and 4 hashtags in a tweet respectively Search Engine Watch (2014). In this day and age, it has almost become compulsory for companies to use hashtag in their posts in social media to an extent that not using them can be deemed as being “backdated”.
There are cases where certain companies have used hashtags innovatively which have led to success. As presented in Patterson’s blog (2015) a classic example of a successful campaign was done by Coca Cola during its #ShareACoke campaign. Coca Cola encouraged its customers to share a story by using the hashtag #ShareACoke. This campaign turned out to be a hit as many interactions were made and storytelling were done. According to Deighton and Kornfield (2009) marketing in social media ought to be interactive and it is where the customers are empowered in other words companies cannot by any means conduct direct marketing and acknowledge the power shift and set marketing campaign accordingly. This is what Coca Cola exactly did, they ensured consumers were engaged during the whole campaign of #ShareACoke, therefore the people on social media dictated terms during the campaign. The concept behind the #ShareACoke was unique but the execution of the marketing campaign proved to be instrumental for its success. Companies are always striving to come up with innovative hashtags that conveys the message about their brand. In the era of Web 2.0 having a unique hashtag could prove to be a game changer. For instance Red Bull once used the hashtag #PutACanOnIt. Red Bull gained the idea of the hashtag when an image of person holding a can over a vehicle started to go viral on twitter (Patterson, 2015). The hashtag proved to be a success as people started to become creative by placing their Red Bull can in different places. Hence a high level of engagement from the people was accomplished.
Hashtags that went downhill
Having a hashtag is not sufficient, companies regularly will have to know how the communication is being perceived by the people. This is crucial because it is important to know the brand image that is held by the people. According to Muniz Jr and O’Quinn (2001) brands are deemed as social objects and as far as the brand building is concerned, consumers play an integral part in this process. Which is why in the age of Web 2.0 it is imperative for brand managers to know how their brands are being perceived in social media or else it could be detrimental to the image of the brand.
Just posting a hashtag is not sufficient enough, this has to be done with a lot of care. In the past companies have posted hashtags which had a poor choice of words or has been posted on the back of a poor performance in providing customer value. As aforementioned social media is a level playing field as the people themselves can quickly pounce on anything that is deemed unreasonable to them. One of the famous example is a hashtag which McDonalds used in a tweet back in 2012 which was #McDStories. The idea behind the particular hashtag was to make consumers share their stories about their wonderful experience of having a happy meal at McDonalds. However the campaign backfired as customers of McDonald’s used the #McDStories to vent their frustration regarding their horrible experience with the fast food giant (Forbes 2012). Moreover, former employees of McDonald’s outlets did not miss out on using this particular hashtag. Some of the examples include how someone found extremely hard in a Big Mac. Others include how an individual had food poisoning after having a Happy Meal. Overall the tweets made it very clear that the people were dissatisfied. The then social media director of McDonald’s stated that in the span of one hour after posting the tweet of #McDStories the campaign instantly started to go downhill (Roberts, 2012). Qantas the Australian flag carrier, like McDonalds also launched a marketing campaign with the intention of garnering positive feedback from the social media users. The campaign by Qantas Airways was of similar to #McDStories campaign, in this case the carrier wanted the people to share their most luxury experience while flying with the particular airlines by using the hashtag #QantasLuxury. The one with the best tweet will be rewarded with a free first class ticket at Qantas (Wood, 2011). Hardly anyone paid any heed to the reward as social media users took Twitter by the storm to share their unpleasant experiences with the airlines. Various stories were shared which for Qantas, did not augur well. A few months prior to the launch of the campaign Qantas had differences with their labour union which led to the operations of Qantas to a standstill. To add salt to the wound, people used this incident to make humorous remarks regarding Qantas by using the hashtag.
Dissatisfied customers are undoubtedly a nightmare for brands as it can adversely the reputation of the brand and have a negative impact on consumers’ intention to buy the particular brand (Zeithaml, Berry & Parasuraman 1996). Which is why companies will have to be wary of the comments being posted by users which demean the reputation of the brand. Social media has complicated matters for companies as far as branding is concerned. According to Thurau, Hofacker & Bloching (2013) in the era of web 2.0, firms have partially lost control of marketing activities and will have to deal with consumers opinions which goes hand in hand with the brand values. Hence it is important, that companies handle the negative comments resulting from hashtags in a delicate manner. Xia (2013) claims that companies will have to admit fault when responding to constructive criticisms made by the users instead of being defensive. As a result there will be a favorable attitude towards the brand.
Hashtags are proving to be decisive tactic to kick start a marketing campaign on social media. It ensures engagement from the consumers. In addition, hashtags facilitates to spread the message of the marketing campaign. However, it is important that companies use hashtags when their brands are perceived well in the market. Because then hashtags could work against the company which was clearly the case with McDonald’s. Since bad news travel fast it is important companies manage the criticism it faces. On the other hand successful hashtags are unique and tempts users to use them. Moreover, the marketing concept of a hashtag is vital for its success. Hashtags is a unique marketing tool which can be used by anyone active on social media which is why it can be tricky to use.
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