To hashtag or not to hashtag, that is the question…

hashtag hash tag hashtags hash taggingHashtags. They’re so ingrained in our social platforms now that we basically don’t see them. They just exist. Like a breath, or a piece of punctuation in a tweet. But recently, they’ve started appearing everywhere. Writ large in high street windows across Britain. Emblazoned on t-shirts, adshels, billboards… So what happened? When did the humble ‘#’ symbol emerge from a dusty forgotten corner of the keyboard to become the pre-eminent advertising icon of the digital age

Back in 2007, when Twitter first introduced them as a grouping feature, they acted as a way of signposting what event you’re at or topic you’re referring to. Essentially, hashtagging was a shorthand way of joining a conversation. And still is. Today if you hashtag your tweet, picture, or whatever, it slips into the stream so it doesn’t get missed. But somewhere along the way, hashtags started hogging way more characters or space than originally intended. Anyone who’s #read a #tweet or #blog post with more than two hashtags will #knowwhatImean. Lately it feels like we’ve all become hashtag-happy. Even brands are at it. Many marketers, in their desperation to be seen as social, are now using hashtags on their ad campaigns to replace things like headlines or actual ideas.

The recent campaign by the Puglia Tourism Board is a classic example of this new hashtag malaise. You can’t miss the posters screaming #WEAREINPUGLIA. But what are they trying to say? Do holidaymakers really use this hashtag when they’re enjoying their antipasti? Or, does the campaign want to establish this hashtag as the default choice for instagrammers in Italy? I’m confused. Slapping a chunky ‘#’ symbol across your ad might make it social, but it doesn’t make it clever. And, using a hashtag in such an obvious way, because it looks like the right thing to do, is the advertising equivalent of dad-dancing. And nobody wants to be accused of that.

So, here are a few things worth remembering if you want your next social campaign to avoid any dad-dancing:

• Hashtags are not headlines*. They’re a call-to-action. A shorthand way of saying this is how to join the conversation or participate.

• Yes, hashtags will make your communication social and responsive. But they don’t necessarily give people a reason to respond. Don’t forget, you need a compelling hook first, hashtag second.

• TV gets the balance right. When you watch shows like The X-Factor, or Later with Jools Holland, the hashtag pops up at the bottom of the screen for a few moments and then disappears. You don’t need to be in-yer-face with hashtags all the time.

• *A hashtag can be a headline, if you’re Diesel. Their latest campaign #DIESELREBOOT is a tumblr-curated campaign that is inherently social, rallying creative types to contribute imagery, ideas, and artwork. Proof that hashtags can take centre-stage when used in the right way.

Tom Harman is Associate Creative Director at TMW. He can be found tweeting @mrtomharman.