It has become commonplace to hear people say the hashtag is dead.
Once a mechanism used to highlight and rally the crowd around a big idea or issue and drive its talkability and searchability online, it has instead become a self-important cliché attached to navel-gazing campaigns frantically seeking attention.
For every #likeagirl campaign, there are a hundred #lookatme brand campaigns that use this device in much the same way we used to put a Facebook URL at the end of our TVCs. A desperate attempt by a brand seeking digital relevance often destined to have zero impact: #lame.
If this was simply about hashtags, we could just say let’s move on to the next thing. But the challenge facing our ‘pound key + pithy statement’ meme is symbolic of a much bigger issue facing most of the digital tools in our arsenal.
How do we convert any simple customer interactions online – which are often hard won and therefore not insignificant given the wall of digital noise out there – into something a bit more meaningful, more relevant to drive actual engagement with the brand?
Looking at recent charity and CSR campaigns, it’s clear that brands have created an environment where consumer ‘hashtivism’ is legitimised. Many of these campaigns ask nothing more than for you to hashtag a photo to show support, instead of actually getting people involved in doing something.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci addressed this issue in a TED talk titled ‘How the internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win’. Her point was that even though online activism is easy to grow, it often doesn't last. Why? She compares modern movements - Gezi, Ukraine, Hong Kong - to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and uncovers a surprising benefit of organising protest movements the way it happened before Twitter.
“Today’s social movements scale up very quickly, without the organisational base that can see them through the challenges,” Tufekci said.
‘The magic is not in the meme. It’s in the capacity to work together, think together, which can only be built over time with a lot of on the ground effort.”
Any marketer confronted with any sort of online marketing campaign will understand the challenge Zeynep highlights. Importantly her solution was to not abandon technology or social media, but to use these simple online interactions as a building block for an even greater level of human engagement.
Here are three simple ways we, as marketers, can do this:
1) Make a simple social activity automatically convert to something more
Amex led the way for some years allowing tweets to turn into product discounts. Dominos showed this year that an emoji could convert into a pizza order. #Donate is a new system that allows Twitter users to donate to a charity by retweeting or tweeting a hashtag that is registered with the service. If you can automatically convert an online engagement into something even greater, it immediately becomes brand currency of real value to consumers.
2) Make it the first step to responding to customer service or feedback
A car client of ours realised Instagram hashtags were mainly used by proud owners, so we also use IG as a CRM tool to reach out to those customers and reward them for their loyalty. Retail clients, financial clients - everyone is realising that we can monitor these small digital interactions and respond to a genuine customer need or service opportunity.
3) Drive people to real world experiences
It’s nothing new for brands to use social chatter to drive real world engagement at stores, events or other on-ground activities; what is different is that we are starting to combine a lot of different platforms/partners and personalised services to make the connection more immediate, deeper and rewarding then ever. Heineken’s recent #SparkmyParty is just one case study of this process in action.
The above examples highlight the reality that encouraging simple digital and social engagement – far from being a waste of time – is a wonderful start point from which to create much deeper engagement with your audience. After this it takes hard work, planning and often on-the-ground commitment to create the real impact for your campaign.
I am sure all of us could think of 10 ways that the LGBT movement could use the wonderful momentum of the recent Facebook rainbow profile campaign, to drive real world action that furthers the cause of marriage equality.
We shouldn’t give up on starting campaigns with a hashtag, or any other simple customer engagement tool. Just don’t let it stop there.
Rob Hall is GM of Lowe Open and Lowe Profero Thailand