Hashtags: The Double Edged Sword That Mostly Cuts You

The hashtag is a seductive proposition. Why would you not want to create a place on Twitter where like-minded people can discuss a particular issue and track what others are saying about it. Isn’t that the very definition of community? Isn’t that what social media is all about?

Indeed, hashtags are a great want to tag and follow conversations. Those following the 2011 Canadian election use #Elxn41 to discuss the campaign. The world followed the events in #Egypt and #Japan, along with single events like the #Superbowl. We also collective shared how awesome #Tigerblood was (until it wasn’t) and offer our advice on the #threewordstoliveby.

But we also know that the conversation forms on it’s own. There is no real way to control it once it is out there. Which is why attempts at creating a positive discussion in the marketing world have proved less than positive for McDonald’s, A&E and Rogers here in Canada.

Chris Brogan raises an excellent point: if you’ve done nothing to create a community that respects and even loves what you do, you are running a huge risk putting energy into a hashtag promotion or initiative. Sure, your hashtag will be a beacon for conversation – one that everyone can see. There is also no way for you to prevent opponents or detractors to “add” to the conversation.

My advice to campaigns I’m involved in is to approach the hashtag with a healthy dose of caution. I’m not really a fan of creating them, unless I am absolutely certain the resulting volume of tweets will be positive or otherwise beneficial. You need to critically and realistically evaluate the strength and depth of your Twitter community.

But you can also help to tip the scales by properly crafting the right hashtag. Think about whether you are opening yourself up to negative/mean/spiteful responses. Marketing and branding campaigns tends to focus on the positive, putting the company or product in the most favorable light. That’s their job. But in an uncontrolled environment like Twitter, it pays to hope for the best, but plan for worst. Ask yourself, if I was trying to pull the conversation in a less-than-positive direction, how would I use this hashtag?

Like everything else is social media (and life), results take work. Promoted hashtags are great if you are are slogging a new car that no one has purchased (and can complain about), but in the world of advocacy and politics, there are usually well defined sides. You need to think about how each side will use a hashtag before releasing it into the wild.

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