Social Media

Hashtag Inflation

While it may be tempting to jump aboard the current hashtag campaign bandwagon, you have to pick your subject matter carefully if you want successful user engagement. Otherwise it’s a big waste of time.

09 Dez. 2015 Helmut van Rinsum
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Dumb hashtag campaigns with no strategy rarely succeed (Photo: Aysezgicmeli / Shutterstock.com)

Social media campaigns

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Midway through the year, food giant Nestlé launched an "Ask Nestlé" section on its website. It contains a list of all the various questions a company of Nestlé’s magnitude might expect to be asked – queries about ingredients, the environment, production conditions and the like – and the associated answers.

But it seems the company was disappointed with the response and thought the campaign needed a bit of a push. So, in late September, using the paid hashtag #AskNestlé, it started soliciting direct engagement with consumers on Twitter.

What followed wasn’t the hoped-for influx of questions from favorably disposed customers; it was an avalanche of angry accusations, including such gems as "Why do you allow people to go hungry?" and "Why do you support child labor?" The hashtag campaign backfired, sparking a social media storm that continues to cause Nestlé headaches to this very day.

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Hashtag fail: Food giant Nestlé discovered that a hashtag can be a two-edged sword. (Photo: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com)

The Nestlé campaign illustrates how hashtag campaigns can take on a life of their own. If you call on users to share questions, opinions, photos or videos on Twitter and Instagram, then you run the risk that some of them will use the campaign as a platform for venting their frustrations.

Only a few stray users on Twitter

But it doesn’t always follow that the damage done by hashtag backfires is permanent. Like Nestlé, Berlin’s local public transport operator BVG tried its hand at Twitter with a hashtag campaign. Using #weilwirdichlieben (#becauseweloveyou), it called on its customers to share their most memorable moments on Berlin’s buses and trains. But instead of sharing agreeable photos of life’s happy moments, the locals took great delight in posting snaps of all the little glitches and breakdowns they had experienced while using the local public transport system. Luckily, BVG’s employees took this outpouring of scorn with wit and good grace for months on end and eventually succeeded in turning the tide of online opinion.

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Delayed success: Berlin’s local public transport operator BVG also tried its hand at Twitter with a hashtag campaign. (Photo: Screenshot)

As it happens, more and more Berliners are now happy to sing the praises of their local public transport system. This tweet is just one example of many: "Cyclist unwittingly loses cell phone. Bus driver stops in the middle of the intersection to pick it up."

BGV has now been rewarded for its online perseverance with 10,800 followers on its campaign Twitter account and a solid upswing in user engagement via its other social media platforms. The campaign has also generated extensive positive coverage in mainstream media. "They’ve succeeded in creating a popular, well-liked brand," says Christian Clawien, Director Digital Strategy at Fischer Appelt. "They handled the situation extremely well."

Big response confined to well-conceived hashtags

Both of these stories show that hashtags can have far-reaching consequences. However, that tends to be the exception rather than the rule, as most hashtag campaigns meet with very little response. Oftentimes the call to action just seems too unimportant, and the subject matter too arbitrary. "As a rule, they generate very little in the way of engagement," says Peer Wörpel, Head of Social Media at digital advertising agency Pilot. "Customers and agencies know this, yet only very few of them take it into account in their hashtag campaigns."

Big response confined to well-conceived hashtags

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Peer Wörpel, Head of Social Media, Pilot, Hamburg: “The point of a hashtag is to get users to share with one another.” (Photo: pilot.de)

Both of these stories show that hashtags can have far-reaching consequences. However, that tends to be the exception rather than the rule, as most hashtag campaigns meet with very little response. Oftentimes the call to action just seems too unimportant, and the subject matter too arbitrary. "As a rule, they generate very little in the way of engagement," says Peer Wörpel, Head of Social Media at digital advertising agency Pilot. "Customers and agencies know this, yet only very few of them take it into account in their hashtag campaigns."

Often it’s unclear to users why they should bother taking part in a discussion or post photos under a brand hashtag. Occasionally users are motivated to upload photos by the prospect of prizes – as in Esprit’s #ImPerfect campaign. But very often the call to action seems a little pointless, as in the case of the campaign for the "Boss the Scent" fragrance. The TV commercial directs customers to the #powerofthescent tag, where, unfortunately, they will discover very little apart from boredom. Consequently, the campaign has only a few lost souls on Twitter and Instagram to show for its efforts.

The purpose of hashtags

Despite these sorts of scenarios, many providers of branded goods feel they just can’t do without a hashtag. "Opinions vary as to the general purpose of hashtag campaigns," says Bastian Scherbeck, Managing Director of the agency We Are Social. "But the fact is, their use has become rather inflated." Fischer Appelt’s Christian Clawien agrees, noting that hashtags have become something of a fashion accessory, especially in the fashion industry. “They’re a visual device that advertisers don’t actually need – a bit like in the 1990s, when practically every ad had an @-symbol in it.”

In reality, hashtag campaigns are about much more than just coming up with a hashtag and then using it in advertising communications. Pilot’s Peer Wörpel explains: "The point of a hashtag is to ignite discussion and to get users to share with one another."

Campaign launch featuring prominent Youtubers

Achieving that can be a tall order. The hashtag must embody a communication idea that touches people at an emotional level and motivates them to start sharing their ideas and thoughts with one another. What’s more, everything about the hashtag needs to be a perfect fit for the brand. And while that’s certainly hard to achieve, it’s not impossible, as campaigns like the one launched last November by the German health insurance provider Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) show.

Using the hashtag #wireinander (which denotes sharing), the TK campaign focuses on people who have succeeded in getting their lives back on track after major health setbacks. A case in point is the professional basketball player Robert, who had to give up his sporting career after being diagnosed with cancer and today has a successful business producing muesli bars. The idea of the stories is to inspire courage and, in doing so, to underscore the importance and benefits of health insurance. And it has been very well received by users. On Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube, #wireinander continues to inspire lively and heartfelt dialogue among people with similar experiences.

The TK campaign was boosted in other media right from the outset – first by TV and movie commercials in which TK customers would tell their moving stories, and then by YouTube clips featuring big-name Youtubers such as Le Floid. In this way, the Fisher Appelt-designed campaign met two key criteria for success: it generated sufficient buzz to be noticed, and it used well-chosen content to inspire large numbers of people to become actively involved in the campaign.

Photo campaigns: getting users to upload brand-relevant photos

Hashtag campaigns don’t always have to focus on such serious topics, but the golden rule is that there has to be give as well as take. Peer Wörpel: "If I'm calling on users to produce content for me, then I also have to offer content that they can engage with." This can just as easily be done in a fun, entertaining way as in a serious way. The German fashion e-tailer Zalando, for example, was right on the money with its #shareyourstyle hashtag, generating over 25,000 fashion photo posts on Instagram alone – many of which attracted comments by other users.

Most photo hashtag campaigns follow this formula – the aim is always to motivate users to engage with the brand by uploading brand-relevant photos. Coca-Cola’s #shareacokewith and Mercedes’s #mbfanphoto campaigns are classic cases in point. Photo campaigns are the safest option because they tend for the most part not to attract scathing comments about the brand. That said, they do not always deliver the desired outcome. Frequently they attract photos with aesthetics that are of dubious value for the campaign, and often they attract virtually no response at all.

Gaps in understanding

In some cases, these sorts of unfocused or confused responses are not a problem for the brand because all the campaign is aiming to achieve is to challenge consumers with a new word, concept or way of thinking. The hashtag thus functions very much like an exclamation mark. In Germany, carmaker Opel's neologistic #umparkenimkopf and small goods manufacturer Rügenwalder Mühle’s #veggieschnitzel are good examples of this.

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Sebastian Franz, Elbkind: "There's a lack of understanding of how hashtags work. Many still don't understand their function." (Photo: Elbkind)

Ask a hundred ad agencies what a given hashtag stands for, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Ultimately, that means users are left to figure it out for themselves. "There's a lack of understanding of how hashtags work. Many still don't understand their function,” says Sebastian Franz, Social Media Manager at the Hamburg communication agency Elbkind. "And yet they can be a great way of building a community of users." But it has to be done right. "The user has to be able to see the value of engaging with the hashtag. And for that, the hashtag has to be short and catchy."

The decline of organic reach: hashtag campaigns to the rescue

In Germany, Bavaria’s tourism marketing company Bayern Tourismus Marketing has succeeded in connecting users with one another to form a community. Since the spring of 2015, it has been running a campaign featuring testimonials from right across the user spectrum on the virtues of Bavaria as a tourist destination, with the hashtag #echteinladend ("wonderfully inviting") as the central, unifying theme.

"We wanted to generate dialogue and exchange with people from Bavaria’s various regions," says Bayern Tourismus Marketing CEO Jens Huwald. "And I’m please to say we succeeded." So far, the campaign has netted photo impressions of Bavaria from over 5,000 users on Instagram alone. The idea behind the campaign is that the photos are representative of Bavaria’s diversity.

The lesson here is that something as simple as a single hashtag can be used to build a community across a whole range of social channels. In the present case, this includes channels that had hitherto largely escaped Bayern Tourismus Marketing’s attention. The hashtag draws together the various strands of the campaign theme to create cohesion. "Organic reach is already a thing of the past in many social media networks," says Huwald. "But a hashtag campaign can provide a way of overcoming this."

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