On August 23, 2007, Twitter user Chris Messina used the first hashtag on the social platform: #Barcamp. Today, an average of 125 million hashtags are tweeted daily.
Ten years ago, when the hashtag was first born, brands used it to merely punctuate content.
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— ⌗ChrisMessina (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
Today, if a brand creates a hashtag, it is used in all media and formats as an integral part of a comms and marketing strategy.
While it remains an easy way to track exactly how many people are talking about a brand, campaign, or event, brands continue to innovate how they use hashtags. But several clear lessons and tips have come out of hashtag usage over the past decade, notes Twitter’s head of global brand strategy, Alex Josephson.
The first, he says, is that brands must be true to their values with every hashtag they use.
“Credibly participate in conversations and have an opinion on topics where you have a right to speak on a specific topic,” he confirms. “Consumers already identify with your brand in a certain way.”
Brands should also keep in mind that hashtags no longer live and die on Twitter. Tweets and hashtags show up on TV, in a press release or newspaper, on other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or as part of experiential advertising and marketing.
Hashtags can also be used as a call to action, and are an “effective method of rallying consumers on your behalf around a particular topic or initiative,” says Josephson.
Think before you tweet
He warns, however, that brands should look at a hashtag from every angle before publishing.
“Think to yourself: what can go wrong, how can this hashtag be misinterpreted, are we playing in a space that is appropriate for us to brand?” posed Josephson. “Scenario plan for negative reactions.”
When hashtags fail, it can be a PR nightmare for the brand. Who could forget Starbucks’ 2015 #RaceTogether, the much maligned campaign that asked baristas to discuss race relations as they handed you your latte? That same year, SeaWorld tried opening the floor for questions with #AskSeaWorld. Trolls and animal activists proceeded to ravage the brand.
As JPMorgan (#AskJPM) and McDonalds (#McDStories) can attest: You can’t engineer vitality. Brands need to learn how to read the room.
If used correctly, hashtags can form a new channel of conversation for a brand. Charmin, for instance, has done this with its quirky #TweetFromTheSeat hashtag, built off the insight that people use social media while they are in the bathroom, Josephson explained.
“While there is a lot of thought from brands about what conversations they have a right to play, when it comes to tweeting from the seat, this is Charmin’s domain,” he said. “It has resulted in a lot of hilarious content users and consumers have generated and #TweetFromTheSeat is now an ownable property for them. It is in their tongue-in-cheek brand voice; they don’t take themselves too seriously.”
— Charmin (@Charmin) June 29, 2017
Another brand that has used hashtags in a noteworthy way, said Josephson, is Coca-Cola, which become the first brand, back in 2015, to pay for an emoji on Twitter, with a picture of two Coke bottles clinking appearing when a user types “#shareacoke.”
Taco Bell embraced the notion of value exchange with its #TacoEmojiEngine hashtag in 2015. Those who included the hashtag in Twitter posts were gifted with replies that had custom animated gifs.
— Taco Bell (@tacobell) November 7, 2015
Successful hashtags, developed usually for a social (#IceBucketChallenge) or political cause (#MAGA), can build tremendous support and awareness. Used properly, these phrases can raise millions for medical research, or catapult a businessman into the White House. And desperate for the same exposure, brands chase after that one magical hashtag like the Holy Grail.
“Brands are gamifying the hashtag and creating unique value exchanges between users using it as the instrument,” says Josephson. “So when a user tweets at a brand with a certain hashtag, they are unlocking content or they are unlocking a coupon or they are unlocking an exclusive.”
Oh hashtag, how’ve you grown
The most Tweeted hashtag in 2007 was used around 9,000 times. In comparison, the most-used hashtag so far in 2017 was used over 300 million times. And currently, an average of 125 million hashtags are tweeted per day.
The most popular hashtags are #FollowFriday or #FF, tweeted over half a billion times; #NowPlaying, Tweeted more than 1 billion times; and #ThrowbackThursday and #TBT, with 120 million tweets.
Five of the biggest hashtags of the past 10 years stem from fans tweeting while they watch award shows – whether tweeting to vote for an award or live tweeting the event.
The most-Tweeted television show hashtag is #TheWalkingDead and the most-used movie hashtag is #StarWars.
In terms of sports, the most tweeted global sporting event hashtag is #Euro2016; #SuperBowl takes the crown for most-tweeted sporting event hashtag; #NFL is the most tweeted about league; and #MUFC is the most-tweeted team hashtag.
10 Hashtags that Defined the Decade
It’s been 10 years since Chris Messina tweeted the first hashtag. In that time, hashtags have come to define not only social media, but also a generation of internet culture.
One of the defining moments in modern international politics — the uprising in Egypt in 2011 that eventually resulted in the resignation of the country’s former dictator, Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak — was also a defining moment for social media. It showed that Twitter had real applications outside of cat memes and trolls.
Welcome back Egypt #Jan25
— Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) February 11, 2011
An ugly moment for gamers, gamergate began as a statement against corruption in games journalism, and ended up as a rallying point for misogynists and trolls. Still, it was a moment that won’t soon fade from memory.
At this point supporting #gamergate is implicitly supporting the harassment of women in the gaming industry.
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) October 15, 2014
Not much to be said about this one, really. It was (and is) as much a viral hashtag as a symbol of the right-wing zeitgeist. If nothing else, it’s been effective.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 2, 2016
The chant that propelled President Barack Obama to the oval office during the campaign, and the ethos that defined much of his two terms. In the three-month run up the 2008 election, less than 3,000 people actually used the hashtag, but #YesWeCan defined not only the decade, but a new generation of American voters.
There’s a big lump in my throat. Watching President Obama’s farewell address inspires me to never give up on your dreams. #YESWECAN!
— Donna Brazile (@donnabrazile) January 11, 2017
BLM seems more like a political party here in the waning weeks of 2017, but the movement began as social rally cry against police brutality; specifically, the killing of Trayvon Martin. Now it is one of the most prolific political chants in history.
We want a nation where young black men and women can live without fear of being falsely arrested, beaten or killed. #BlackLivesMatter
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 19, 2015
The magnitude of the virility of the ice bucket challenge is difficult to understate. Look at all the various “challenges” it left in its wake, with more cropping up all the time. The ice bucket challenge was a true gem as far as viral social media moments go, and it was one of the few that brands were able to effectively and organically co-opt.
— Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien) August 15, 2014
It’s entirely possible to fill a list like this with Kim Kardashian content. But if one hashtag defines her reign, it’s #BreakTheInternet; a social media event where the semi-nude Kardashian literally broke social media.
Hillary Clinton remains a divisive, even near on 12 months after her defeat in last year’s presidential election. But the hashtag that followed her continues to be a call to action for women and women’s rights groups.
— Eva Longoria Baston (@EvaLongoria) June 8, 2016
Hollywood has a long and documented history of racism and exclusion, but the industry has been doing a bit of course correction in the wake of 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite; a viral response to the Academy Awards that year (and many other years), which didn’t include a single actor of color.
— Media Diversified (@WritersofColour) January 15, 2015
Entertainment media inherently generates a ton of social buzz, but the viral fervor around 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an anomaly, even for a blockbuster film. It remains one of the most viewed online trailers in the first 24 hours to this day, and was one of the biggest cinematic events of this generation. Whatever the subjective quality of the film itself, its commercial success pushed May 4 as close as one can go to becoming an official.
— Whataburger® (@Whataburger) May 4, 2015