Hashtags: The future of consumer engagement in advertising

Superbowl 45 broke records. Record breaking 111.3 million viewers. Record 10,000 tweets per second in the final 3 minutes of the game. Most-watched halftime show ever by 114 million viewers. Did Superbowl 45 generate a new trend for advertisements too?

Social media is prevalent. It’s no secret. One of the keys to good advertisements is the incorporation of a call to action, either through a link to a website, a deal, or a  link to social media. As I’ve discussed before with the #McDStories and #BeBold promoted hashtag failures by McDonalds and RIM respectively, company-generated social media campaigns are hard to manage. It didn’t seem to stop companies from taking the plunge within their ads during the Superbowl.

Last year, Audi  incorporated a hashtag into their advertisement for the first time, setting a trend for this year’s ads. Last year, it was an ad promoting a departure from old-school luxury trying to rejuvenate their brand image, using the hashtag #ProgressIs. The hashtag was small and understated, compared to the blatant and bold promotion of their hashtag this year. Generating considerable buzz, many experts considered it the campaign of the week!

Audi: #SoLongVampires

Bud Light: #makeitplatinum

H&M David Beckham Underwear: #beckhamforhm

Jack in the Box: #marrybacon

Hulu Plus: #mushymush

General Electric: #WhatWorks

Best Buy: #betterway

You would have thought they would take the hint from McDonalds and RIM #epicfail-ing at trying to shape social media interaction. With a record-breaking amount of Tweeting going on during the Superbowl, it comes as no surprise that even these giant corporations lost some control of the message.

Personally, I thought it was an interesting way of generating discussion on social media. Given my feelings about McDonalds and RIM’s misguided efforts, I had a good internal laugh. In fact, I helped mismanage these hashtags, using them to discuss what I didn’t like about the advertisements of a lot of these companies, including Audi and H&M David Beckham Underwear. However, I also played into their intended purpose for companies like General Electric.

Interestingly, I found that I remembered the hashtags in some instances and not the company to which they referred. For example, even as I was writing this blog post I linked “#makeitplatinum” with Molson and not Bud Light. More evidence that perhaps these company-generated hashtags are not necessarily achieving the desired goals. Also, ads like Clint Eastwood’s Halftime in America generated significant buzz with consumers generating #halftimeinamerica on their own. This goes to show that a good ad can have the desired effect without the company generating it themselves.

TopsyLabs Sentiment Analysis

Overall, statistics suggest these companies that directly engaged consumers with their social media received greater presence in online discussions. I’m interested to see if this trend will continue beyond the Superbowl. I plan to watch and ultimately analyze the response to these hashtags, results that will be presented in the coming weeks.

With the ongoing increase in social media use, a call to action directing consumers to corporate accounts will undoubtedly increase engagement. I believe that such direct calls to action are valuable, but am interested to see how companies manage the potential misuse of things like hashtags. In my last posting, I proposed some methods of controlling discussion in an effort to mitigate negativity and preventing evolution into bashtags; is this enough?

So today I leave you with some questions: Do you engage with company-generated hashtags? If so, is it done in the way they intend or do you turn it into a bashtag?

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#BeBold & #McDStories: hashtag campaign #FAIL

Hashtag: (noun) The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.

RIM and McDonald’s have both recently learned the hard way in the past couple of weeks that hashtags are meant to be created bottom-up by Twitter users, not fed top-down by corporations. Tweeters have been having a field day hijacking McDonald’s promoted #MeetTheFarmers paid Twitter campaign. McDonald’s switched mid-stride from #MeetTheFarmers to #McDStories when the initial hashtag failed to trend – bad move!

Expecting stories about families visiting their restaurants and other similarly positive stories, McDonald’s never foresaw the backlash of their newest hashtag campaign. Hijacking Tweeters used the hashtag to rant about McDonald’s, linking the hashtag to stories about employee mistreatment, animal cruelty, and health issues. A company as polarizing as McDonald’s has its share of supporters and critics; as one Tweeter succinctly summarized the situation: “The only surprising thing about the #McDStories #fail was that they didn’t see it coming.”

What shocks me even more is that one week after the #McDStories hashtag fail, RIM introduced the #BeBold hashtag: insert hashtag #fail number two! Despite RIM reporting 35,000 appropriate interactions with the hashtag, hijackers once again took over, dominating the Twitterverse with messages linked to technology frustrations and corporate weakening. The #BeBold campaign was coupled with a highly criticized brand faux pas involving a quartet of costumed superheroes as mascots; one more demonstration by RIM that they are terribly out of touch with their consumers.

What can we learn from RIM and McDonald’s respective hashtag #fail stories? Social media is ruthless. Relinguishing control of your message, involving consumers in the discussion, is risky business. Constrained framing, distinct direction, and proactive management are vital to success. When McDonald’s hashtag went negatively viral, the company attempted to backtrack and reverse the issue rather than proactively dealing with the fallout, interacting with the hijackers. Listening to consumers, responding to their concerns, and engaging in discussion could have leant nicely to a pseudo-recovery for McDonald’s and RIM.

Social media can be a sustainable marketers best friend or worst enemy. It’s a finicky beast. Enter Kenneth Cole and their #epicfail hashtag hijacking the #Cairo hashtag during the Egypt uprisings against the government. Capitalizing on a trending hashtag, Kenneth Cole effectively alienated thousands with one of the most controversial hashtag campaigns to date. Ethically wrong. Morally corrupt. This attempt reflected terribly on the fashion house.

Overall lesson learned: tread carefully when developing promoted hashtag campaigns or they will quickly turn into out-of-control bashtag campaigns. Social media is an animal that few can predict and none can control.

Bashtag: (noun) Tweeter hijacking of a promoted hashtag, manipulating the hashtag in ways harmful to the hashtag promoter.