Two centuries ago, Romantic poet Lord Byron correctly observed that “a drop of ink may make a million think.” Byron’s generation was the first born into a progressively egalitarian public sphere that rapidly spread across Europe; thriving trade and early capitalism created a new middle class that challenged monarchical standards, desired rational answers to life’s scientific mysteries, and above all, demanded a free exchange of ideas and information. Byron well recognized that just a few succinct words implanted into this social network – which could finally be disseminated to the masses with ease – could revolutionize public opinion and, thus, action.
Not much has changed in 200 years except that the internet is now our catalyst for the free exchange of information and ideas. We don’t need to produce verbose expositions to catch the attention of the public sphere (in today’s fast-paced society, that would actually be much to our detriment). Instead, Byron’s same proverbial drop of ink still makes millions think today. It has simply been reclassified as the hashtag.
The Rise of The Hashtag
The use of hashtags, which began several decades ago as a means of labeling groups and topics in early IRC (Internet Relay Chat) programs, has evolved to command our present-day public sphere. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts are peppered with pound signs attached to one or two word pleas for attention. Some are overused (#fml) and jocular (#catsofinstagram), while others bring attention to problematic social issues (#YesAllWomen and #stopbullying). Some hashtags can birth revolutions (#Egypt), while others serve to connect like-minded people all over the globe (#endhunger). What each of these has in common is that they segregate and direct the flow of overwhelming information into manageable channels based solely on individual interests.
Why Use Hashtags?
One thing that has changed drastically since Lord Byron’s time is the sheer amount of information with which we are confronted every day. In fact, much of our daily routine involves filtering through layer after layer of information to arrive at our anticipated destination. It can be downright exhausting trying to determine what material best deserves our limited time and attention. Using a good hashtag greatly assists in directing the public’s attention to your organization in the following crucial ways:
- Gain Followers – Using hashtags on your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts will help you gain followers through Retweets and Reposts. If your hashtag is a witty and creative representation of your mission, your original followers will be stoked to share it with their contacts as well. This is one of the most common ways certain hashtags become exceedingly popular.
- Produce Action and Critical Thought – Especially in marginalized, disenfranchised areas of the world, a poignant hashtag can create a torrent of social action and critical thought that leads to revolutionary change. Hashtags on Facebook and Twitter are repeatedly credited for the success of the Arab Spring. In many of these nations where subversive speech is punishable by law, citizens were able to turn to the internet to band together and enact social change.
- Cut Through The Fat – A good hashtag gets right to the crux of your message without trivializing it. Your audience understands your hashtag’s intention immediately without having to spend time deciphering its meaning and your goal. People decide within a few seconds whether or not they are interested in pursuing a hashtag. Don’t miss your chance to persuade them that yours is worth it.
How to Create and Use an Effective Hashtag
It’s easy to type a pound sign and follow it with any old string of words. After all, we see many hashtags that were seemingly concocted after a round or two at happy hour. But none of those hang on. In order to make yours victorious and effective:
- Keep Your Primary Mission in Mind – Your hashtag should be predicated upon your organization’s chief mission. You want to craft something catchy and not too vague or long. It should be blunt and straight to the point of the message you’re trying to circulate. For example, if you’re an organization whose mission is to make healthy, light food a staple in public K-12 cafeterias, #lightlunchroom could popularize your message in a more appealing and succinct way than, say, #healthyK12lunchesforall.
- Know Your Audience: Popular Doesn’t Equal Effective – Like any successful aspect of business, knowing your audience’s needs, desires, and relatability is absolutely imperative to the success of a hashtag. What buzzwords would best resonate with them and pique their interest? Imagine your target demographic is over 40. Creating a hashtag comprised of terminology only found on Urban Dictionary is probably not the best way to go. While these popular or slang phrases might generate some curious clicks out there, it will not ultimately lead to furthering your mission.
- Incentivize the Use of Your Hashtag – One of the best ways to get your hashtag to catch on – aside from a strong and purposeful mission behind it – is to create a fun, interesting reason for your users and clients to want to incorporate it into their own posts. Many organizations offer rewards or prizes for the most creative, funny, or compelling use of their hashtag. For instance, suppose you’re a non-profit theatre with an upcoming Shakespeare season. In order to generate interest amongst the younger 21-34 year old demographic, you might create the hashtag #thebardcats in which patrons create their own cat memes that depict a scene from a Shakespeare play. This might be silly, but it can also be an extremely successful way of accomplishing the theatre’s objective.
- Decide on Short or Long Term – Ultimately, your hashtag is going to fall into one of two categories: short-term or long-term use. An example of the former is the aforementioned #thebardcats; it is used to market a specific upcoming event with a specific start and end date. Short-term hashtags are just as important as long-term ones, and shouldn’t be discredited simply because they don’t possess the prospect of lengthy tenure. Many one-time events owe their wild success to clever, stimulating hashtag campaigns. Long-term hashtags are a bit trickier. If your ultimate goal is for your hashtag to become a cultural staple, you will need to invest in it like any other marketing technique. This process usually includes one or more of the following to amplify your reach: sustained and concise media promotion through a variety of marketing channels, product promotion, teaming with like-minded organizations, or regularly identifying and blogging upon relevant and current events to which your mission and hashtag applies.
- Measure your hashtags – As an organization, you want to be measuring and sharing your impact on the regular. Use tools like Keyhole or Hash Tracking to get data on the use of your tag and incorporate that into your measurement dashboards and reporting.
Now go, and make Lord Byron proud! #byronsink