Will we one day look back at the 2014 World Cup and remember it as the first global event where spending massive advertising budgets on hashtags became standard practice? Or will we remember it as the only time where so much money was wasted this way? Certainly as someone who’s missing out on sleep by having watched every game in full so far, the hashtags have imprinted themselves in my mind – but not for the reasons advertisers might have hoped.
A hashtag is still primarily associated with Twitter, but has been taken up by the likes of Facebook too. It’s simply a flag for a subject; append it to your tweets or posts, and they’ll be found if anyone searches on that term. So, for example, if everyone commenting on the forthcoming General Election adds #ge2015 to their tweets or posts, it’s an easy way for people to find everything on that subject, and it ensures your contribution will be found.
If there’s no obvious guidance on which hashtag to use, several different ones can spring up, largely defeating the object. That’s why it works well when people are commenting on a media event, as that event can suggest the hashtag (as the BBC does with Question Time’s #bbcqt).
(It’s worth mentioning the big mis-use of hashtags here. Social media is nothing if not available to everyone, and a huge proportion of users don’t “get it”. To them, a hashtag appears to be a way of commenting on their own tweets or posts. So they’ll type: “Justin Bieber says he isn’t releasing any more records #sad”. Are they thinking that someone’s going to be searching for tweets about the word “sad”? Of course not. They’re not thinking at all. But hey, that’s their right.)
For a major brand advertiser, floundering with how to manipulate the online conversation, hashtags are an obvious target. If they’ve arranged an event or subject which people are likely to be discussing, it makes sense to point them towards a single, predefined hashtag to build momentum. And if they include a widely-used hashtag in their own tweets, they’ll be found in that conversation.
However, the 2014 World Cup seems to be the point where advertisers really have started to believe they can create a conversation, just by spending eye-wateringly large sums of money on pushing a hashtag at the public. So the pitch-side advertising hoardings which previously showed logos or short slogans, now just contain mysterious words or phrases with a hash symbol in front of them. Watch Lionel Messi or Robin van Persie scoring magnificent goals and try not to notice the bizarre backdrop announcing “#allin”, “#brasilbeyond” and “#FryFutbol”.
If you’re skeptical about the effectiveness of this as a technique, so am I, and the results would seem to bear out our fears. Just search for these hashtags on Twitter or Facebook and you tend to find one of two things. The first is people adding the hashtags to their posts in the hope they might be found for something they’re not about, like this:
I can’t see how that’s any use to the advertisers. The second way they’re appearing is even worse, however: people talking about the hashtags themselves, and (sadly for the advertisers) not in a particularly complimentary way. The best example of this is probably the mysterious “#powertoyourmouth” being beamed at us by Listerine:
Hashtags have been used successfully to tie together comments about an event organised by a major brand. These need to be a small part of an integrated whole, however. I may end up eating my words, but if companies think they can distract people from a major sporting event and get them talking about oral hygiene products instead, they might be making a very expensive mistake.