Hashtag Hacking: How to Balance Daring with Digital Decorum


ADOTAS — Digital marketing continues to present new ways to snap up and engage new users. That’s why it’s so exciting — and also why it can be so dangerous. After all, it isn’t always safe on the cutting edge, but that’s exactly where most of today’s best digital marketing campaigns reside.

In social media — or in any channel, for that matter — good marketing practices redefine your fans’ expectations and make you stand out from the crowd. This is what makes you worth following.

How can you create a social media strategy that’s daring, but not dangerous? Hashtags can help you “hack” foundational marketing principles, and they can help you generate content ideas that will engage your audience.

Prepare to Be Daring

Though the use of hashtags harkens back to the salad days of the Internet, the symbol has found new life and value through Twitter. Now, you see hashtags used in almost every facet of social media.

But hashtags are more than just a rudimentary method of topic categorization and discussion. Instead, they’ve become a way for users to enter into specific, often targeted conversations with a wide range of people with similar interests and needs. Based on these common interests, these individuals are primed to become fans of a brand — or even brand ambassadors.

Big brands take their campaign hashtags very seriously, and for good reason. Tweets with one or two specific hashtags can gain as much as 21 percent more engagement than those encumbered with three or more. This is why “hacking” a hashtag — strategically using a competitor’s hashtag to learn more about a user base — is well worth exploring for digital marketers.

Before you start considering a hashtag hack, follow these tips:

1. Keep track of competitors’ evergreen hashtags. These are unique hashtags that companies use as long-term brand identifiers and often function as sub-brands, such as MasterCard’s #Priceless or Nike’s #JustDoIt.

2. Find out what your competitors’ campaign hashtags are. Different than an evergreen hashtag, a campaign hashtag is used for a shorter period of time or to accompany a campaign that targets a cluster of people with a specific interest for a certain amount of time. Examples of this include Hennessey’s #WildRabbitChase and Ford’s #OneTankAdventure.

3. Find bandwagon hashtags used by people who engage with competitors. These organically trending hashtags are typically generated and promoted by Twitter users, independent of specific companies or brands. Some of the more notable examples of this are #FF (“Follow Friday”), #YOLO (“You only live once”), and the nostalgic #ThrowbackThursday.

Learn the Rules

As in any social space, Twitter has developed a set of unlisted, yet commonly accepted, rules.

1. Know when to use a competitor’s evergreen or campaign tag. When an authentic, organic opportunity arises, it’s an excellent idea to use it to build goodwill between brands and establish relationships with that brand’s key engagers. By showing support for and open communication with competing brands, you can persuade their fans to engage with you down the line.

Examples of appropriate instances to use a competing hashtag include support for charity events, congratulations on product launches, or acknowledgements of major news.

2. Pick your bandwagon hashtags wisely. Be sure your use of hashtags is consistent and supportive of your overall brand messaging. For example, if you maintain a more wholesome brand and use the hashtag #YOLO — which is often associated with carefree partying — you’re likely to generate some unwanted responses.

Instead, choose hashtags that are timely and trending but congruent with your overarching brand identity.

3. Be respectful. Even on Twitter, the rules your mother taught you still apply. Be polite and cordial, using your words to positively represent your brand. Don’t bash your competitors, and never publicly delight in their failures. This will simply confirm to audiences that you’re not a confident market leader.

Make Your Move

Sometimes, you don’t need to create an opportunity to hack a hashtag. You just need to know how to recognize it. Remember McDonald’s infamous #McDStories Twitter campaign? This campaign, while well-intended, became nothing more than a vehicle for McDonald’s competitors and customers to condemn the fast food giant’s questionable food integrity.

While this incident could be viewed more as a lesson in poor Twitter strategy than an open invitation to hashtag hacking, there were still opportunities to benefit from McDonald’s mistakes without publicly criticizing its brand.

For instance, there’s nothing wrong with targeting the people who speak out against a competitor’s campaign because they are possible converts for your brand. If you wanted to benefit from #McDStories, you could have taken the following steps to enforce your own efforts:

1. Find users with legitimate, well-communicated complaints (instead of those simply making jokes at the company’s expense).

2. Determine their personalities, demographics, and interests. This takes a considerable amount of number crunching, but it’s where hard work can really pay off.

3. Convert these people to your brand. Tweet at them with content that supports their interests and aligns with your brand.

While this certainly qualifies as fair play, it could also backfire on your brand if executed poorly. You are making a clear, obvious play for someone else’s fans, and it might end up embarrassing your brand rather than engaging your competitors’ fans.

Instead of trying to leverage a competitor’s failure by swooping in on a disillusioned fan base to poach followers, it’s smarter to use hashtag responses to build your understanding of the audience and what emotional triggers garner the most response.

Analyze this information, and create stories that are tailored to their interests in specific channels at the right times of day. This way, you’re using your information to build a relationship, not steal one.

Hacking a hashtag may sound dangerous, but when it’s done with the proper etiquette, attitude, and research, it can yield big results.

After all, there’s no better way to organically connect with your fans than with something that matters — even if it’s in places they might not expect.


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