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Five Guidelines for Effective Twitter Hashtag Marketing

Of all the recent innovations in digital communications, the hashtag is among the most misunderstood and misused conventions.

Necessity is often the mother of invention, and in the case of the hashtag, it evolved from Twitter users’ desire to categorize their thoughts into groups. As the legend goes, @chrismessina, an early adopter of Twitter, suggested in a 2007 tweet, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

The idea, of course, was to provide context and organization for his missives. Without such a utility, many of the communities that exist on Twitter may never have materialized. Likeminded users would struggle to find each other, and it could be argued that the platform as a whole may have stagnated without the semblance of order that hashtags provided in the early days.

Five years later, the convention has morphed dramatically. Far too often, the hashtag is misused for attempts at humor, sarcasm, irony, or simply to avoid using spaces, given that the 140 character restriction can be a bit, well, restrictive.

But it’s not just individual users who misuse whimsical 45-character hashtags. Sadly, many brands and “gurus” have poor understandings of how to use them. Plenty of them have been blindsided when their marketing plans blew up in their face.

But when used properly, hashtags are powerful tools for spreading your message, as well as measuring audience volume and sentiment. A well-promoted hashtag creates and curates online conversations about your topic, while categorizing that content for searches. Many vendors have built businesses around delivering relevant content powered in large part by sourcing hashtag content, which can then be embedded in your website, integrated into your broadcast, or ingested and displayed in venues via digital media displays.

For advertisers, buying sponsored tweets against a hashtag is still a nascent method for reaching a target audience, and if poorly executed, the purchase could end up doing more harm than good.

Spammers (and even mainstream marketers) often attempt to do this for free by tweeting unrelated content against trending hashtags. It even works sometimes. Trending hashtags can become the gateway to generating extra exposure for their Viagra offers on the backs of otherwise interesting and innocuous trends.

There’s much to evaluate when launching a hashtag campaign. Since there’s no handbook, here are five guidelines for using hashtags in your marketing:

  1. Keep them short and sweet – While there’s no official convention, I’d suggest that anything over 20 characters is way too long for a tag that you’re going to ask people to use and retweet. In general, shorter is better, as long as the tag is specific enough to be absolute in its meaning. About 10-15 characters is probably the sweet spot. After all, you’ve only got 140 characters to use, so the longer your tag is, the less room users will have to share meaningful thoughts about the topic.
  2. Make them clear – You’d like to think it goes without saying, but casual twitter users too often create lengthy tags that convey little to no meta information about their tweet. In fact, usually the “hashtag” itself delivers more punch than the tweet. But the best hashtags are unambiguous.

    For instance, Fox Sports recently used #Rivalry on screen during a Red Sox and Yankees national TV broadcast. While it was clear to viewers that Fox was referring to the age-old rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, #Rivalry lacked context for Twitter users not watching the game; the hashtag was far too generic. Remember, hashtags on TV aren’t just for your viewers, but they’re also free advertising to reach potential viewers who will be exposed to your tag in their timeline.

  3. Consider how it might be used against you – If you’re going to promote a hashtag, consider the fact that it could blow up in your face. Of all the classic examples, #McDStories is among the most notorious, as the fast food giant’s detractors commandeered the generic tag by sharing horror stories about McDonald’s, turning their marketing dollars against them. Mitigate that risk by considering what might go wrong before handing your branding over to the public.
  4. Promote it…without being obnoxious – Twitter users understand what a hashtag is when they see it, but not everyone is familiar with the platform. So while the hashtag should be prominent enough to be recognized, there’s still a universe out there that doesn’t even use or understand Twitter. Displaying your tag persistently on screen during a commercial or prominently in a print ad is an effective way to generate buzz and encourage use, but be mindful of cluttering your message with information that’s not necessarily relevant to a large portion of your audience.

    Comedy Central was among the first media outlets to fully embrace the on-screen hashtag, tagging its Charlie Sheen Roast program with a #SheenRoast bug in the lower left hand corner of the entire broadcast. It was subtle, but effective. Similarly, NBC Sports is currently using the #StanleyCup hashtag just below their iconic peacock logo just next to the score at the top of the screen, away from the on-ice action but conspicuous enough to generate plenty of activity.

  5. Don’t expect it to trend – Set realistic expectations, and don’t gauge your success on whether or not your hashtag managed to trend. Most trending topics happen organically, briefly, and with little fanfare. Instead, set specific, measurable goals for engagement. Then analyze the number of users tweeting your tag, the nature of the conversation around your brand, and finally, identify commonalities among influencers participating in your campaign. Your most invested fans will likely join the conversation by using the tag you’ve provided, but how effective was your tag in reaching your existing audience, as well as a new audience?
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SES Chicago Conference – Celtics & Social Media Interview

Here’s a quick interview I did after a sports and social media panel at SES Chicago conference last week, touching on how the Boston Celtics use social media platforms to connect with fans around the world, and why collecting data is so important for brands on Facebook.

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Why a Google+ Brand Page Could Be More Important Than Your Facebook Page

If you think Google+ will never be able to compete with Facebook in social networking, guess what? You’re right.

Google is more interested in owning the search engine results market. And that’s what Google+ brand pages are really all about.

In fact, for brands that sell their products directly, I’d bet Google+ brand pages could become more important than Facebook fan pages. In case you missed it, after an initial false start at launch and months of speculation, Google+ finally opened the floodgates for brands today.

Google+ claims to have 40 million users, but it’s unclear how many of those accounts are actually active. Anecdotal evidence – my personal Google+ feed is repetitively filled by the same four or five users despite having 200+ in my circles – suggests that most users signed up, checked it out once or twice, and never returned. Full disclosure: I logged on to Google+ for the first time in about a week today when the brand page announcement came down, and I do digital marketing and social media for a living. It’s my job to care, and I’ve had a hard time convincing myself that I should be logging in.

Until today.

The first time I wrote about Google+, I maintained that Google+ accounts would be more competitive with LinkedIn, and more important for professionals looking to build their own personal brand. I still maintain that personal Google+ profiles will be important for that purpose, even if the service has already run out of friends to suggest for your Circles. But even if most Google+ user accounts are dormant, Google+ brand pages are going to become important quickly.

Google+ brand pages look a lot like Facebook fan pages, and hence, drew criticism from some corners for a lack of originality. That’s a fair critique. But here’s what truly matters: Google+ pages, unlike your Facebook fan page, will actually generate traffic, because of a little thing called, um, Google. You know, the world’s biggest search engine?

The size of the Google+’s user base is irrelevant with regard to brand pages, because after all, Google is a search engine, not a social network. And Google is the undisputed king of search. Google enjoyed 65% of the U.S. search engine market in September 2011 according to ComScore.

Lost in all the hype around today’s announcement was the following paragraph from Google’s blog:

“People search on Google billions of times a day, and very often, they’re looking for businesses and brands. Today’s launch of Google+ Pages can help people transform their queries into meaningful connections, so we’re rolling out two ways to add pages to circles from Google search. The first is by including Google+ pages in search results, and the second is a new feature called Direct Connect.”

As I suspected, Google is going to include Google+ pages in search results. In other words, if people are Googling for “Boston Celtics tickets”, our new Boston Celtics Google+ brand page will show up in the results, presumably near the top. After all, doesn’t Google have a vested interest in keeping its own traffic in house, on pages it controls, featuring ads it can sell? You can bet Google will eventually place advertising on G+ pages the same way Facebook places ads on your Facebook profile. After all, Google reported made $28 billion in ad revenue in 2010.

That’s $28 billion. With a B.

Celtics.com is already one of the top organic search results for “Boston Celtics tickets”, but secondary market ticket brokers, who’ve spent a fortune mastering SEO techniques, all rank highly thanks to both paid and organic search results alike. Obviously, we want Celtics.com to be the first destination for potential ticket buyers, but if a Google+ brand page is going to perform highly in search results, we need to be there too.

The power of Facebook is that it allows us to grab mindshare whenever we choose from fans who’ve opted-in to our Fan Page updates. Still, we can’t force people to buy tickets just because we put an offer in front of them. More likely, when a fan actively wants to buy Celtics tickets, they will either visit our website, or Google something like “Celtics tickets”. Presumably, our Google+ brand page will give us more control over the search result for that query, and give us a better chance to capture that customer who’s demonstrating buying intent.

As an added bonus, for those users who are active on Google+ and want to become a Boston Celtics follower, we’ll be able to reach them there too, Facebook style, with status updates. I expect that content we publish on Google+ will eventually become more relevant in Google’s search results as well.

So, if you haven’t set up your brand’s Google+ page, what are you waiting for?