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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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WWE – Slamming the Competition in Social TV

Like most red-blooded American males, I grew up spending my Saturday mornings in the 80s watching the cartoonish gladiators of the WWE – it was WWF back in my day – battle in the name of good vs. evil. If you talk to your generational counterparts, they likely remember more than they’d care to admit about the wrestling from their childhood, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Ravishing Rick Rude.

These days, however, by leveraging the power of social media and specifically Twitter, WWE is revolutionizing the social TV experience. It’s worth keeping an eye on, even if you’re too cool to watch wrestling – or admit to watching it.

Wrestling’s popularity seems to be cyclical not unlike the global economy, getting a boost every few years when a new personality breaks into mainstream media. Hulk Hogan and The Rock became household names thanks to their superstar status in the ring, and moved on to bigger and better things when ratings tapered off or storylines grew stale. Still, despite fluctuations in both popularity and mainstream exposure, wrestling’s been a consistent ratings generator for cable TV networks since the inception of the platform.

TV’s biggest evolution in recent years has been the proliferation of HDTV, but over the past 12 months, social media integration has really gained a foothold in the broadcast industry. Currently, WWE is perhaps the biggest TV brand that’s putting a headlock on hashtags and making their broadcast experience truly interactive, in the process becoming the undisputed champion of social TV.

WWE’s flagship broadcast Raw airs live on USA Network every Monday night, and claims to be the longest running episodic TV program in history. While you can classify it as wrestling, the matches seem to be few and far between, and the show’s content pinballs between sports, comedy, drama and reality TV. Raw is consistently the top-rated cable program in its timeslot from 9-11 PM, and that’s impressive, considering that the show competes head-to-head with Monday Night Football for nearly half the year.

While I’ve watched more than my share of wrestling over the years, I’ve recently been drawn back in by WWE’s impressive efforts in the social media arena, and their overt efforts to socialize their programming. I expect sports broadcasting to follow suit sooner rather than later.

The company has already established a huge footprint across Facebook and Twitter, with nearly seven million likes for WWE’s Facebook page alone. Still, that doesn’t count the audience that each of their wrestlers have accumulated. John Cena, wrestling’s biggest active star, has nearly nine million Facebook likes, while characters like Triple H (2.6 MM Likes), and CM Punk (~500k Likes) have large followings controlled by the company’s headquarters in Stamford, CT.

9/11 Tragedy

WWE has worked to integrate social media, and specifically Twitter, into the storylines and presentation of its live weekly wrestling program. Here, wrestlers are introduced in lower thirds with their Twitter handles displayed.

Most of the wrestlers have their own Twitter accounts, and they seemingly operate them with a great degree of autonomy. They also enjoy impressive followings on the platform; Cena has nearly one million followers, while CM Punk, a star who recently gained notoriety, enjoys an audience of nearly 385,000 on Twitter. It’s not uncommon for the wrestlers to extend their in-ring storylines to the digital media arena, tweeting at their opponents to keep the rivalries going throughout the rest of the week. It’s a clever way for WWE to blur the lines between the wrestlers’ real lives and characters, and it keeps fans interested even when WWE programming is off the air.

On the air, however, WWE is taking it a step further, deeply integrated Twitter into their weekly Raw broadcast. Moments after the show opens with a shower of pyrotechnics and blistering music, commentators instruct fans to tweet about the show with the hashtag #Raw. Lower thirds and theme songs trumpet wrestlers’ arrival on stage, but Raw recently added a new wrinkle. Almost every lower third features the wrestler’s name and his Twitter handle. It’s a nice touch.

Ironically, despite a significant effort to choreograph the conversation around the show, with such a massive social audience tuning in, WWE generates an enormous volume of organic chatter each Monday night. Characters, as well as their dialogue, regularly trend worldwide within moments after appearing on the show. This Monday night, 30 minutes into the program, “Kevin Nash”, “Teddy Long” and “Christian and Cody Rhodes” were all trending topics on Twitter.

For example, Kevin Nash is a longtime wrestling personality who recently resurfaced on WWE programming. Apparently, if you want to make an impact on Raw, the easiest way is to ambush your old friend Triple H from behind with a sledgehammer! Seems excessive, but it was certainly effective, as Nash killed two birds with one stone. He sent Triple H to the hospital, and instantly became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Charlie Sheen would call that “#WINNING.”

Kevin Nash - Trending Topic

Moments after appearing on Raw, Kevin Nash was a worldwide trending topic, and WWE was boasting about it on screen shortly thereafter.

Minutes later, the show did something unique, displaying “Kevin Nash” in an on-screen graphic, declaring him as a worldwide trending topic as play-by-play commentators informed the audience of the accomplishment. (They also noted their concern for Triple H as he convalesced from the sledgehammer attack.)

Despite the violent nature of this Monday’s opening segment, Raw typically features more dialogue between the combatants than brutal attacks and proper wrestling matches. Semi-scripted diatribes from wrestlers directed at opponents or the crowd are called “promos” in the wrestling industry, and they convey much of the inherent storytelling of the program. It’s not uncommon for a character to make an obscure reference during a promo to get the audience’s attention, and typically, those references will trend in minutes as fans tweet about what their favorite hero or anti-hero is discussing.

Cena took it a step further on Monday by promoting his relatively unknown tag-team partner Zack Ryder in his backstage promo, telling his boss – and the audience, for that matter – to follow his Twitter handle (@ZackRyder). It was blatantly shoehorned into Cena’s segment, but it was another clever way to encourage audience participation.

Honestly, there was so much Twitter talk that it bordered on overkill; repeated mentions of Twitter throughout the two-hour live broadcast began to grow stale. WWE may want to dial it back slightly, because it threatened to become obnoxious. Still, they’re experimenting to find the proper mix of social integration to compliment their wildly successful show, and they’ve made a commitment to make Monday nights a social experience for wrestling fans and Twitter junkies alike. It’s groundbreaking stuff, and you can expect more of your favorite TV shows to follow their lead.

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Charlie Sheen: Stuck in a Moment and He Can’t Get Out Of It

The best thing I can say for Charlie Sheen after seeing his appearance in Boston? He’s still alive and definitely off the drugs.

Unfortunately, the rest of us are all off the drug called Charlie Sheen. The high has worn off, and the hangover is setting in. And sadly, despite amassing a sizeable audience, Sheen really has nothing to say.

Sheen’s “My Violent Torpedo of Truth” live tour, which bombed on opening night in Detroit but has gotten mixed reviews in other cities, could be charitably characterized as a “mixed bag” in Boston. Applauded early on, Sheen benefited from playing to a college-aged crowd that popped for his trite catchphrases but eventually grew tired of his shtick about 45 minutes into the “show” he performed in Boston Tuesday night.

We’re using the term “show” loosely, because for the 70 minutes or so that he kept himself on stage, you never felt like Sheen – or anyone for that matter — was controlling anything. Armed with an anonymous sidekick and a guitar player who riffed after every punch line and catchphrase for punctuation, Sheen had no gameplan beyond dropping F-bombs and quoting himself for the first 15 minutes. After an impromptu “third Goddess” pageant (which would have felt staged if it wasn’t so poorly executed), the program veered into a disjointed Q&A session that searched for spontaneity but grew increasingly tiresome. Nonsense cameos from local C-Listers Paul D and Vinny Pazienza brought nothing to the table.

When the program turned over to Q&A, he criticized the crowd for asking lame questions (or questions about the tired tales of debauchery he’s already recited), then dodged anything that required the least bit of contemplation. He appeared to already be tired of his own act.

So what exactly did Sheen want to talk about? Where were the Torpedos of Truth? What was his point? When a stoned fan was brought up on stage and asked Sheen, “Why are we here?”, a question about 6,000 people were probably asking themselves, Sheen turned it back on the kid, presumably because Sheen himself doesn’t have an answer.

So what is the point of this tour? It wasn’t comedy. It wasn’t drama. It wasn’t even a Henry Rollins-style spoken word event. It wasn’t really anything beyond an ill-conceived money grab, devoid of any real production values or storytelling, thrown together while the proverbial iron was still hot.

Sheen may have nearly sold out Boston University’s Agganis Arena, but there were few reports of anyone actually paying face value for tickets. StubHub and Ace Ticket had hundreds of seats available this afternoon at a fraction of face value. I attended the show (and live tweeted so you didn’t have to be there) with a $90 ticket acquired for just $20 in the secondary market. Given the volume of similar seats available, you’d have to imagine those seats were distributed directly to the secondary market.

Whatever they paid, people did show up, so tour promoters weren’t completely misguided in staging this traveling car crash. In some ways you can probably attribute that to his rapid success in the social media arena. Sheen exploded onto the digital scene when he took his rants to Twitter after the meandering/ranting interviews that thrust him into the pop culture zeitgeist about six weeks ago. He’s amassed 3.5 million followers on Twitter on the strength of his irreverent interviews and snarky catchphrases, but the sheen, if you will, of his star is wearing thin. More importantly, since going off the deep end, he’s lost his job, is always at risk of losing his kids again, and he’s losing America’s interest. The one coherent message gleaned from the show is that he’s basically begging for his Two and a Half Men job back, but he refuses to apologize for being fired.

Something’s got to give. Yet, oddly enough, Sheen took to the airwaves after the show, joining 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich for two hours of genuinely compelling radio. With accomplished disc jockeys interviewing him, Sheen is far more interesting. So maybe he needs to let go and just invite actual journalists to interview him on stage and see where it goes. Anything would be an improvement to the current format.

But left to his own devices, Sheen’s pretty dull once you get past the cheap laughs of his boasting and catchphrases. If there’s a point to be made on this tour, ironic, artistic or otherwise, Sheen hasn’t figured it out. It’s like he’s letting us all in on an inside joke at his own expense, only we’ve already heard it 100 times. Problem is, Sheen can’t remember how to set up the punchline or why it’s even funny anymore.

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Charlie Sheen: #Winning at Social Media (or alternatively, magically and effortlessly converting tin cans into pure gold)

In the last month, three people have joined Twitter with great fanfare. The King of All Media himself, Howard Stern, despite protesting for over a year that he “didn’t get Twitter”, joined the microblogging service after signing his new deal with SiriusXM. And he immediately broke new ground by live-tweeting along with an HBO airing of Private Parts, providing behind-the-scenes DVD-style commentary about the movie.

He also teased fans by promising provocative pictures of his wife in exchange for growing his follower base, and more importantly, has been regularly responding to fans since mastering the mechanics of retweets and replies. @HowardStern hasn’t lost steam and seems to be hooked on the service.

His foray into social media has been a success, but after the initial spike, his audience has plateaued, likely because of the limited reach of satellite radio. Stern has 330,000+ followers at Twitter.

The Rock, on the other hand, was quick out of the gates as well. After seven years of making movies, the wrestling superstar returned to the ring with a cross media promotion, simultaneously making an appearance on live TV on WWE’s Monday Night Raw while launching his Twitter Feed (@therock) and Facebook page within hours of each other. For The Rock, it was a triumphant return to the ring and an impressive debut in the social media squared circle. He’s nearing 200,000 followers on Twitter as of tonight.

But neither of these pop culture icons can complete with the juggernaut that is Charlie Sheen at this particular moment in time on March 1, 2011.

It took Charlie Sheen roughly five hours – five hours! – to catch Stern, passing him somewhere around 9:30 p.m. EST. As of 9:50 pm EST, he had three tweets, three hash tags (#winning, #winner and #chooseyourvice), two trending topics (“Charlie Sheen” and #winning), two twitpics and 360,000 followers. When word broke that Sheen had joined Twitter, he had at least 60,000 followers before he’d even released a single tweet, and the Internet waited with baited breath for his debut missive.

Compared to “I got magic and I got poetry in my fingertips, most of the time — and this includes naps — I’m an F-18, bro, and I will destroy you in the air and I will deploy my ordinance to the ground”, his initial tweets have been pretty tame, and honestly, a bit underwhelming. They failed to match the zeal (or unadulterated crazy) that he showered us with in his rambling radio sermons or TV diatribes. But Sheen, whose publicist reportedly quit on Monday after the star conducted a live interview on TMZ.com, may have figured out what we knew all along: With social media, he can disseminate his messages without the help of a publicist. And because he’s actually famous, people will listen and respond and retweet and react.

It’s pretty clear he’d gone off the PR reservation already in his public “war” with CBS and “Two and a Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre. And while it’s unclear what it will take to knock Sheen off the front page, he’s capitalizing on his notoriety the best way we know how in 2011: by blowing up Twitter with his own brand of nonsense, twitpics and hashtags.

If he can keep himself relevant for a few more days, Sheen stands to become Twitter’s biggest overnight sensation. After all, he literally just picked up 18,000 followers in the time it took me to write the last three paragraphs.

If that’s not the stuff of Tiger Blood and Adonis DNA, I don’t know what is. To paraphrase Sheen himself, if you can’t process it, stop trying. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Update: As of 7:35 am on Wednesday, Sheen’s tweeted several more times (and reached almost 700,000 followers), and it’s not actually clear that he’s ever gone to bed since joining the service. He may be on the drug called “Charlie Sheen” first and foremost, but I’m starting to sense that he’s addicted to Twitter as well.

Good luck curing that with your brain, Charlie…