Technology is our friend: Up for Discussion: The Hashtag in Advertising
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October 2, 2012

Up for Discussion: The Hashtag in Advertising

I have come across many campaigns in the last months that don’t use a URL anymore to open a feedback/more info channel for consumers, but a hashtag.
I am not quite sure what to make of this, although this would seem like a nice iconic way to show a development:
adidas TV spots over the years

I started working in a traditional advertising agency in 1996, being a hardcore onliner privately, and I can remember our fights to get the URL into the out-of-home or print ads. Even years later when I was working for I-D Media, many clients were reluctant to add a URL to their ads. As an agency depending on online success, we thought it was critical to get the URL across – we even wanted it on product packaging and any other communication space imaginable. And even if it seemed as if we had only our own success in mind, I still think it was the right recommendation. A few years ago, when Facebook was on the rise, but your fanpage reach was still well above 20%, many brands discovered that an anonymous website visitor was worth less than a Facebook fan who you could target several times. In my eyes, the value of a Facebook fan has decreased over the last years, but I still understand the concept to integrate your fanpage in ads. About the hashtag, I am not sure. I basically see two possibilities here.

1.      1.  Agencies push for hashtags because they are cool and modern and because they add a message as they speak for themselves
2.       2. Hashtags are used to involve interested users in Twitter conversations and build a temporary community around a brand/product topic

A lot of stuff speaks for the first theory. Hashtags are cool and some of my friends would use them like a multifunctional emoticon, even in emails or on Facebook where hashtags don’t have any function at all. They would write stuff like “my son just spilled orange juice on my ipad #parentingfail #nothisfault” – hashtags are often used to set everything you said before into a specific context without having to write full and potentially lame sentences – that must be very tempting for advertisers. For example, some Facebook (!) posts by adidas during the Olympics I would put right into this category as they used hashtags without any function (in images) and did not have campaigns or anything else going with those.
adidas Facebook (!) posts during Olympics

On the other hand, adidas ran a whole Originals campaign based on a hashtag #represent. Here, you would think that they want people to go on Twitter, check out the hashtag and maybe converse about their products and activities. They even booked the hashtag as “promoted” during this campaign. But of course, this term is used by a lot of people and on Twitter, you would get a chaotic mass of Tweets that would use this term – most of them having nothing to do with adidas Originals. Plus, adidas would not really take part in these conversations, answering direct tweets etc. – they simply have too many followers to really engage with them.
adidas Originals #represent campaign with promoted hashtag

Bottom line, I would use this and the other adidas activities to support the first theory – hashtags just being a cool way to communicate and not a truly functional part of any digital extension for an offline campaign.
On the other hand, having a look on Nike’s #makeitcount activity during EURO 2012 or the Olympics, they at least tried to build a community of some sort. The advantage is that no one would ever use #makeitcount as a hashtag in any normal tweet, so the results for this hashtag are quite more clearly dealing with Nike and its campaign. They even summarized them on a dedicated "football stream". And if someone really uses your campaign hashtag – isn’t this an amplifier for your offline campaign materials and might anchor your message better than any website visit?
Nike #makeitcount football stream

Spanish mobile phone provider and national team sponsor Movistar used #vamosespana during the EURO 2012, and here you can at least see some mechanical idea for their campaign – by involving your brand with a non-branded, probably most-used hashtag around the team you are sponsoring, you might get the message of your sponsoring across on Twitter. They embedded this hashtag in their digital communication around “La Roja”, publishing stylish infographics after every game with Twitter statistics about the most used hashtags, players who appeared most in tweets etc.
Movistar motivating their web visitors to tweet #vamosespana

Movistar stayed on top of the Spanish football Twitterverse during EURO 2012

There are many other examples for activities like these, for instance British Airways’ #homeadvantage campaign or Samsung with #TakePart2012 during the Olympics.
In some of those examples, I can see a hashtag being used to fulfill a defined and clear role within an overall communication setup. So there are examples for both theories, and I am not quite sure which one will prevail or if I would recommend to a client to end their TV spot with a hashtag instead of a URL or their Facebook fanpage.

I guess we will have to observe this trend a little longer, but I am keen on other opinions and theories. Is it just a trend and currently cool, pushed by agencies, or will we see more Twitter/offline connections that actually make sense?