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The Hashtag Hijack

 

Twitter hash-tags can work for or against a campaign — but organisations can take practical steps to increase the likelihood of success.

 

The opportunity for engagement and interaction that Twitter presents in just 140 characters is unprecedented. Its primary method of delivery, the humble mobile, has made it ubiquitous.

In the past 12 months, we have seen the Pope join Twitter and gain over 1.4 million followers. 123 heads of state and 100% of US senators use the platform. Portland’s research on Global Politics on Twitter, How The Middle East Tweets and How Africa Tweets has provided us with some insightful data about Twitter use around the globe. It is where the influencers gather to engage or simply to monitor the conversation.

For organisations whether governments, corporates or the not-for-profit sector, Twitter has opened up a whole new world. The barriers of the traditional media have been removed and a direct and personal interaction is possible with each and every citizen, customer or member.

Those of you on Twitter know there are certain conventions to follow. The RT means retweet, CC is copy to and the #tag indicates a conversation theme and allows people to follow that conversation. Campaigners often create a #hashtag so that they can own a conversation about a topic in order for it to trend and to track it.

But the #tag can work for and against campaigning organisations. Adversaries have found ways of making themselves known with the “#taghijack” which allows a Twitter user or group of users to protest or air their criticisms.

Over the last year, we have seen strategic and often costly social media campaigns provide opportunities for critics to engage in brand bashing. Here are a few examples:

Research In Motion’s sponsored Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve 2011 show and billboard in New York’s Times Square for its “Let’s #BeBold in 2012” campaign. While the firm claims to have received more than 35,000 “appropriate” responses, brandjackers were able to crowd out any positive reactions with wry tweets about the company. One representative tweet, by @ benihime33 read, “@blackberry You are boldly running your company into the ground #BeBold.”

The last year also saw the political class embrace #tags as a means to engage constituents around key issues. During the fiscal debate, President Obama urged citizens to use the #tag #my2k to tell their representatives how they would spend their estimated $2,200 in saved taxes if Congress agreed to extend tax cuts for the middle class. But the Heritage Foundation purchased the promoted tweet — a paid for media option on Twitter where advertisers pay for a theme or a keyword — for the term. The results was that any Twitter user who saw the #my2k #tag also saw the conservative group’s ad at the top of his or her page — in this case, a link to a blog post titled, ‘4 reasons why Warren Buffett is wrong on tax hikes!’

Starbucks also suffered a deeply embarrassing #tag hijack. Shortly after it was disclosed that the coffee firm was paying hardly any tax in the UK, the company rolled out its #sharethecheer promoted tweets to a less-than enthused Twitterverse with messages displayed on a big screen at the Natural History Museum in London. According to the Daily Telegraph, they forgot to moderate tweets which meant that ‘one tweet called Starbucks ‘tax dodging MoFos,’ while another opted for a more blunt message: ‘Hey Starbucks, PAY YOUR ******* TAX.’”

While these incidents illustrate the potential perils of social media campaigns, they should not put off organisations from harnessing the great opportunities to learn and to engage that social platforms afford. After all, 29% of Twitter’s active 100 million users follow a brand and 64% are more likely to buy from a brand they are following.

Sacrificing control of messages is an inherent risk that any brand must face when it chooses to go social. But there are steps that organisations can take in planning and executing their live campaigns to manage and reduce the risk of experiencing negative feedback and increase the likelihood of success.

 

 

Monitor: Knowing who is saying what about your organisation is not simply a strategy effective for pre-empting crises, it is a method of learning more about what your target audience wants from you. Pepsi-owned Gatorade recently established a social marketing Mission Control center in its Chicago headquarters to track online sentiment, as well as the trajectory of conversation on Gatorade and its product launches across the Internet.

The command centre is a room with six large monitors that feature real-time visualisations of the online activities of its sponsored athletes and social network users who engage with the company. It meant that when Gatorade launched the ‘Gatorade has Evolved’ campaign, featuring a song by artist David Banner, they were able to have a full-length version of the track ready to distribute to its Facebook and Twitter followers who expressed interest in it within 24 hours. Since establishing the centre, the company has managed to “increase engagement with its product education (mostly video) by 250% and reduce its exit rate from 25% to 9%.” Similar centres have been set up by Nestle, Red Cross and Dell.

Engage: While the 140-character confine of this social media platform does not lend itself easily to expressions of profound emotion, the platform is extraordinarily useful for relaying light messages and snappy one-liners. Brands that have traditionally relied on vague and open-ended mottos must operate more deftly in such an environment. Instead of allowing the consumer to lead the conversation by asking him or her to imbue a #tag like #sharethecheer with meaning, brands are most successful on Twitter when they direct users’ creativity or competitive energy towards a defined purpose.

Virgin America, for example, used Promoted Tweets as the sole means of announcing the airline’s expansion into Toronto, offering a 50%-off promotion for the first 500 travelers who booked flights from two California airports. The online competition was so successful that tickets sold out in three hours and Virgin America recorded its fifth-highest sales day in the airline’s history on the day its Promoted Tweets went live.

In the UK, clothing retailer Uniqlo applied another variation of the social media competition, creating a Twitter page called the “Lucky Counter,” which featured ten clothing items. The more people who tweeted about each piece of merchandise, the cheaper it became on Uniqlo’s website.

Respond: Even the most carefully thought out campaign and #tag use can backfire so it is important to maintain contingency plans that can be readily deployed to react to negative feedback. Best practice requires exploiting Twitter not just as a communications and marketing, but also a customer service tool.

When McDonalds introduced its #McDStories campaign to humanise the brand with personal stories about farmers early last year, the #tag was seized by critics who used it to hurt the brand. McDonalds’ social media director Rick Wion is credited with responding promptly by switching to #MeetTheFarmers; negative conversation subsided within minutes after the switch.

So what do these examples tell us? The risk averse will look at what’s gone wrong and continue to steer clear of engagement platforms like Twitter. The brave will see the huge opportunities and potential rewards and venture out and campaign in new ways.

But the lesson is that mapping-out every aspect of monitoring, engagement, integration, and response can increase protection against negativity. This means not only having a plan but testing it through simulation. The difference between a failed Twitter campaign and a winning Twitter campaign doesn’t lie in what comes after the #tag, it’s in what comes before it — the planning.

Jamie Silverstein is a Researcher in Portland’s New York office, where he provides research and analysis on strategic communications campaigns for clients including The Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations.