By David Jenkin

Hashtags act as a handle for whatever is circulating in the public consciousness, and their global proliferation continues. By analysing the trending landscape we’re provided with windows into a range of avenues, from political sentiments to cultural tensions to consumer behaviour. The amplified reach of a trending hashtag provides a massively swollen audience for any posts that use it, and therein lies the opportunities.

Not any tag will do

However, before any marketers rush to insert whatever tag is most popular at that particular moment, a great deal of care and consideration is warranted. Using the wrong hashtag for the wrong reason, i.e. for the purposes of marketing, can backfire spectacularly and result in harm to the brand’s reputation. The brand itself could even find itself on the trending list, where nobody wants to be for the wrong reasons.

Digital marketing consultant and online safety activist for Go Social SA, Jacqui Mackway-Wilson, offers a nugget of valuable advice when she cautions; “Make sure that you are very familiar with the context for any tags you plan to use and ensure that it is a good fit from a brand messaging point of view.”

A good example of a brand that failed to do this is the US pizza franchise DiGiorno, which in 2012 tweeted: “#WhyIStayed: You had pizza,” before checking what the #WhyIStayed hashtag was about. Kevin Short, editor of The Huffington Post, writes, “Carelessly, it didn’t notice that the hashtag is currently being used for people to hold a conversation about domestic violence and share stories of surviving abuse.” DiGiorno quickly apologised with an admission that they hadn’t done their homework.

More recently, the UK DIY store Homebase drew ire after using the #RIPPRINCE tag in a self-promoting tweet that had nothing to do with the death of the musician.

Cherylann Smith, digital innovation and social media strategist, emphasises the importance of having an actual strategy rather than just ‘plugging in’ to any trend that is already underway, especially if the world is celebrating a joy or mourning a tragedy, unless the brand is directly connected to the event.

“This can be seen as you trying to gain followers in an irrelevant setting,” she says. It’s important to only join relevant conversations, she adds, but better if the brand can lead and own the conversation by creating a tag of their own.

The regulars

There are many hashtags that make a regular appearance on the trending list and this affords marketers a bit of time for preparation. These regular hashtags are usually fixed to a specific day of the week, such as #MondayMotivations or #ThrowbackThursday. Although they usually have a fun tone, marketers still need to be cautious.

Mackway-Wilson says brands must be very careful not to come across as ‘spammy’ when using these tags. “Try to be either entertaining or humorous or highly inspirational with top quality content if you’re going to employ this tactic,” she says, “Aim to delight and surprise, to inform and inspire and/or educate. Don’t let your use of a popular tag fall into the sea of sameness with regards to content.”

Targeting markets

If a brand is not multi-national, aiming for global reach with a post could be considered over-reaching. For this reason, localised brands need only look at what is trending locally, and a service like Trendsmap is very useful for that. Not everything is universal and brands can use that by showing they truly understand the region they cater to and the people that live there. Niche trends like #MusicMonday also provide opportunities to reach a specific audience with relevant content.

Smith concludes that brands need to move away from traditional approaches to marketing and focus on remaining human, building conversations that connect their communities. “Remaining remarkable in a connected world by being interesting rather than interruptive is essential,” she says.

What are your thoughts on trending hashtags? Which have been your favourites? Tell us below.