The Web is evolving very rapidly and in a fascinating way into a semantic Web, in which search engines will converge and “machines” will be able to analyze and index feelings: real time.
It’s the latter, which gives hashtags the potential to reach all industries and age groups – and which was doubtless a factor in advertising-savvy Facebook’s recent decision to adopt them.
A lot of small changes in the social media arena are happening under the radar. Only a few people have noticed some of the recent changes that Google, LinkedIn and Facebook are leading and even less have realized the impact that these changes can have on every aspect of our life.
In this article I write about some of these changes with the # Hashtag as the main topic. In this post you will learn about the origin of hashtags, its evolution and the role that they may have on the Web 3.0 as a link data identifier. You will also learn about how hashtags are being used commercially and some considerations that you should keep in mind when creating your next communications campaign. Hashtags are on the rise – and every digital marketing professional should know how to use them.
How hashtags made trends tangible – the Origin of Hashtags
So, just what are hashtags? Simply put, they are a topic organisation system, first conceived in 2007 by Twitter user Chris Messina, and later adopted by Twitter as one of its unique characteristics. They allow users to engage in real-time conversations and to create topics and group their own tweets with others on a similar theme. They can also be used as a symbol of belonging to a group with the same interest or opinion and a popular – or trending – hashtag can also indicate that something is trendy, cool, or topical.
Using hashtags, Twitter made it easier for users to initiate, find and participate in trending discussions. On any given day, the most popular hashtags will relate to the biggest news stories of the day. From there, it’s just a small leap to realised that hashtags can also be a way of making content you wish to promote more visible – hence their value to marketers.
How hashtags became social media’s biggest icon
The hashtag has rapidly become iconic across numerous social media channels. YouTube, Tumblr and LinkedIn have all followed in Twitter’s footsteps, and their involvement has contributed to the evolution of hashtag use. For example, Instagram’s use of hashtags to label photos eventually led to their informal use on Facebook to attach humorous or emotional context to a post. As a result, some of the most popular hashtags are things like #LOL, #OMG and #FAIL.
And now, Facebook. After years of resistance, the social media giant has finally conceded the hashtag’s dominance over social media.
Interestingly, Facebook has also recently added features such as graphsearch, a semantic social search engine which allows users to search for interaction opportunities by topic, indicating a strategic step towards Web 3.0.
This move is set to change two things: Firstly, the way individuals use Facebook, which has always been a space for private sharing in contrast with Twitter’s more public-facing remit. Secondly, the adoption of hashtags marks Facebook’s entry into the world of real-time marketing and advertising campaigns, which has previously been Twitter’s stronghold. Digital marketers now have a wider playing field available to them, with greater scope for cross-channel integration. In short, hashtags represent a great opportunity – provided you know how to use them.
Hashtags beyond social media – their role in the fast upcoming Web 3.0
Having become an established part of the online experience, hashtags are now ready to expand their role beyond social media. As linked data identifiers, they have a crucial part in the move towards the Semantic Web or Web 3.0.
For example, hashtags can help machines understand what is trending, who is liking the trending topic, where it is trending, when is trending and at some point maybe even why: all of this in real time. And because of the trend for using hashtags to give emotional or humorous context to posts, they can also help machines understand and process people´s feelings. This represents a huge leap towards a semantic web environment where machines can analyse meaning. Google has already started using hashtags as part of its semantic web strategy, by enabling Google+ to automatically assign hashtags to posts.
Harnessing the commercial value of hashtags
Hashtags clearly have the ability to help marketers create better experiences and make stronger, real time connections with users. But how do you make them a viable part of your marketing campaign? As many brands have discovered, simply tacking a hashtag onto the end of your advertising isn’t necessarily the way. You need to think about the way people use hashtags – and what will prompt them to select yours.
The first step is to hit upon a phrase that people will want to use in their tweets. Edge Shave Gel picked the hashtag #soirritating for a 2010 campaign and raised awareness by seeking out Twitter users who’d used the hashtag with a view to sending them rewards.
Another option is to give people an incentive. Domino’s Pizza UK achieved this when they used the hashtag #letsdolunch in conjunction with a special offer – for every tweet containing the hashtag they reduced the price of a pizza by a penny. Uniqlo also ran a similarly successful campaign in the UK.
Allowing people to share experiences and ideas can also be a powerful tool. At Saxo Markets UK we just did this with our recent #FXDebates campaign, which raised brand awareness and conversions by using hashtags to generate real-time conversations around trending topics and facilitate debate among FX experts.
Taking a cross-channel approach is another way of generating success. Nike took this approach for its 2012 #makeitcount campaign, asking people to share content across Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and tying the hashtags into their wider advertising campaign – a strategy which worked so well, it’s still going strong in 2013.
What is the future of # Hashtags?
At present, all the signs point to hashtags becoming even further embedded in popular culture. Facebook’s adoption of hashtags and the ability to make them public or private, also means that users are about to get a lot more savvy, and opens up the possibility for users to engage with brands using hashtags, rather than by posting directly on brand pages.
Most importantly, hashtags are likely to emerge as strong identifiers in the semantic web. In the same way that apps have adapted to user habits, so that instead of always using a Facebook app to upload photos to Facebook, people can use apps like Instagram, Tumblr, web search seems set to evolve into a single dominant a search engine, where hashtags are used to find a specific topic across the web regardless of whether it is trending on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Google+, Twitter, or any other channel that may emerge.
The web is about to become much more intelligent, real time and integrated and there is no doubt that hashtags have a key role to play in this development. Looking beyond hashtags, I believe that a UPIC (unique personal identification code) will emerge, which will accompany #hashtags with data about a user´s gender, socio-graphics information, their online status, moods and so on. It will be up to the user of course to decide what to make public and what to keep private. Get ready for a very intelligent web 3.0.
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