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What Brands Need to Know Before Hijacking a Hashtag

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Since the beginning of the advertising and marketing age, brands have always wanted to be part of our lives—from leisure and social activities to family time.

As new media like radio and television emerged, strategies for becoming an integral part of our lives began to develop. These mediums inspired new techniques like sponsored programs, brought to listeners and viewers by a specific sponsor.

One of the most famous radio plays of all time, which still remains relevant today in terms of the “gotcha” moment that often occurs with well orchestrated real-time marketing, is Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio play, which was so life-like that it sent citizens running from their homes fearing the end of the world. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), that broadcast had no sponsor.

Communications and technology have come a long way since then. We can do research on the Internet and scrutinize what we discover; we can discuss what we think on social media and analyze the actions of brands down to the most minute detail.

This represents a huge opportunity for brands to become more genuinely integrated with our lives. At Hootsuite, we often hear from customers who want to understand what’s trending in real time, so they can create content that is relevant and timely to benefit from a trend or live event.

One of the ways brands have tried to achieve this is by “trendjacking” or “hashtag-hijacking,” which is the act of using a hashtag that is currently trending on its own to promote their brand or product.

When trendjacking goes wrong

Trendjacking often has negative consequences for brands, especially when they either blindly or blatantly use trends about tragedies to peddle their wares. Examples of this include a major clothing company promoting their “Aurora” dress when they saw the word trending after the Colorado tragedy without checking to see why the word was getting attention, and a major retailer using #Sandy to sell clothing and housewares during while Hurricane Sandy battered the east coast of the United States.

Trendjacking should be avoided because:

  • It doesn’t feel natural (because it isn’t).
  • It has the potential to do more harm than good.
  • It isn’t sensitive to the realities of the trend.
  • It tries to directly sell on platforms that are meant for social interactions.

Why real-time marketing is better than trendjacking

A better strategy than blatant trendjacking is a more thoughtful form of real-time marketing, best personified by the famous Oreo image and Tweet from the 2013 Super Bowl, posted in real time when a blackout occurred during the game. Be ready during a big event and jump into the conversation in a fun, relevant, and (most importantly) non-offensive way. Direct selling is also frowned upon.

Another example involved a certain British royal living it up in Las Vegas, which spread throughout the world media. In response, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority posted a “royal decree” of their own using the hashtag #knowthecode, a reference to the tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Everyone is keen to be part of the larger conversations that occur throughout social networks. Real-time marketing still represents a risk, but it differs from trendjacking in that:

  • It is trend-conscious.
  • It is relevant.
  • It doesn’t directly sell.
  • It seeks to build on an existing conversation.
  • It steers into the wind and goes with the flow.
  • It works most of the time.

Even real-time marketing can suffer from the same pitfalls as trendjacking and the line between the two can blur significantly as shown in this insightful collection of branded attempts.

Opinions differ greatly—and often—about which real-time marketing examples are good and which cross the line. This is the greatest challenge for brands, and why it’s best to have things thoroughly reviewed in the context of recent events.

Budweiser’s recent label change campaign created an incredible maelstrom of negative feedback. In the context of recent events and general sentiment it would have been apparent to those reviewing the campaign that it was not going to be well-received.

Real-time marketing is now also being seen in widespread social movements that revolve around a viral trend or meme, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This is sensitive territory and can have major implications for brands. The Budweiser example really touched a nerve with a very top-of-mind subject (consent and sexual assault) with its reference to removing the word “no” from your vocabulary. This is the result of a social movement and conversation that either wasn’t considered by the team or was overlooked prior to printing what was likely millions of labels.

6 best practices for real-time marketing

To ensure your brand avoids any potential negative impact of real-time marketing while reaping the benefits of its possibilities, follow these best practices:

  1. Don’t try to sell—avoid showing your product.

  2. Be sensitive to the social cause and the core audiences involved.

  3. Don’t try to change the narrative—use the voice of the people.

  4. Let the cause take center stage and let your brand stand back. Way back.

  5. Don’t reuse old assets. Be conscious of the history the assets being used.

  6. If you are apprehensive in anyway wait for the dust to settle.