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When Hashtags Become Bashtags

Kerry Hadaway By Kerry Hadaway

“how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

That was the first ever use of a hashtag back in 2007. It took a while to catch on, but we all know the ubiquitous little symbol now. While some brands have put the hashtag to good use, some have gotten black eyes by not understanding the environment of social media.

In 2012, McDonald’s created #McDStories, hoping customers would share positive experiences about the brand. It was shut down after only two hours when Twitter users shared complaints rather than supportive stories.

The NYPD tried to find new ways to “communicate effectively” with the community. #myNYPD provided an uncensored exchange that did nothing to elevate the department’s reputation and was a PR nightmare.

On March 23rd, SeaWorld, still battling the effects of the award-winning 2013 film Blackfish, launched a massive campaign including TV, print, and digital. The campaign asked followers to tweet their questions to the theme park using #AskSeaWorld, and in turn the company would answer. Shortly after the launch of the campaign, SeaWorld found themselves trending at the top of Twitter, and not in a good way.


SeaWorld even tried some aggressive defense, suggesting that detractors were “trolls and bots.” This set of a new wave of negative response.

The good news for SeaWorld, and all victims of social media backfire, is that the social media world moves swiftly. Attention spans are short, and after a run at the top, #AskSeaWorld quieted to a low roar.

So why rehash this hashtag miscalculation? To learn from history. Sure, there are some common sense rules when it comes to hashtags: keep it short, make it memorable, proofread, and don’t #over #tag your tweet. But how do you make a hashtag really work for you? Some of the best examples come from brands that have learned to navigate this social macrocosm.


Toys“R”Us partnered with Shaquille O’Neal and the Toys for Tots Foundation in 2014 to create #PlayItForward. Customers were encouraged to take selfies as they donated toys and post them to a microsite. Toys“R”Us then matched the donations. The simple hashtag that both explained itself and made people feel good proved to be a perfect partner for Toys“R”Us, Shaq, and the Toys for Tots Foundation, which raised $5.8 million.


Whether it’s an actual response or a tangible reward, give your audience something for their effort. In 2013, Travelocity had a successful social campaign with their Roaming Gnome; they knew from this experience that their customers liked direct engagement with the Gnome. They also knew people liked free travel. So in 2014, armed with two grand prize trips to give away, they created the #IWannaGo campaign that had customers tweeting their dream destinations directly to the Gnome. In three months, they matched the previous years’ impressions and increased their following 118%.


Samsung Mobile US did something unprecedented in 2013. At South by Southwest (SXSW), Galaxy owners were able to charge their phones with the tweet #PowerOn. Well, not exactly. Samsung was able to increase engagement and improve the festival experience by bringing an offline response to an online request. During the festival, Galaxy owners could tweet #PowerOn, and within seconds, a bike messenger arrived to swap their flagging battery for a fully charged one. This cool, simple generosity was rewarded with extensive coverage all over social media, to the tune of 36.6 million positive brand impressions.


Having learned a tough lesson with #McDStories, McDonald’s made a comeback with its Our Food, Your Questions campaign. The company agreed to answer tough questions head-on, and it worked. They answered in real time with straightforward, believable answers. When asked, “Why do you have 17 ingredients in your fries?” their answer was refreshingly honest and direct.

McDonald’s corrected course, understanding their audience and finding a level of transparency that their audience respected.


With products like Always and Pantene, P&G took on a social responsibility to make a difference in the world. It was a simple idea: change the perception of #LikeAGirl from being an insult to being a compliment. Though they never mention soap or lotion, you’re left with an emotional affinity for the brand and the products.

No matter what the intent, the Twittersphere will determine how a hashtag will ultimately be used. So plan out those hashtags and test them on people outside of your department and outside of your organization and with different ideologies. And listen to the response.

So don’t be like these guys: