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The Hashtag Problem

Social media marketers of the world, we need to talk.

You might have noticed that common hashtags are pretty much useless now. If you consider the top performing hashtags from any industry and follow it on a platform like Twitter or Instagram, you would find it littered with posts by marketers and content creators, not regular users.

The whole idea of a hashtag is to group similar content in one folder. And that would have been a good way for marketers to reach out to users that were posting relevant content. If someone is looking to buy something, they would use the hashtag and marketers could find buyers that way. The assumption is that it is the users that declare themselves open to business and we reach out to them.

But the total opposite has happened. It is marketers that oversaturate hashtags now. What’s the idea there? That a potential buyer will click on a hashtag and choose from all the marketers there? This sounds so noble. It seems like the realization of the virtual, spaceless market the early users of the Internet imagined. A consumer sits in the middle of a busy street of products from all over the world and picks exactly what he wants.

Here’s why that image is false.

First off, the average consumer does not know how to use hashtags like that. They do not think of hashtags as a grouping mechanism. Do not believe me? Look at how your non-marketer friends use hashtags.

#They #Think #Hashtags #Are #A #Space #For #Afterthoughts #And #PassiveAggressive #Comments

Second, there is a problem with how we use hashtags. We can’t even agree on which hashtags should be more popular. Without consulting your hashtags analytics, guess which of the following is more popular:

#flower v #flowers
#fit v #fitness
#game v #games v #gaming

If we can’t even agree on what to name our virtual, spaceless market (the name is doubly important because you need to know it in order to be there), how are consumers to find right ones? Hashtags are kind of like the Floo network from Harry Potter. If you say the wrong name, you will end up in a completely different world than what you wanted.

Also, we can’t maintain the quality of content on these hashtags. Again, the proof is visible. Go look at any popular hashtag on Instagram right now, and tell me you do not feel second-hand embarrassment. There you are, spending hours on an Adobe platform — if you are like me and less skilled, on Canva or the like — to create good looking pictures for your clients. And you find your product next to a pixellated image with 100 words in five different fonts and aesthetics that are an affront to all known color schemes and the human visual sensation.

If indeed this virtual market analogy was real, it’d be one good shop encircled by many horrible ones. Are we saying consumers will spend the time to find the perfect place? As marketers, we know how small the window of opportunity to grab consumer attention is – we know the bounce rates for most of our websites are less than a minute. Consumers will not waste their time going through every content on a hashtag to find the best one. And this short window is exactly why solving the aforementioned problems by simply using all the hashtags we can think of does not work either.

So, what’s a good social media manager to do?

I think there has to be a correction of some kind at some point. I see three things happening, two of them “organic” and passive, and the third one active.

First, digital marketers will have to stop relying on hashtags. Our job is rarely to simply raise impressions and following. It’s to help our clients sell. Hashtags, as I have pointed out already, are helpful to get the “likes” up but not as great at improving sales. So, we’ll hopefully stop being impressed by high follower count, and instead shift our attention to using other tools like social listening (which, in my head, is like hashtags in that they group conversations in one place, but has the advantage of filtering out marketers).

Second, we’ll have to get more creative. In a way, most of us have already accepted this approach. Now, instead of relying on hashtags to sell, we’re using ideas from behavioral science to predict consumer behavior based on limited information. In a way, the deplorable deeds of Cambridge Analytica was an exhibition of this potential. Now, if we can just agree to not do what they did – i.e., influence elections — we can ethically use unintrusive consumer data to predict what kind of people are likely to buy your products and reach them via social media. It’s more than basic demographics research. Much more.

But these are just very passive methods. The one lesson that I’ve learned over the last few years is that social media’s greatest contemporary problems, especially in cases like Facebook and YouTube’s influence in the POTUS 2016 elections, would partly go away if we observed self-censorship. In the context of this op-ed, it means marketers agree to stop saturating hashtags with irrelevant, low-quality content. Let the hashtags bazaar heal and become what they should be: consumers in the virtual (non-)space telling us what they want and need. Gentleman’s agreement? Huzzah!

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Oleso is a sub-brand of MLC and is focused on delivering amazing results through the power of social media.