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Hurricane #Hashtag Engulfs AdLand

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Let's take a look at the digital media forecast. Well, Hurricane #Hashtag is upon us and from all the data that the media-orologists are crunching, it looks like #Hashtag could be with us until, at the very least, the Twitter IPO.

The # symbol has been expanding in its adoption since August 2007, when Chris Messina first suggested the use of it on Twitter. Now the # is everywhere in media and marketing; from TV shows (#gameofthrones), movies (#Gravity), events (#sensation), to political debates (#shutdown) and even brand campaigns (#backtoblue for the Gap). The # has become so mainstream that it was recently satirized by the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake.

As the #Hashtag continues to grow in popularity, it is being employed by adland on multiple fronts.

The # amplifies awareness campaigns and provides them a dose of engagement. Hashtags featured prominently in the 2013 Super Bowl Ad extravaganza. According to Sysomos, 50 percent of the brands that advertised during the Super Bowl suggested a hashtag for people to tweet. Interestingly, two brands that used their names as the hashtags #doritos and #CalvinKlein generated the most use. According to Twitter, TV commercials using hashtags averaged 1.6 times more brand mentions in social than those without.

Several brands are using hashtags in an effort to be culturally relevant. Honda ran a TV campaign this summer for a clearance sale that tried to have a Honda saleswoman humorously comment about a client's need for a new car. Emerging companies like attempt to associate with the hashtag lingo by running a campaign that marries high-energy audio with images of shoes that have hashtags overlayed that refer to the moment or the feeling of wearing the shoes (ex: #backtoschool, #gorgeous, or #VIP).

Other brands are using hashtags to drive to promotions or contests. Wendy's just finished a promotion for the return of the Asiago Ranch and Smoky Honey Mustard Flatbread Grilled Chicken sandwiches. They asked users to take a funny six- to 15-second videos with one of the Wendy's flatbread sandwiches and share it on their Instagram or Vine account. Those who tagged the video with #6SecondsFlat were entered to win one of the weekly $6,000 drawings.

Probably the most activity is happening as the #Hashtags on Twitter and Instagram are used as the de facto second screen for TV viewing. In a straw poll of our office staff of 20-somethings, more than 70 percent actively participated in #Hashtag discussions during their favorite sporting events like NHL and NFL games and favorite shows like the season finale of Breaking Bad. Brands participate actively in these trending hashtags, some actively get promoted.

While the spread of #Hashtag usage by adland increases each day, one wonders if the strategies and plans involving the # have been fully developed and integrated into other communications efforts. Adding hashtags to drive awareness and engagement has merit and certainly there are some early success stories. But to achieve success with an awareness and light engagement goal requires the brand to be truly active social community managers and participants. Simply throwing on the # won't work. There needs to be consistent engagement with the # group. The attempts to be culturally relevant by using the # seem contrived and follow-on a long cheesy legacy of companies that printed @ symbols everywhere simply because they felt that it made them more digital. The promotions # offer an interesting avenue to generate an organized discussion and perhaps generate some virality but these efforts need to be tethered to a well orchestrated and integrated effort. Many seem like they are siloed efforts. The second screen participation offers so many opportunities but, as listed, one needs to avoid making banal branded chatter in these trending #'s and add to the discussion.

The #Hashtag also appears to be catching marketers in mid-step as they struggle to know how to incorporate into TV, print, and paid online efforts. Right now, the closing logo tags of a TV spot are quite often accompanied by the listing of a URL, a Facebook icon, Twitter icon, Pinterest icon, and a #Hashtag. Advertisers are taking a scatter-gun approach to where they want to drive traffic and are essentially making sure that they are covered no matter what the consumer's next step might be. The #Hashtag does offer an interesting alternative to being driven to a website or a social platform brand page to like or follow by simply highlighting a thread where brands and consumers can participate in the dialogue.

#Hurricane Hashtag is right on top of us now. Watch the #'s closely over the next several months as they evolve and consumer usage of them becomes fully developed.

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