Why the #Hashtag is Dead
Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, once said of his favorite restaurant:
"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
I have the same feeling about the now-overused hashtag. It's so popular, nobody uses it (correctly) anymore. So, what happened and why should you care?
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE #?
To understand what happened to our beloved hashtag, you must first understand it's original intent. And it was a good one!
It all began with Twitter. Since launching in 2006, Twitter has become a constant beehive of activity with billions of 140-character-or-less messages sent out annually. It's startling to consider the numbers.
Every second, on average, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter, which corresponds to over 350,000 tweets sent per minute, 500 million tweets per day and around 200 billion tweets per year. On average, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on twitter every second.
That's a lot of Tweeting! How are you supposed to make sense of it all and find Tweets you really want to read? That was the question originally answered by the use of the hashtag. It was brilliant. Take a rarely used character and use it as a way to assign a theme to a Tweet. The first tweet was used to connect people attending a tech conference (of course!). And it grew from there. If you were a fan of the New York Yankees, for example, you could post tweets with #Yankees. Then, people who also loved the Bronx Bombers could easily search for #Yankees and find your Tweet along with all others using that designation. So simple!
Who Killed It?
Marketers. Celebrities. Comedians. Probably you.
Like so many things on the internet, and the internet itself, that started out good but then got into the hands of overzealous marketers, the hashtag quickly got abused. Cunning strategists and the new wave of social media marketers discovered that they could "connect" with like-minded consumers by following hashtag activity...and even jumping in on it.
So, you go Tweeting about the latest #Yankees game and low-and-behold, you get a message from a Bobblehead retailer who wants to sell you a Derek Jeter keepsake. That's pretty innocent, even useful if you are in the Bobblehead collecting mood. However, it wasn't long before every major company was watching hashtags, using a multitude of newly-created social media monitoring tools, looking for the opportunity to sell you something. Coke, Nike, Home Depot, Bank of America...it didn't matter the brand. If they saw a hashtag that was remotely relevant, they pounced. It was about that time I lost my short-lived love of Twitter...and I'm a marketer!
Once the hashtag made its debut and started showing up in lots of Tweets (and on other platforms, none less successfully than Facebook), celebrities started using them. Comedians started using them. Your Instagram friends started using them. Heck, even you might have used them. At this point, it was all over the for the effectiveness of the hashtag. People started using #hashtags in all sorts of creative and funny ways, but not anywhere near the way that they were intended.
I have a good friend who recently sent an Instagram photo out with this one:
I would venture to guess that no one has every searched for that hashtag. She used it to convey more information about the photo of her two children, but that could have easily been message content. It didn't need to be a hashtag. But that's how far from the original intention hashtags have come. And it gets worse.
People started populating their messages with so many hashtags, the original message lost most of its meaning. Here's an example from this week, again from a well-intentioned friend:
And it gets worse.
Have you ever had someone use a hashtag in an email or text message? Think about that. What's the point? No one else is reading those messages and certainly no one is searching them! But there it is, in all it's printed, useless glory. And yet, it still gets worse.
Have you ever had someone say "hashtag" before a word or phrase? When that started happening, and it still does, it was the end. Ok, media icons like Tonight Show Host Jimmy Fallon or radio personality Howard Stern...if they say "hashtag" it could inspire thousands of messages using that hashtag. (Though Fallon knows the # thing has been overdone.) But, when a commoner like the rest of us says it, well, that's the signal that the hashtag has morphed into a cultural phenomenon which has sucked all the usefulness out of it. #byebyehashtageffectiveness
It's been said, all good things come to an end. Is there anything we can learn from this, though?
For one, sometimes a good, simple idea is so good that it gets too popular. Coffee was a simple drink once. There used to be only a few kinds of toothpaste. One singing contest on TV seemed like it was enough. But then these things all got popular and it was believed that you could never have too much of a good thing. So we wind up with 11,100 Starbucks stores internationally, 27 varieties of Crest (yes, that's a real number!) and I don't care to look at how many singing contests we have now. The point is that when things gets popular beyond anyone's wildest dreams, those dreams can sometimes become a nightmare for consumers.
Another thing to learn, or understand, is how much pressure there is on companies and their marketing/sales teams to jump on the next big thing that will provide even a slight competitive advantage. Yet so many of my clients hesitated regarding hashtags. They didn't see the point (they didn't "get" Twitter either but that's for another day). They should have....because it worked, for a while. Coke has been noted for implementing a social media team early on and connecting with consumers via social platforms. The hashtag was just one tool that they capitalized on and had some success building their brand. Competitors paid attention, though, and soon any advantage they had was lessened greatly through mimicry. So, Coke had to move on to whatever the next great thing would be, likely only to watch everyone catch up and level the playing field again.
But my advice? Be like Coke. Try things that seem like they could provide an advantage, even if short-lived. You could have used hashtags to build your brand, find out who was talking about key issues and join community discussions about issues related to your business. But you probably didn't. The lesson...leading is usually better than following.
You can still use hashtags. And they can still be effective in marketing provided that you know your target market is using them the right way. However, I can't tell you how many people have asked me, because I'm in marketing, what a hashtag even is. I try to explain it to them but, my heart's just not in it. I wind up saying that it really doesn't matter any more. Like Yogi might say, "Nobody uses them anymore because they are all over the place."