They’ve invaded social networks one by one, from Instagram to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Hashtags are now known all around the world. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 and there is virtually no point in explaining what a hashtag is nowadays.

Yet it certainly is worth asking ourselves a rather uncomfortable question. Do we really need hashtags? Do they really help to promote a story, comment, photo or remark? And do they really bring in new revenues for companies?

Evidently, the answer is yes, with confirmation provided by the world of business, which has recently developed a whole new strand of marketing known as hashtag marketing.

All kinds of brands use hashtags to boost their online visibility in the hope of going viral.

Over a decade since the first appearance of the hashtag, the way in which they are used has changed. It’s no longer a simple label that allows content to appear in search engines, but something much more complex and powerful.

Whether it’s a common word, commercial brand, neologism, an intentional misspelling or a portmanteau (a combination of more than one word), hashtags can group users together into communities, strengthen brand popularity, ride the wave of a trend (the hot topic of the moment, the garment that everybody wants, a celebrity or an event) or even fuel the birth of brand-new trends.

Hashtags can also be used to amplify non-commercial communications campaigns, as we saw in the case of the ALS Association (the non-profit association that raises funds for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) with the #IceBucketChallenge hashtag. The craze of filming yourself while a bucket of ice water is thrown over you went viral and even earned its own Wikipedia page, resulting in over 450 million video posts from more than 150 counties and generating 1 billion views on YouTube and 10 billion on Facebook.

Ultimately, hashtag marketing is “a way to boost marketing based on word of mouth and activate your community”, according to Kyle Wong, the founder of the marketing company Pixlee.

Hashtags are a powerful and versatile digital tool, but one that must be used carefully in order to avoid inefficiency and slip-ups.

A great place to start is by looking for inspiration in a successful case study. We’re going to round up some of the most popular hashtags on Twitter in July and August 2018, according to Brandwatch. As you’ll see, in 90% of cases, hashtags were associated with positive sentiments.

Allbirds: not products but ideas

Last autumn, the hashtags #weareallbirds and #whereareallbirds contributed to the popularity of Allbirds, a minimalist sports footwear brand which uses exclusively natural materials. The hashtags, which were included on the official images released by the company and on photos snapped by customers, helped the Allbirds team to gauge the market and get a handle on the tastes and desires of the public. In this case, the hashtags did not refer to a specific product, but showed how people viewed the brand, sharing experiences (how and where the sneakers were being worn, i.e. during a trip or on a particular occasion), providing outfit inspiration and so on.

Banana Republic: all together now

“Marketing is at its best when the story is told by other people that form part of it,” according to Mary Alderete, the Chief Marketing Officer at Banana Republic. It’s one of the key concepts of modern-day advertising – hashtags are most successful when used in user-generated content which then goes viral. With over 80,000 hits on Google and 1.7 million impressions identified by Brandwatch, #ItsBanana has without doubt been a success. For clothing and accessories brands like Banana Republic and Allbirds, it’s definitely easier to harness the power of visual communication. But the idea of bottom-up engagement, using user-generated content, is valid for all.

Charmin: it’s never a bad time to tweet…

Hashtag marketing can also be used to make jokes or defy taboos. Four years ago, Procter&Gamble, the parent company of toilet paper company Charmin, decided to build its campaign around an undeniable truth – but something that conventional advertising would never have dared to focus on. What was it? The fact that we all spend quite a bit of time in the toilet – and we often take our phones or tablets in with us.

The #TweetFromTheSeat needs no explanation. Despite its playful and general nature, it worked a treat. Twitter users proved to be more than willing to get involved in the joke and poke fun at themselves by using the hashtag.

As it happens, Charmin is the same brand that featured proudly on the underpants of the Naked Cowboy, the street artist well known to visitors to Times Square.

Audi and Oreo: when a hashtag offers big winnings

What better way to generate engagement than by promising a prize? Competitions are certainly nothing new to the world of marketing, but the logic has changed. While once upon a time companies offered up winnings in exchange for loyalty (typically, you can to collect points or another type of proof of purchase in order to take part), visibility is the carrot being dangled in the digital era.

Back in 2011, the #WantAnR8 hashtag was used by Audi in North America for a competition in which a luxury sports car was placed up for grabs – but only for 24 hours. Thousands of people took part in the first edition, which was then followed by additional rounds. The #WantAnR8 hashtag has been tweeted over 75,000 times – and is still in circulation now. A similar principle was used for a very different type of product in the case of #OREODunkSweepstakes, a competition launched on Instagram by Oreo last year with the promise of a “VIP experience” in Los Angeles or New York for the winners. Thousands of people, including celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Shaquille O’Neal, showed off their creative sides by filming their original ways of dunking an Oreo.

The perfect hashtag or the boomerang effect?

Choosing the right hashtag – something appealing, fresh and engaging – can result in a significant boost to the visibility of a product or brand, helping to strengthen brand awareness and spreading a positive sentiment.

In other words, it can help to promote a product and boost popularity and revenues.

However, it’s important we don’t oversimplify the mission. Focusing on nothing but the bottom line is not an effective strategy. “Speaking unilaterally doesn’t work anymore,” explains Adobe Creative Cloud social media manager Amy Goldstein. “Consumers expect to have dialogue with brands. All points of contact contribute to the consumer journey.”

The fact that the target consumer is an active player in generating and spreading the message is, one the one hand, the very essence of hashtag marketing. Yet on the other hand it is a problematic factor, because it reduces the control of companies over communication.

And if that communication falls out of sync with the brand, the boomerang effect is waiting just around the corner.

Users have the right to comment and reply, and given the ironic nature of many social media exchanges, this might just turn the intended meaning of a campaign on its head.

This happened to McDonald’s, for example, when the company invited its customers to share their experiences at the fast-food chain using the hashtag #McDStories. Poor Ronald soon found himself inundated with controversial, unhelpful comments. One customer commented that the “lost 22 kilos in six months after giving up McDonald’s”, while another claimed they had “found a fake nail in their chips”.

It’s also important to take great care when attempting to create unique new hashtags. Plays on words and puns can often work well, but if they’re too complex or ambiguous they could be misunderstood or twisted. The best approach is to do some research on the internet and see whether an expression is already in use or associated with other meanings.

Another good piece of advice is to stay loyal to a hashtag over time and be consistent in the way you use it to explore any needs that haven’t yet been satisfied within a particular target market. Use them for online campaigns but also incorporate them into offline materials (press campaigns, fliers, signage etc.) to create a coherent cross-channel narrative.

Be experimental and creative, but make sure that you never lose sight of the point of a campaign – the marketing objective you’re aiming for. The best hashtags are original (or, even better, unique) and stick in the mind, generating engagement and shares, but the most important factor of all is that they should be relevant to the message you want to convey.