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Hashtags on social media are a force to be reckoned with. Not only do they increase engagement and facilitate discussion in online communities, they can make headlines across the world— but not always for the reasons intended.


It's an open, transparent world

Take the New York Police Department's recent #myNYPD campaign as one example.

What started out as a way to engage the broader New York community in the work of their police force quickly became an opportunity to vent about perceived police harassment and brutality. Among the tweets tagged with #myNYPD were powerful reminders of serious errors and even deaths involving NYPD members, such as this:


So why did things go wrong?

There are many reasons why this particular hashtag rebelled. Chief among these is this one simple but powerful truth: social media doesn't like to be told how to respond.

Hashtags are operating in a vastly different media ecosystem to 'traditional' media.

1. It's a global audience: Most social channels are global and allow anyone to engage and comment. The Kinship Digital blog states that #myNYPD had significant engagement outside New York State, and outside the U.S.:

  • On Twitter close to one-third of engagement originated outside the U.S.
  • Fewer than one-third of tweets originated from within New York State

2. 'Dislikers' are invited to join the conversation: This Adweek post added significant insight into the kinds of Tweeters using the myNYPD hashtag. Not only were they more interested than the average Tweeter in topics such as Occupy Wall Street (180 times) and Wikileaks (128 times), there were generally more interested in social justice and liberal/left-leaning politics (both 35 times). Unlike Facebook where you have more control over what gets published on your page, a Twitter hashtag can quickly become part of a very different conversation with no way to shut it down or delete other people's posts.

3. Every issue, brand, organisation or personality has its negative sides: nobody and nothing is perfect. So, social media engagement is less about editing out criticism and far more about dealing with it in a considered and useful way. Here's to NYPD Deputy Chief Kim Royster's response to the #myNYPD backlash:  "Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city."

My Royster is right. And, even though it's likely that #myNYPD will continue to attract its fair share of critical posts, the conversation is now in one place where the NYPD can monitor it. Just imagine if they take it seriously and use it as a tool for good…


What makes a good hashtag?

We know that using at least one hashtag increases engagement in that tweet by 100% if you're an individual, or 50% if you're a brand. We also know that one or two hashtags is optimal— too many decreases engagement (although Instagram may well be a notable exception to this rule).

A good hashtag on any social media platform has at least these four attributes:

  • Context: Hashtags work best when they relate to a live event, TV show/live broadcast or are useful within an existing, active online community. Unless you can provide context for the conversation you're trying to start, users will start their own.
  • Relevance: Self-serving hashtags that push the brand's point-of-view and objectives are bound to spark a backlash if customer experiences don't stack up. After all, consumers don't want to be working to promote your brand for you unless there's something in it for them or they genuinely believe you're amazing. If the latter is true, you probably won't have to ask anyway. The #SPCSunday tag is a great example of relevance, timeliness, community and context coming together to make a real difference.
  • Community: Want to take part in a social media Q&A or use a hashtag to start a conversation? It pays to build a community first. When people are invested in your idea, product or cause, they might just join in and engage with you positively.
  • (Relative) Uniqueness: always check if a hashtag you're thinking of using is already in use and if that existing use affects how you wish to use it. It's possible to have the same hashtag for different conversations, but doing a quick Twitter or Google search will avoid major #fails. If you're starting a recurring conversation or event it's best to find a unique hashtag to go with it. #QandA is still a great example of starting and managing a hashtag.


Examples of #fails

If you take a look at each of these examples of failed hashtag campaigns you'll notice that none of them created context for their campaign, nor did they target their requests for engagement so that they were relevant to an existing community of interest.

  • #Australiansforcoal: started by the Minerals Council of Australia, the @Austs4Coal account received plenty of engagement in their hashtag, virtually all of it negative. Bearing in mind that the Morewell coal mine fire had been raging for 45 days just before this campaign was started, this # provided fuel for an entirely different conversation.
  • #bringbackbarry: just 20 signatures were raised for a petition to bring back former Premier Barry O'Farrell as a result of this hashtag. Started by political commentator Peter van Onselen it petered out as the tweeting public rethought the wisdom of calling for the return of a Premier who'd resigned after giving false evidence to ICAC.
  • #askjpm  and #askbolt: both of these examples of using 'ask' in a hashtag show how important it is to consider the channel's audience before calling for questions. Both Andrew Bolt and the JP Morgan brand have developed a significant community of dissent around them, and this showed when they invited questions without building momentum around their hashtag with supporters first.
  • #McDStories: as images of dirty McDonalds restaurants and poorly made burgers flooded this hashtag, one thing was clear: this was going to have a life of its own. The hashtag is still being used to share horror stories of eating in the restaurants worldwide.


Tools to avoid making a hash of things

Find context and community with tools such as:

  • (no # needed)


Justine Webse is a writer, and a marketing and content strategist. She has more than 10 years’ experience as an internal communications consultant and has worked with organisations large and small all over the world. To find more about her and read her blog, visit