Why The Death Of Hashtags May Be A Good Thing For Marketers

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 8, 2016

Earlier this month, The Next Web released the results of a study it did on hashtags that wasn’t exactly good news for marketers who have grown dependent on using them. The negative take was obvious right from the headline: "We looked at 137,052 tweets and learned hashtags were worthless."

As TNW explained, hashtags on Twitter may be a victim of their own success: “While hashtags used to be one of the most exciting parts of Twitter, bots and spammers now target popular hashtags in their tweets, likes and shares.”

What that means is that the utility of hashtags — their ability to locate the signal amidst the noise — is now totally backfiring, adding noise to the signal. TNW's study of 137,052 tweets over a seven-day period found that hashtags are attracting massive amounts of spam, which “can cause businesses to make important decisions with bad or incomplete data.”



The TNW study is particularly interesting in the wake of a proclamation by Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag (he’s now the developer experience lead at Uber). In January, Messina declared in an essay on Medium that 2016 would be the Year of Conversational Commerce. As Messina explained it, we’ll all find it more and more normal to converse conversationally with brands over social media and messaging apps — with a bot increasingly representing the brand on individual platforms — and “over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling.”

That’s a deep insight: It means that things like hashtags that are meant to help computers understand us (e.g., hashtags are commonly used by social-listening software to track conversations around brands) will naturally fall by the wayside. We humans won’t have to engage in as much computerspeak (think of a hashtag as a computer-code-like accommodation) because every day computers are getting better and better at understanding humanspeak.

If hashtags have become spam magnets and the rise of intelligent bots is going to make hashtag use less and less necessary, what does that mean for consumers and marketers?

Regarding the consumer side of the equation, we conducted our own preliminary study to attempt to glean some insight. In August, 200 consumers were asked if they’ve ever shared an image of a branded product (e.g., a beverage, a beauty or grooming product, a snack or fast food, a vehicle, etc.) on social media — and if they did, if they used a hashtag to identify the product. Of those sharers of branded-product images, less than one-third (30%) did use a hashtag, but a majority (59%) didn’t — and 11% couldn’t remember if they did or not.

And tellingly, when asked “When looking at product photos in your social media stream from other users, how much do you typically pay attention to accompanying text (for example, a tweet or an Instagram caption)?,” nearly half (49%) said somewhat, 12% said very, 11% said not at all, while 28% said a lot.

Basically, consumers mostly don’t use branded hashtags — and when it comes to the text surrounding images in their social feeds, most simply aren’t paying close attention.

In other words, if hashtags are doomed, that might not be an entirely bad thing. Because it turns out consumers aren’t big fans of them to begin with.

While TNR’s study says that spam-magnet hashtags can result in “bad or incomplete data,” tepid consumer adoption of hashtags is also certainly giving marketers only part of the picture surrounding brand conversations in social media.

Again, if you’re a marketer who has depended on hashtags in social media campaigns, this all sounds like bad news. But the reality is, there are better technologies for listening to consumers’ brand conversations — from the bots that Chris Messina champions to image-recognition technology that can “see” what brands are being mentioned in social media photos without any help from captions or hashtags.

So there’s a silver lining to the death of the hashtag: If we stop relying on something that wasn’t even working all the well in the first place, we can focus on better, smarter ways of, yes, #connecting with #consumers.

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