Hashtags are ubiquitous, powerful tools that provide value for users and marketers alike on multiple social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Using hashtags (which are created by inserting a # symbol before a topic) and handles/screen names (which are created using an @ sign before a topic), users and marketers can track topics of interest and initiate and sustain focused conversations in real-time. This is why brand marketers are increasingly using hashtags in their ad campaigns (both online and off), thus making the hashtag as important a brand extension as a URL.
Unfortunately, many brands are missing out on conversations that concern them and their product lines because users do not always use hashtags or handles consistently. For example, in a recent survey of Twitter conversations concerning Nestle's Kit Kat brand candy, 77 percent of conversations in which the Kit Kat keyword appeared did not contain the brand's hashtag and 95 percent did not mention the brand's handle.
The problem isn't Nestle's fault. In fact, Nestle has done a good job of setting up an appropriate presence on Twitter to support Kit Kat using the hashtags and handles. The problem is that users may not know how to use the correct syntax to get the brand's attention. This is a big disconnect, and while it's impossible to quantify how much it costs brands, it's obvious that it's impossible to draw an accurate picture of one's online influence if hashtag-based conversations are not being tracked.
Brands need to step up
Consider the following Twitter exchange between two users complaining about their joint problems. Imagine that you are the social media rep from Motrin -- a popular over-the-counter painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug.
User1: My #arthritis is really hurting this morning.
User2: @User1 I took motrin for my aching wrists. It helped. #arthritis
While both the hashtag #athritis and the keyword "motrin" do appear above, neither the hashtag #motrin nor the handle @motrin do, which means that this conversation will be invisible to the brand.
What to do? Well, here's a sample of an appropriate reply that both answers the query (thus pleasing the user by acknowledging his/her issue) while simultaneously correcting the omission by introducing both the correct brand hashtag and handle:
Brand: @User2 Glad to hear about your #success with @Motrin. Check out our online resources at http://t.co/238r6283r6
User2: RT @Motrin: @User1 Glad to hear about your #success with @Motrin. Check out our online resources at http://t.co/238r6283r6
Scaling the solution
Manually responding to each and every user's tweet about a given brand and providing this level of guidance will be prohibitively expensive, so some level of automation must be introduced into the process. A simple program can be created to manage the keyword detection and respond automatically using the proper syntax. The response should emphasize the correct method for interacting with the brand. Similarly, sentiment analysis (positive or negative) can be performed. The problem can be alleviated further if brands do more to drive the creation of hashtags related to their brand in their other advertising efforts, both on and offline. For example, KFC is currently using hashtags such as #iatethebones in its broadcast and print spots. The result is that users will already know how to talk about the topic in a way that is friendly to the brand, using the same hashtags the brand is tracking.
Remember, your users aren't obliged to talk about your brand correctly -- this is your job. If you step up to the plate and show them how, you'll miss fewer conversations, and have a much fuller, more accurate grasp of how your brand is being discussed online.
Ana Raynes is a social media manager at Inceptor. Co-author Graham Giller is a consulting data scientist at Didit.
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"Twitter" image via Shutterstock.