From its humble beginnings, when an early user suggested this way to categorise Twitter conversations, the hashtag is now an established part of everyday conversation, both on and off Twitter.
Last week's Super Bowl is perhaps the best indicator of the hashtag’s meteoric growth. In 2011 Audi stood out by being the first and only brand, at the time, to use a hashtag in its Super Bowl ad. This past Sunday – four years on – 50 per cent of Super Bowl ads featured hashtags.
This growth suggests that the benefits of using hashtags – to centralise and encourage conversation – are well established. But while hashtags can now been seen as an established output of the planning and creative process, their benefits as an input to that process have been less discussed.
This is because as well as being an excellent summary of an idea when a campaign goes live, hashtag thinking – asking, “what’s our hashtag?” regularly throughout the planning and creative process – can help to create better ideas.
Here are five reasons to try hashtag thinking:
Hashtags simplify process
Hashtags simplify and shortcut process. While we place great value on ideas, we often lack a common way of agreeing or defining the type of idea we’re looking to create. In the idea creation stage it’s all too easy (and rather frustrating) to get drawn into cyclical conversations around whether an idea is a big idea, a brand idea, a campaign idea, an executional idea or anything else. As these different notions bump up against each other, the process gets slowed down. Two weeks later comes a follow-up meeting, and we all go round again.
Expressing ideas as hashtags at the earliest stage possible can really help to simplify and shortcut this process. You’ll get an instant sense of whether the idea is understood and of its potential scale – and it should be easier to see how and if the different ‘layers’ of an idea work around it. #shareacoke is a good example of this. A simple expression of the idea which the various layers of it worked around.
Hashtags require constraint
Hashtags require sacrifice and constraint. A sound strategy is ultimately about limiting choices, and here the stark simplicity of a hashtag can be particularly helpful. By deciding what you’re prepared to leave out, you get to the core of your idea much faster. The brevity of the hashtag is a constraint in this sense but one that can create real clarity.
When ITV (@itv) announced the return of Broadchurch the simple clarity of their hashtag - #Broadchurchreturns - not only conveyed the most important information but helped create much excitement and intrigue.
We’re going to hear a lot this year about the many benefits of constraint with the release of Adam Morgan and Mark Barden’s excellent new book, A Beautiful Constraint.
Hashtags compel an action
Hashtags are behavioural, and compel an action. Even though they don’t necessarily rely on active participation, many of the best hashtags are explicitly or implicitly behavioural: they convey a strong message that can drive people to get fully involved. So Paddy Power’s (@paddypower) #rainbowlaces invites, but didn’t rely on, people to wear laces to show their support while Land Rover’s (@landrover_uk) #hibernot encourages people to make the most of winter.
And as it is with hashtags, so it is with many of the best strategies. They’re clear on what they’d like people to do and they focus resources around driving that intended action.
Hashtags are fluid and evolve
In an era of increasingly agile planning, strong hashtags can give your idea just the right amount of space to expand and evolve over a period of time. A good example is mobile Three mobile’s (@ThreeUK) #holidayspam, which celebrated spam as the ‘benefit’ of their scraping data roaming charges abroad. It evolved across the summer to incorporate images from people’s holidays as they experienced the benefit for themselves. And the campaign has just been brought back for 2015. Similarly, @adidas’s #allin evolved over the course of World Cup, even temporarily becoming #ballin to signal that a shot in the France v Honduras match had indeed crossed the line.
Hashtags reward the distinctive
As the thinking behind ‘How Brands Grow’ and ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ becomes increasingly influential amongst planners and marketers, more and more value is being placed on whether or not communication is distinctive and ownable to that brand, or whether it can be easily replicated by a competitor.
Hashtags can provide an instant test of clarity and distinctiveness, and many of the best ones - such as #lidlsurprises - become repeatable over time, embedding an association in peoples’ minds, and so becoming a distinctive long-term asset.
David Wilding is planning director for Twitter UK. He tweets @drwilding