As with so many social media campaigns today, brand communication all starts with a hashtag.

Social media has long been celebrated for its power to organize ideas and inspire action. Yet as we’ve seen over the last few years—and continue to see—social media platforms can create massive groundswells of misinformation that are nearly impossible to predict, stop, or control.

This puts brands in a challenging situation. Many of us have build strong brand presence on Twitter, using hashtags along the way, and find the platform invaluable for communicating with our audience. We now have to decide between utilizing hashtags as a means to spread a message or risking the hashtag being used for devious reasons.

Here’s everything you need to know.

How–and Why—Fake News Spreads on Social Media

Did you know, that according to a study from Science.org, about 126,000 rumors were spread by roughly 3 million people on Twitter between 2016-2017?

And MIT researchers found that, “fake news dominates according to both metrics. It consistently reaches a larger audience, and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does.”

There are lots of reasons why fake news spreads quickly on social media. For one, fake news is often more novel than the truth. Fake news also tends to evoke stronger emotions such as fear, sadness, and disgust, which leads to greater comments and shares. 

It’s become such a pressing issue on Twitter, that Jack Dorsey decided to address it head on in 2018:

Of course, a key tool in the spread of misinformation are hashtags as they help amplify a message on a much quicker and larger scale. Automated and robot accounts are able to automatically increase the number of times a hashtag is used in a certain timeframe, making it visible on a global scale.

With that sort of leverage, any message (good or bad) can be spread.

The Benefits and Risks of Hashtags for Stimulating Brand Conversations

Hashtags can be used for everything on social media from brand building to promoting awareness to hosting a contest.

But are hashtags really worth it in a world where an estimated 33% (or more) of followers are bots? Let’s explore the benefits and the risks.

Benefits of Hashtags

  • Enables brands to build a community around a specific idea or cause
  • Helps to amplify the reach of a brand’s content
  • Allows brands to show solidarity to a movement
  • Supports customer service and advocacy efforts
  • Provides brands with an opportunity to participate in trendjacking or newsjacking

Risks of Hashtags

  • Uncertainty on whether a brand’s customers will respond and engage
  • Possibility of negative and harmful use of the hashtag from a brand’s customers
  • Amplification of the wrong message or fake news from 3rd parties using the hashtag
  • Competitors trendjacking or newsjacking the hashtag for their own benefit
  • Legal and copyright issues from using existing hashtags

Overall, hundreds of brands have found incredible success using hashtags on social media in spite of misuse and abuse from third parties. Here’s the exact checklist they used to ensure that their hashtag campaigns worked as planned.

A Proven Checklist for Using Hashtags to Generate Brand Conversations

If your brand is looking to use a hashtag in an upcoming campaign, here’s a checklist of questions you can use:

  1. Is your hashtag too broad or too specific?
  2. Is your hashtag too long?
  3. Will your hashtag be easy for people to remember and use?
  4. Is your hashtag well-researched and relevant to your target audience?
  5. Is your hashtag already in use by another person or brand?
  6. Is your hashtag evergreen or time specific (and does that make sense for your campaign)?
  7. Does your hashtag relate to your product or campaign in a fun or interesting way?
  8. Is your hashtag too closely related to another similar hashtag?
  9. Do your competitors or peers use a similar hashtag?

Once you’ve answered the questions above and are confident about your hashtag selection, the most important thing you can do is monitor your hashtag(s) on a frequent basis to ensure that all is going smoothly. We recommend using a media intelligence tool for real-time updates and to actively engage with your audience to maximize the effectiveness of your hashtag.

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Last, but not least, it’s beneficial to always have a plan in place in case your hashtags do cause a brand crisis.

Check out our new ebook—Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications—for advice on how to deal with a PR crisis.