A Jack Evans campaign sign using an overly generic hashtag. (Ryan Ferguson)
November 22, 2013

While walking to the Woodley Park Metro station recently, I spotted a bright red sign for D.C mayoral candidate Jack Evans on a light pole. Under the candidate’s name, the poster said simply: “#schools.” To which I responded: #facepalm.

Evans, or more likely his campaign staff, has also created signs proclaiming “#jobs” and ­“#safestreets,” presumably to catch the eyes of young voters savvy to social media. If the messages succeed, however, I’m guessing it will be for the wrong reason — because they demonstrate no understanding of how “hashtags” actually work.

I don’t mean to pick on Evans. His signs are part of a far more pervasive trend. (Do they even make candidate podiums without hashtags on them anymore?) Modern marketing’s use of hashtags has reached a point of desperation. According to MarketingLand.com, half of the commercials that aired during the 2013 Super Bowl contained a hashtag. The conventional wisdom seems to be that anything can be improved by slapping a hashtag on it. Somewhere, Don Draper is shaking his head in dismay.

Use of the hashtag was conceived in 2007 as a way to add context to tweets on Twitter. Two years later, they were made searchable, allowing Twitter users to track which tags were trending. Hashtags have since migrated to other social media platforms, most notably when Facebook caved to demand and started hyperlinking hashtags in June.

Hashtags are most effective when used organically. They can add snark, sarcasm or a punch line to a 140-character message. They can also link users who are posting about the same event, whether something as big as a presidential debate or as intimate as a friend’s wedding. And, in the right circumstances, they can demonstrate that an organization, business or public figure has a grasp on the latest memes or trends.

Misuse of hashtags is glaring to the informed user. Simply plastering “#schools” on a poster will get you nothing, because even if someone takes the time to type that into a phone or computer (after all, hashtags belong on screens, not in print), they will find pretty much zip about Evans. The criterion is too broad.

Alas, however, when companies or candidates use hashtags for the sake of using hashtags, the results are, at best, ineffective. At worst, they can backfire embarrassingly.

This month, JPMorgan Chase scrapped an attempt to engage Twitter users with the hashtag “#askJPM” after sarcastic and off-topic responses poured in. This brings to mind similar #fails by McDonald’s and BlackBerry, in which poorly conceived marketing strategies quickly inspired users across the Internet to lampoon their products and services.

Candidates, businesses and advertising firms that wish to boost their online presence or that of their clients can do two things to improve their approaches to social media.

The first is to hire millennials, who can offer a natural understanding of social media and more adeptly analyze whether a slogan or attempt at humor will stand out in a feed. To truly understand the hyper-paced Twitter landscape requires one to be constantly plugged in to it. Because many younger workers already use social media heavily, they are valuable resources to organizations hoping to negotiate the torrent of tweets, retweets and mentions.

The second is to stop trying to force hashtags on people, a tactic that almost always fails. Social media were created to foster interaction, and that’s how they work best. Instead, candidates and companies should have their social-media teams find positive mentions of them and use that to their advantage. Why create content when it already exists? Retweeting a positive comment by a voter, or a good review by a customer, can establish a more organic, human and legitimate online reputation. Responding to negative input can show an admirable commitment to accountability and customer service and a willingness to address issues on a personal level.

In an age of viral content, a single instance of success or failure can have swift and resounding impact. Fortunately, political figures and businesses can turn to younger workers to guide them through the storm.

The writer’s Twitter handle is @ryanoferguson.