In the most recent edition of her closely watched annual Internet Trends report, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers analyst Mary Meeker noted that the rise of visually-oriented communication is driving the growth of apps including Instagram and Snapchat, and that younger consumers are shifting from a tendency to “communicate with text” to a propensity to “communicate with images.” That shift is increasingly obvious to anyone who spends time across various social media platforms.
But how does an image-driven sensibility affect the use of text in social media? Specifically, hashtags, which for years now marketers have been attempting to train consumers to use faithfully — to brand social media posts with product names, campaign taglines and the like.
I recently spoke with a number of marketing executives from A-list brands about hashtags, and they expressed, well, mixed feelings. One exec, for instance, said he appreciated their simplicity and the way they organize information. And it’s true that designated hashtags make it easy for brands to detect conversations about their products and campaigns using traditional text-centric social media monitoring tools.
But other marketers I talked to felt like hashtags hamper storytelling — “forcing consumers to summarize their thoughts into just a few characters,” as another exec put it. And everyone was generally wary of the risk of hashtag abuse (e.g., when trolls hijack popular hashtags for the purpose of pushing spammy messages or simply to cause mischief).
In the wake of those marketer conversations, I wanted to know how consumers feel about branded hashtags, so we conducted a simple survey in conjunction with SurveyMonkey. Some core findings:
- When we asked if survey participants (200+ in the U.S., August 2016) had ever shared an image of a brand-name product, 56% said yes. Drilling down by age, a significantly higher percentage of Millennials (64%) have shared an image of a brand-name product on social media vs. the all-ages group.
- When asked if they used a hashtag with the product name for the last brand-name product image they shared on social media, a majority (59%) in the all-ages group said no. Less than one-third (30%) answered yes, while another 11% couldn’t remember if they did or not. Among under-35s, 37% said they diduse a branded hashtag, but then again 24% said they couldn’t remember if they did or not.
- Among under-35s, 41% selected “It feels forced” in response to the question “How do you feel about brand-specific and brand-generated hashtags when you see them on other people’s posts?” — vs. the 34% who selected “It feels forced” among the all-ages group.
The bottom line: The proliferation of smartphones and image-centric apps has made communicating about brands with images nearly effortless for consumers. A hashtag takes some extra effort, and it’s clear that some consumers just won’t play ball. Millennials seem a little more inclined to use them than older consumers — but then again they’re a little more judgmental (“It feels forced”) when other people use them.
So where does that leave us? With, arguably, consensus among marketers and consumers about branded hashtags — in that some marketers and consumers see value in their use, but generally there’s not a huge amount of enthusiasm for their presence on social media.
Whether you read that as apathy or indifference, the lesson for marketers is that hashtags may be shaky ground on which to build a social media activation — and even shakier ground for social media monitoring.
In other words: #proceedwithcaution.
Ben Plomion is Chief Marketing Officer for GumGum.