Six campaign hashtag mistakes and how to avoid them.

Woman making a hastag with her hands by holding two fingers on one hand in front of two fingers on the other.

Six campaign hashtag mistakes and how to avoid them.

Hashtags are important. #JustSayin.

With the increased popularity of social media, and the fact that almost all social media sites use hashtags, they are getting more and more attention. They have a practical use, like telling people what topic you’re talking about (e.g. #CharityComms, #TechForGood – both of which are worth having a look at). But they’re more than that too, they’re powerful ways for people to communicate, spread a message, and mobilise people (e.g. #OccupyWallStreet, and the way the whole Occupy movement made use of social media), and to fundraise (e.g.  #FirstFiver and #PoundForPound which encouraged people to donate the new £5 note and £1 coin to charity).

Hashtags are a key tool of the modern campaigner. And in recent years organisations have made excellent use of them to raise awareness of their cause, take for example Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan, UNICEF’s #EndViolence, and the way charities like Refuge got involved in discussions about the domestic abuse storyline on #TheArchers.

That’s why, when you plan your online campaign, you need a good hashtag. So let’s talk about the common mistakes people make when they pick a hashtag for a campaign, so that we can all stop making them:


1. Having a hashtag that isn’t clear or specific enough.

For campaigning in particular, you’re trying to reach new audiences, people who are not already familiar with your campaign or your message. If you use an acronym or something that you have to be ‘in the know’ to understand, then people won’t understand. And if they don’t understand the hashtag, they won’t use it. Which defeats the point of having it in the first place.

When you create a hashtag, it should be simple and clear. For example, you may have seen the story recently about a young man on Twitter asking Wendy’s how many retweets he would need to get for them to give him a year of free chicken nuggets, the tweet went hugely viral and he now has the most retweeted tweet of all time, the promise of Wendy’s donating $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, and (of course) a year of free chicken nuggets. As unbelievable as this story is, it is a good example of the point I’m trying to make here because the hashtag people used for this? #NuggsForCarter. Simple. Clear. Surprisingly effective!

Also, on the clarity point, always check what your hashtag looks like all lower case, in this blog I’ve written all the example hashtags I’ve used with the appropriate uppercasing so you can easily read them. But, they’re not always shared like that on social media, so it’s worth having a think about what people could think a hashtag means when it’s all lowercase. Don’t make the mistake of #susanalbumparty (which was intended as #SusanAlbumParty). 🤦‍.

How to avoid this mistake.

Avoid acronyms if possible, test your hashtag with some people who aren’t familiar with your campaign, and make sure it still makes sense when it’s lowercase.


2. Having a hashtag that is too long.

This is less of a concern for some platforms than others, but there are a number of social media platforms that limit the number of characters. Most famously (infamously?) Twitter, which limits users to 140 characters, but also Pinterest at 500, LinkedIn at 700, etc. etc.

The longer your hashtag is, the more characters it takes up. This makes it harder for people to have conversations about your campaign, because they’ve got less space to actually say anything alongside using the hashtag. Not only is this a shame for you, because you want people to be able to talk about your campaign, not just share your campaign hashtag, but there is also a risk that people simply won’t use the hashtag if it is too long. And again, if people aren’t using it, it defeats the point of having it.

As an example, when the campaign(s) to prevent the scrapping of the Human Rights Act started (when the issue first really came to the fore in October 2014), there were a few hashtags linked to the issue knocking around, including #SaveOurHRA and #Togerther4HumanRights. If you Google each of these, the first returns 519 results and the second 208 results – of course this is not especially scientific, but if you look at the use of each of these hashtags on social media, #SaveOurHRA has been more popular. And, in my opinion (and I say this as someone who has been involved in this issue and used these hashtags relatively regularly), it’s because #Together4HumanRights at 21 characters (compared to 11 for #SaveOurHRA) is just too long. Especially on Twitter, with the characters you’ve got left it’s hard to make a convincing argument, especially on such a complicated issue.

How to avoid this mistake.

Keep your hashtag short, as short as you can while retaining clarity that is! There are no hard and fast rules, it depends on how you want people to use it, but as a general guide try to keep your hashtag to around 11 characters or fewer.


3. Not checking if it’s already in use.

This is a big one, and easily done, you’re so focused on the name of your campaign and trying to get a clear and short hashtag that you forget that you might not be the first person to have thought of it.

To take a particularly bad example, Shoe Zone have a group of shoes they categorise as ‘Most Wanted’ (I’m guessing this means they’re popular), so alongside them in the shop they have #mostwanted displayed, encouraging you to post on social media about them. This may have seemed like a good idea on the face of it, but this hashtag is obviously already in use, since it’s a common phrase, and a quick search of it would show this – have a look yourself, search #mostwanted on your preferred social media site and see how many posts there are, then search and see how many posts there are with that hashtag and some mention of Shoe Zone (as an example, on Twitter it’s one!). If you use a hashtag that is already in use, the risk is that your messages will get drowned out and not seen because of the number of other, unrelated, posts. If you think of your hashtag as a way to link up all the conversations people are having on your topic then it needs to be functional, and if it’s also bringing in posts on another topic, then it’s not really serving its purpose.

How to avoid this mistake.

When you’re thinking about a hashtag for your campaign, before you settle on one just do a quick search for it on the major platforms (or the platforms you plan to use in your campaign), to check it’s not already in use or associated with something you don’t want to be linked to.


4. Not using it yourself.

This seems like an obvious one, but it happens a lot. People choose a hashtag, and maybe even use it as their campaign name, and then they’re so focused on getting other people to use it that they don’t use it themselves. It’s easy to think that it’s less important for you to use the hashtag because you’re the people running the campaign and people will follow your accounts and see your messages. But don’t be so sure! A lot of people may share your campaign action without following you, and using the hashtag when you post is the simplest way to get your posts out to a community of people interested in this topic – whether they are people heavily involved in the campaign or people just looking at the hashtag to find out what it’s all about. It’s also an indicator for people of how significant the hashtag is, not using the hashtag yourself implies it’s not really important, which will encourage other people to not bother.

How to avoid this mistake.

Simple, if you really want people to use a hashtag, you should use it too, every time you post. That way you can be sure people will know what it is, associate it with you, and know that they should use it.


5. Creating it too late.

The best time to create a hashtag is before you need it. You should launch your campaign hashtag at the same time as your campaign name. If you’re having an event that will have its own hashtag so people can talk about what’s happening on the day, you should tell them what it is when you’re advertising for people to book places.

It is very difficult to introduce a hashtag later, because people using social media know the value of them, and so if you don’t provide a hashtag, they will make one themselves. If you only tell people the hashtag for an event at the event itself, you’ve already missed a number of opportunities for them to use it, because when people are planning to attend an event they like to post on social media when they buy their tickets, when they’re a week away and getting excited, and when they’re on their way there (seriously, search ‘on my way to’ and you’ll see people like posting when they’re on their way to places!). And they want other people attending to see those posts so they can start having conversations about the event.

How to avoid this mistake.

Create your hashtag when you create your campaign name, and don’t make people ask what it is, tell them before you think they’ll need it.


6. Promoting your hashtag more than your call to action.

Ok, so at the beginning of this blog I did a whole big thing about how hashtags are important, and I stand by that. Having a good hashtag for your campaign will allow people to spread your message, talk about the issue, share information, and tell personal stories – all of which will help your campaign and cause.

Having said that, in a campaign – when you are asking for a problem to be resolved and you want people to take action to help you get that problem solved – the action taking part is the most important thing you’re doing.

If you want people to use your campaign hashtag for all the benefits I’ve mentioned above, then of course you need to make sure you promote that hashtag. For example, by including it on your materials (online, like images you share on social media, or offline, like leaflets), maybe even making it your campaign name, etc. But, lots of discussion about your campaign with no action is not going to help you achieve your end goal. Don’t get caught up in the hashtag and forget to tell people what it is you want them to do.

How to avoid this mistake.

Focus on spreading your message and your call to action – hashtags are a tool, but they’re not content themselves, you should use a hashtag alongside saying something about your campaign. Make sure you’ve got clear aims for your campaign, and keep those top of mind when you’re planning your comms outputs.


In conclusion.

Hashtags are important. They’re also difficult to get right sometimes. The key thing is to have a hashtag that is easy for people to understand and use (and I mean that as in use it in their own social media posts and read other people’s posts on the hashtag). But the really important thing is your campaign and the problem you’re trying to solve. And I believe that with the right things in place, anyone with passion and a cause can get a campaign going online. Which is why we’ve just launched our new training Kickstart Your Online Campaign, a four-week online training course full of practical insights and advice to help you learn the best ways to campaign online, and ultimately launch your online campaign. Whether you work for a large organisation, or you’re just one person with a passion, everyone can campaign online, and the guidance we’ll be sharing in this training will take you step by step from idea to action. You can find more information about Kickstart Your Online Campaign here.

Lexi Pandell, WIRED (19th May 2017) An Oral History of the #Hashtag

Vanessa Doctor, (13th June 2012) Which Social Media Networks Use Hashtags?

Ben Berkowitz, Reuters (18th October 2011) From a single hashtag, a protest circled the world

BBC Trending (26 September 2016) First fiver: How a single tweet kick-started a fundraising campaign

Hugh Radojev, Civil Society (30th March 2017) New pound coin fundraising campaign ‘can raise more than #FirstFiver’

Sport England, This Girl Can

Kirsty Marrins, Third Sector (13th December 2016) Top 10 digital charity campaigns of 2016, part 2

Natt Garun, The Verge (9th May 2017) Teen who asked Wendy’s for nuggets breaks all-time retweet record

Buffer (16th May 2017) Character limits for each social network

Open laptop displaying Fancy Guppy's January 2018 social media calendar.
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