Hashtags: You’re Doing it Wrong

twitter-hashtags

You just wrote a solid 115-character quip on your deeper analysis of a common observation that you’re sure will get at least five retweets and a handful of favorites from your followers. But you have 140 characters worth of space. You can’t just waste 25 characters, but the current draft already reflects perfect wording. What do you do? Of course! Add a hashtag!

That seems to be the thought process behind many of the tweets I see stream across my somewhat-cluttered Twitter stream. As a professional communicator, it’s bothersome that these tweeters don’t have the courtesy to ask themselves, “How does this add value to my message for my followers?” Meaningless hashtags are so prevalent that I considered whether or not the majority of tweeters understand what a hashtag is and its purpose. It’s not as absurd a question as I thought, made apparent when lifelong broadcaster and Emmy Award recipient Vin Scully asked “What is hashtag?” on live TV.

The simple answer to Scully’s question, of course, is a search indexing tool for Twitter that allows the site to more easily sort messages focused on a specific topic. The hashtag allows for a collective discussion around a single topic, whether it be a conference or trade show, current event of interest to masses of people, or an informational theme such as “dailymotivation” or “fitnesstips.” This helps the Twitter community build their social network with people who provide content they’d enjoy.

But just how the use of texting has evolved from its initial purpose as it’s been adopted, so too has the hashtag.

We’ve seen the “hashtag as the punch line of a joke” tweets. Ending a message about a trip to Dog Beach might be #Wetdogsmellairfreshener. Capping off a confession of love for Nutella we could expect #NoreallyIcouldeatNutellaateverymeal. Or concluding an observation of road workers sitting down on their lunch break someone might announce #Mytaxdollarsarepayingforyoutoeatasandwich. I’m not convinced others will search any of those hashtags with interest in joining the conversation.

Then there are hashtags that were invented specifically so that anyone interested can join the conversation and offer an opinion. These are hashtags like #WeCan’tDateIfYou and #ThingsshorterthanKimKardasiansmarriage. Rather than being a reactionary product to something else, there is no reasoning for these hashtags to exist beyond the fact that they can exist.

The variations of hashtags are so vast that, in their quest for constant irony as a counter culture, hipsters adopted the hashtag #hashtag. Is it ironic? More like self defeating.

So are hashtags a trend? Will they go the way of Ed Hardy T-shirts and Von Dutch trucker hats?

Essentially, as online conversing continues to become the status quo, the hashtag is showing characteristics of natural language. People are manipulating, misusing and experimenting with it. They’re the opposite of a trend because they’re not one thing and are constantly evolving. In that sense, I guess, explaining the “right” way to use a hashtag is like explaining the right way to deliver a joke or what facial expression is correct for the subject of discussion. You can’t define what’s “right.” In the same way you can’t stop that one co-worker from winking after each sarcastic statement he makes, you can’t stop tweeters from hashtagging every other word in their message. But you can unfollow them. #Winning

Four PR Trends

trendsLooking at past trends in an evolving industry can be a poor predictor of future trends—whether you’re talking about the stock market or the PR field.

Witness Facebook (a 9-year-old), Twitter (a 7-year-old), Instagram and Tout (both 2 year olds). These are among only a few of the game changers that disrupted the publishing industry. Each is a relative toddler by traditional business standards, and not that many years before their existence I don’t recall anyone predicting them. But their global impact on the human condition is already established.

The trend impacting the PR industry, therefore, is not which new social tool will take off, but that game changers are now the norm. Expect and anticipate them.

Here are four things (among many) I see near through long term impacting PR.

The Story Stays

We like a good yarn. Stories have been told throughout human history and they’re not going away anytime soon. So while the delivery method may continue to break speed records in the unprecedented data age we’re now in, if there isn’t a compelling story to whatever the communication is, it won’t leave the station.

In creating your communications, think about your story. How compelling is it or could it be, and why should others care? And if you don’t have one, then either create one or rethink your communication strategy for most effective resource use.

Multimedia Explosion

multimedia

We are a sensorial species, and with the written word there’s a terrible lack of engagement of the senses. True, imagination can help make up for that. However, the way I imagine Utopia and you do can be very different, meaning there’s a significant control loss of the intended message. But what if I could not only tell you a story, but also engage you in it by your five senses? Instant communication around the planet is now possible with video covering sight and sound that will only increase. But I think it’s only a matter of time before technology allows for an online cook ‘book’ to not only convey with what and how something’s made, but also how it should look, feel and even smell and taste.

Additive Manufacturing

3d printing

…aka 3-D Printing will change everything, and this means for PR too.  I think 3-D printing is trul yRoddenberry’s Star Trek replicator come to life like the cell phone, and why I see it profoundly impacting PR is that currently the world’s societies are built largely around traditionally manufactured goods and related services – shoes manufactured in China are consumed in the USA; medical implants created in New York are used in Canada; an airplane is created and assembled from many different places; etc. Things today are still made for us and we don’t make things for ourselves. PR supports all of this ‘traditional’ world commerce that in the next decade will dramatically change with the advent of 3-D printing for the masses. Like intangibles such as information value decreasing with increased accessibility, so will the value of physical goods change. As it does, PR will change as well, becoming less about conveying a compelling call to action to buy consumer products, say, and more about strategically helping communicate things like B2B opportunities, services expertise, key events, experience opportunities, and political and societal agendas.

Local & Smaller

It’s well established doctrine for good communication to know thy audience, and reach them where they are. With billions of us now having our heads buried in our smartphones more than we’d like to admit, guess where audiences are? Sure, we’re still driving down the freeway ready to notice a billboard, pouring over that quaint thing called a newspaper at Starbucks occasionally, and watching commercials whip by as we watch our favorite DVR’d show.  But increasingly we’re more interested in our immediate environs – our local neighborhood – than otherwise. So as opposed to a broad shotgun approach, PR will increasingly need a precise rifle approach tailored to local geography and interests. And in doing so rely less on large real estate like a full magazine, in-depth television reporting or a regional newspaper spread, but instead plan for consumption to be increasingly on a screen just four or five inches wide—that if it’s showing a picture of a rose, soon enough will probably smell just as sweet.

Rise Thee Virtual Web, Rise!

Fall color tour to Ouray, CO.

Did you receive some sort of electronic device over the holidays? A smartphone like an iPhone or Android? A video game, camera, iPod, tablet, or laptop or maybe a new PC or Mac?  If you didn’t chances are you know someone who did.

A year ago I wrote that for the first time smartphones sales exceeded yearly PC sales. And a few months back, I mentioned that there are African countries that have largely skipped the landline era and gone straight to mobile phones, with there now being more than 715 million in Africa. In the U.S., Comscore reports 114 million Americans used smartphones in July 2012, and that this represents roughly half the potential market. So, add another 100 million or so and the American market’s done. Thinking about the 2012 holiday period, I bet there was a healthy dent in this remaining half. So, what will people do with, and demand of, all these powerful devices?

Where I’m going with this is that I think we’re in for another sea change, and soon. Like many things, communication evolves, sometimes slowly, and sometimes with startling disruption – witness the printing press, typewriter, PC, Internet, email software, mobile text, Facebook, Twitter…

Sure, there are relative periods of stability – long like the ancient days of cave walls and word of mouth; medium like the era of print newspapers and magazines; and short, like mobile texting.

It’s this last one which days are especially numbered, at least as we know texting today. With so many smartphones capable of so much more than a simple text message; with WiFi proliferation and data costs dropping like a rock; carmakers now incorporating WiFi and imminently 4G in vehicles – texting and Twitter don’t stand a chance. Why type something when you can just Voxer someone or blast a picture or a quick hi-def video with Tout? All hail thee visual web!

texting

At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show happening in Las Vegas as I write this, one theme seems to be even larger smartphone screens to come. Personally, I don’t want to hold a brick to my head (been there done that with cell phones in the 80s). And who knows where a smartphone ends and a tablet begins. Smablet anyone? Another CES theme seems to be the connection of all the new devices to traditional devices like TVs. But ALL of these devices point to the need for more audio and visual content, and less thumbing of the written word.

While the need for compelling information, good storytelling and devices like humor and emotion are among the few communication components that are ‘traditional’ anymore, how the information is conveyed, story told and emotion evoked is ever changing. Increasingly, the cut-through will be achieved through multimedia – sound, video, graphics, animation and, I predict, soon enough smell. Yep, they’ll figure a way to trigger your device to release bacon and perfume scents. Forward thinking firms are already thinking of ways to respond to, if not lead, the rise of the visual web so as to remain connected to their target audiences wherever they are.

(W)right On celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, but we’re just getting started. Owing to our great team and amazing clients we are privileged to serve, (W)right On was recently honored as a 2012 Most Admired Company for its professionalism, integrity and accountability. But like it also leads on the more tangible fronts such as social media evolution and communication program results, you can expect (W)right On to remain on the forefront of the visual web rise. Will you be there too?