What You Should Know About Hashtag Activism
January 2, 2017

Social MediaAdvocacyTactics

The most effective approach to hashtags is evaluating every scenario individually and crafting a customized strategy to achieve predetermined goals.

Hashtag neon

What’s the best way to use hashtags? Should you add an already-existing one to your tweets? Should you create a new one? At the Personal Democracy Forum 2014 (#PDF14) in New York City this month, we heard from a group of veteran “hashtag activists” – mainly from the left side of the spectrum -- on their best practices and the lessons they have learned in the hashtag trenches. Among the group was a veteran social media director from President Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, the founder and editor of epolitics.com, a digital strategist who studies Black Twitter, a feminist who uses hashtag campaigns to raise awareness of women’s issues, and a George Washington University professor of media and public affairs.

In our experience, each of the below ideas has merit. The most effective approach to hashtags, however, is evaluating every scenario individually and crafting a customized strategy to achieve predetermined goals. Let’s take an in-depth look at each point:

1. The best hashtags are organic, except when they’re not.

Examples of hashtags that seem to come up organically and then go viral do exist, the panel members said, but they are relatively unusual. For every one that works, there are 100 that don’t.

One recent hashtag, #YesAllWomen, which rallied female Twitter users into an open dialogue around harassment and sexual assault by men, was mentioned by several panel members as an organic hashtag that worked.

The hashtag, according to Mashable, was generated by a female writer and her friend in the wake of the May 23 mass shooting incident in Isla Vista, Calif., near University of California Santa Barbara.

In that attack, a disturbed and misogynistic young man, Elliot Rodger, killed six people and then himself in a stabbing and shooting spree that injured many more. Since then, the #YesAllWomen hashtag has been cited more than one million times according to hashtags.org.

The Santa Barbara shooting also gave rise to a second hashtag campaign, #NotOneMore, which was more organized than organic. One of the young people killed in the attack was Christopher Martinez, a student at UCSB.

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, Martinez’s father, a former speechwriter and political aide, immediately began contacting as many media outlets as he could to make sure that the press wouldn’t overlook the story. He gave an impassioned speech and he eventually worked with the gun safety group, Everytown USA, in organizing a campaign to send post cards to congress demanding “Not One More”.

That then turned into a hashtag effort as actress Julianne Moore and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg tweeted out photos of themselves holding the Not One More cards. According to Topsy, a social media search service, the hashtag has since appeared in 131,000 tweets.

Let's fill elected officials’ offices with #NotOneMore postcards: http://t.co/r5YPHpvTwC pic.twitter.com/tn3tFG2bOa — Everytown (@Everytown) May 29, 2014

You should never expect a hashtag to go viral organically - it’s simply a rare occurrence. But you can attempt to draw upon the most common and important traits of organically viral hashtags: easily readable and digestible language with a theme tied to a real-time news event.

2. Hashtags require a lot of thought, planning, and work.

Panelists Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly), a media strategist who works to raise awareness of women’s issues, Kimberly Ellis (@drgoddess), an expert on the use of Twitter by African Americans, and Laura Olin (@lauraolin), social media director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, all said they’ll brainstorm maybe 20 or more different wordings of a hashtag to come up with the version that they think will work best – one that is short, evokes emotion, and says something.

When they have narrowed their choices, they then brainstorm to see how opponents could twist it or alter the language, even with just one letter, or one word, to create a counter hashtag that does better than the original. You always have to think ahead to how others might use a hashtag against you, they said, because it’s almost guaranteed that someone will.

The concern over hashtag hijacking is valid, although it is probably most specific to politics. Public affairs campaigns may face similar risks, but this of course will depend on the nature of the topic.

3. How you launch a hashtag is important.

Olin and the other panelists agreed that another key to a hashtag is how it is launched. One person or voice launching a hashtag normally doesn’t go very far. Said Olin: “Ideally, people from different social circles start using the hashtag within a few minutes of each other, almost at the same time. Different people in different spheres of influence using them at the same time are important,” she said, to get a hashtag to start trending.

The launchers and originators of a new hashtag have to ask and remind people on social media to use that specific hashtag. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

In our work at Connections Media, clients often engage with partner organizations that support their initiatives, or work on similar issues, and thus can help launch a hashtag.

4. Good hashtags should come with good links.

A hashtag is a beginning of a conversation, a kind of marker to lay down, but it should also be used with good links to explanatory material, panelists said.

Chemaly said that when she is launching a new hashtag she creates a Frequently Asked Questions document or FAQ blog post online to link to. There, she lays out exactly what the issue is, what the call to action is for, and why the campaign was launched. People need to know what the hashtag stands for, and what you’re all about, she said, and links need to lead to something substantive.

A quality web landing page can clearly explain a hashtag. We have created numerous online campaigns that connect a compelling web experience to the social sharing nature of hashtags. 

5. A hashtag can help with short term action or long-term awareness.

Chemaly and other panelists said that every hashtag needs an objective and a strategy. A hashtag needs to be very specific if it is aimed at a short-term action. If you want a media outlet to correct a story, for example, or a company to stop a practice, the hashtag needs to be short and succinct.

#DropRickRoss, for example, was the hashtag launched by the anti-sexism group UltraViolet in March 2013, to get Reebok to drop rapper Rick Ross as a brand ambassador after he released a single with lyrics that seemed to condone rape. The campaign was successful, Reebok did drop the rapper, and Ross later apologized publicly.

For building long-term awareness, a more general hashtag such as #YesAllWomen works well because it lives on for months or longer, serving as a gathering point for people with similar sentiments.

Close monitoring of social media means being ready to seize any opportunity presented by the news of the day. Our understanding of each client’s organizational goals enables us to create hashtag campaigns that can be used for a variety of content over the long-term.

6. An online hashtag campaign has to be supported by offline efforts.

Several panelists noted that a hashtag is good for raising awareness, but is less useful alone as an organizing tool. Hashtags have to be followed by offline action.

Panel members, even former hashtag skeptics, praised hashtags for their ability to stir up emotion, discussion, and often agreement, especially around issues that have long been neglected but lie just beneath the surface waiting to be exposed. An effective hashtag effort can also circumvent traditional news media if reporters aren’t paying attention to your issue.

Even when developing a campaign centered on a hashtag theme, it’s important to remember this tactic is just one of many supporting a broader strategy. At Connections Media, we push to see the bigger picture beyond the hashtag, and develop a cohesive effort to achieve client goals.