If you watched any television over the Thanksgiving holiday, you were told to share your thoughts on social media using a provided hashtag.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had a hashtag, every football game had a hashtag, re-runs of the HGTV show “Fixer Upper” (which is fantastic and addicting) had a hashtag.
What these hashtags are supposed to accomplish is increasing engagement with an entertainment’s audience, thereby engendering not only a sense of camaraderie between unconnected viewers of the same program, but giving advertisers a more focused and specific set of people to sell ads to.
The idea is that viewers take to Twitter or Instagram — Facebook has hashtags too, but they don’t travel as well as Twitter or Instagram hashtags (though “liking” a page on Facebook gets content in front of you and basically gets the job done) — and then share their thoughts or feelings about a program using the hashtag provided by the entertainment.
Play-by-play announcers during football games intersperse line-reads directing folks to Twitter to share thoughts using the hashtag #IronBowl, for example, and right before commercial breaks end, one of the hosts of “Fixer Upper” tells you to post about the episode on social media using the hashtag #FixerUpper.
These are sort of clunky and awkward interruptions inside a program, but at the same time have become the kind of thing you grow numb to as a television viewer in 2015.
On Sunday, Conor Sen of New River Investments — who people that read my work here or follow me on Twitter will know is someone I think quite highly of — said that it seemed like more events and spaces were being created with their “social media taggability” as a primary concern.
This makes sense.
The endless struggle in advertising is “showing your work,” or the idea that people in finance departments will ask why they are spending so much money on advertising since what does it really do for the company’s bottom line can be a slippery concept.
And so to this end, a hashtag creates something “tangible” a creative agency can point their client to and say, “Look, we had this many thousand engagements, this many thousand people using the hashtag #CharminRules, which is a [some random number] per cent increase from our previous campaign,” and so on.
What the advertiser wants is a figure — which can literally be anything as long as it’s big — they can bring to their boss to say their campaign worked.
What the creative agency wants is more work.
What the social network wants is more people using their network.
The problem is that we’re way past the point at which hashtags are used earnestly by consumers most brands actually want to get in front of. The hashtag, then, which is how brands and advertisers seem to benchmark their success, is thus rendered effectively useless.
Maybe I’m just an obnoxious millennial who doesn’t understand that a brand trying to get me to buy something or a television network that wants me to create a quippy one-liner for them to use for free, is in fact something I ought to take seriously.
But it seems to me that the only use of corporately advanced hashtags by social media users are either done by mistake, by users who don’t understand what the network is really there to do, or by users that are excited about the possibility of their tweet or Instagram picture being used in a promotion for some product or televised entertainment.
So what ultimately gets channeled back through the management ranks at the end of a social media campaign is, again, how many times people mentioned the thing. But what are those mentions really worth?
The use of social media by brands is not only an advertising ploy but a way for a brand to develop something like a personality.
A brand can look “cool” or “quirky” or whatever sort of persona they want to adopt if they use social media in a deliberate fashion. But when companies or governments use hashtags to interact with their customers or whatever on Twitter, the end result will assuredly be the definition of a bumbling corporate initiative gone horribly wrong.
In conversations with folks at a number of companies over the last few years it has been made clear that a corporate social media account is more or less a nightmare. Almost all messages out of all accounts must be cleared by some sort of compliance-like entity, which renders the spontaneity of social media all but moot for major brands.
Additionally, there has been, at least in my conversations, a sense of endless tail-chasing among people who are trying to use social media to initiate or advance corporate initiatives.
My favourite story of the last few days comes from my colleague Maya Kosoff, who went home for Thanksgiving and hung out with teens and found out what’s really going on their social spheres. The clear takeaway from Maya’s post is that things in social media change extremely quickly and trying to keep up will leave you always on the outside of some amorphous thing.
(Footnote on other thoughts I had after reading Maya’s post:
- Facebook is necessary, perhaps like AIM was for someone around my age: everyone has it and you’re going to have to be on it eventually to connect with other people. This is actually bad for Facebook because it’s users are indifferent and the whole idea of Facebook is predicated on engaged users that create content for free, though this is changing quickly.
- Instagram is still popular but has major competition from VSCOcam (which I’d never heard of), which makes Instagram’s absolutely torrid surge in popularity over the last few years seem highly unsustainable.
- Twitter is dead in the water. As a heavy Twitter user, the mistakes the company have made are numerous and, to my mind, obvious. But it seems that in a large way, the ship has sailed on Twitter and did so a long time ago. We could talk about Twitter’s monthly active user growth — or lack thereof — but this is just sort of a Wall Street-style operating metric that grossly misses the point on where Twitter has failed. Twitter has failed its heaviest users by doing nothing in the last several years to improve the ability to sort and list your contacts. The preferred product of the heaviest users, TweetDeck, is buggy, clunky, and seems more or less an afterthought for the company. But really, only news junkies and media people are going to care when Twitter dies.)
But so in thinking about the kind of “necessary evil” that I think many brands consider social media to be — you’ve got to have a presence but making this compelling and engaging is a real chore that seems, at times, impossible — I’m imagining corporate executives all around the world talking to their own children or younger relatives about their social media use and then going into a meeting and saying, “We need an Instagram.”
And so then you’re faced with a large, mostly inflexible corporate entity hoping to use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to sell millennials retirement advice. Which might, in theory, work. These are the places, after all, that we’re told advertisers can find millennials.
But if we’re arguing that the people on these networks who earnestly interact with brand-encouraged themes are simply misinformed, naive, or in it for themselves, than what these brands are attracting is exactly the opposite of what they’re after.
What brands want are loyal consumers who view their brand-related choices as a reflection of who they are. But what social media might be bringing them is every type of consumer except this one.
If I want to sell clothing to an informed millennial with some disposable income, I’m likely being told I can find that millennial on social media, which is both true and not. That customer probably is on social media but the chances that person does anything other than complain to your brand about not getting a prompt response to an email complaint about an online order gone wrong is very slim.
And so what brands end up doing is exposing themselves to an endless series of public problem-solving on private customer order issues — scroll through the mentions of any airline Twitter account at literally any time of day that’s all that goes on, more or less — instead of spreading whatever gospel they hoped their social media account would disseminate.
As I watched television this weekend and was inundated with bad social media encouragements, I noticed that the actual TV commercials were pretty good. I’m guessing that the large number of creative hopefuls who went through Tisch and USC and opted for steady work making commercials doesn’t hurt here.
But right now the advertising industrial complex seems sure of a few things. One of them is that millennials really care about brands. This is surely wrong. The other thing people seem to be sure of is that millennials don’t watch TV. Which is probably a little right and a little wrong.
Watching TV is great, easy fun. Most people I know watch TV (I’m counting Netflix), and the absolutely Byzantine process of setting up cable — even more than cost — is the reason my peers are opting not to get cable in their apartments or homes.
But at least we’re having a discussion about what TV can do better and make itself viable in the future.
Social media, on the other hand, is fighting battles with competitors, its own users, advertisers, investors, and so on. All these networks can offer are big numbers of people who might be using the free service. And hashtags.
If I’m an advertiser right now, I’m ditching social, ditching programmatic web ads — everyone hates that they go to jcrew.com one time and won’t get anything but J. Crew banner ads on every site they visit — and sticking to television.
And yes, everything I’m thinking about with respect to advertising right now starts here.
NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.