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The Lifecycle of a Hijacked Hashtag and What It Means for Your Brand Marketing

By Sarah Barber on May 23rd 2014

Hashtag #fails have been all over the news lately, and it has social media marketers running scared.

In the recent #myNYPD ‘hashup’, a campaign meant to solicit smiling snapshots of the public with local city cops was instead used to tag photos of police brutality.

Late last year, JP Morgan’s #askJPM campaign seemed to solicit incisive, rhetorical questions from everyone except the eager career builders they’d intended to connect with.

It seems the Twitter irony-train has made yet another stop.

On May 11th, conservative pundit Ann Coulter tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign reading #bringbackourcountry, in an apparent attempt to mock photos posted by First Lady Michelle Obama and other prominent celebrities in support of the #bringbackourgirls hashtag-activism campaign.

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Coulter’s attempt at humor backfired big time, and enraged Twitter users immediately began making Coulter the butt of her own joke with photoshopped versions of her original twitpic.

Interestingly, Coulter didn’t include the #bringbackourcountry tag in the text of her original tweet, which may suggest that she never intended the hashtag to trend.

However, the Twitter community rarely responds to intentions – #bringbackourcountry was picked up by users both to show sincere support of Coulter’s message and to ironically mark posts that mocked her.


Anatomy of a hashtag hijacking

 

Tracking the two opposing uses of the #bringbackourcountry hashtag with Brandwatch analytics provided an interesting look at the lifecycle of a hijacked hashtag.

We found 952 mentions marked with the hashtag #bringbackourcountry since the 9th of May and built some simple rules to classify them as either sincere or mocking responses to Coulter’s tweet.

We also found that, even before May 12th, #bringbackourcountry was used in conjunction with #bringbackourgirls to sincerely comment about the state of affairs in Nigeria, so we added a rule to classify these posts as well.

Here’s what the data looks like sorted by category:

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Coulter’s tweet was posted at 2:55AM GMT on May 12th, and conversation using the #bringbackourcountry hashtag peaked the next day. The graph shows that, while mentions supporting Coulter’s message did outnumber mentions explicitly mocking her, they didn’t quite make up the majority of the conversation at its peak.

Mocking mentions outnumbered sincere mentions on May 14th, while sincere usage got a boost the next day, when one particular anti-Obama tweet garnered many retweets.

There was also a small spike in use of #bringbackourcountry to refer to American conservative political sentiment on May 10th, before Coulter’s tweet.

This shows that some people supportive of Coulter’s message were already using the #bringbackourcountry hashtag, which may have been a factor in the overall reach of her message at its peak.

Within three days of the May 13th peak in conversation, use of the #bringbackourcountry tag had reduced dramatically, with the majority of usage being meta-conversation discussing the backlash to Coulter’s tweet and debating the pros and cons of hashtag-activism in general.


What does it mean?

 

So, what can be learned from Coulter’s hijacking of #bringbackourcountry from its original meaning and the subsequent backlash to her message?

The overwhelming take-home point is this: the collective will of social media users is incredibly powerful but often unpredictable.

Luckily, this knowledge may be your best weapon as a social media marketer. Here are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself against the turning tide of internet sentiment:

 

1/ Be Prepared

 

When planning to use a hashtag in a campaign, it’s important to consider not only the objective, but also any other usage of the hashtag that could possibly arise.

Take the time to understand your brand’s community and the social media sphere at large, and plan for the worst. If you don’t, you leave yourself wide open to the possibility that your hashtag may go viral in a way you didn’t intend.

In Coulter’s case, quick research would have shown that posting hashtag-sign selfies practically begs for photoshopped parodies. After all, the social media community flexed its muscles with Michelle Obama’s #bringbackourgirls photo only days earlier.

 

2/ Be Specific

 

With the knowledge that you can’t control how people use your hashtag once it’s released, it may be wise to try and limit the range of potential uses from the outset.

The fatal flaw in the #askJPM campaign was that, while the company had a very specific purpose in mind for the promotion, they chose a hashtag that didn’t specify the type of questions they were inviting.

A tag like #JPMcareerQs might have kept Twitter users a bit more on-topic.

 

3/ In Trouble? Post Something Great

 

Coulter’s message got a boost on May 15th when a user tweeted a post that caught on among conservative Twitter community. Likewise, many of the posts mocking Coulter showed support of the original #bringbackourgirls message, but the spoofy photoshopped content drove most of the buzz.

These insights suggest that it may be possible to salvage a hijacked hashtag, at least to an extent, by introducing content that is particularly clever, funny, or relatable.

So if all else fails and your hashtag goes viral in the worst possible way, try posting something that will appeal to users.

If it catches on, it may allow you to turn the tide again for your hashtag.

hashtag-comic


Sarah Barber

@esjessiebee

Sarah is a Data Scientist at Brandwatch NYC. She enjoys talking fast, drinking tea and thinking about digital communication, in particular how social media is changing language use.