The Introduction of Hashtags
Hashtags were popping up in status updates, comments and photo captions all over Facebook long before the social network officially launched the feature as part of its platform in June, so naturally you’d expect them to be a huge success, right? Well, they’re not, and a number of issues could doom the feature before it ever takes off if they’re not taken care of in the very near future.
So far, hashtags have hardly managed to make any meaningful impact whatsoever, with both regular users and brands seeking increased reach to new potential consumers. According to a recent Facebook engagement study by analytics company Simply Measured, “brand posts containing hashtags are not driving additional engagement” as compared to posts without them.
For a feature that’s seen so much success on other social networks like Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and even Facebook-owned Instagram, this lack of engagement suggests a major oversight by the folks at Facebook HQ. Here’s my take on what Facebook did (and continues to do) wrong with hashtags:
Lack of Communication
As mentioned earlier, Facebook was seeing plenty of hashtag use before they decided to take the plunge, and it seems as if those in charge were counting on users to intuitively understand that hashtags were active, clickable links that created their own news feeds when they were made active.
While the concept isn’t the most difficult to understand, Facebook failed to prepare its users to make effective use of the feature. Word spread quickly through the social realm (ironically, through hashtags on networks like Twitter and Google+), which alerted those users to the upcoming changes.
Unfortunately, Facebook’s own lack of a system that informs users of important information (more on this below) means that there’s probably a considerable percentage of active Facebook users who aren’t even aware of what a hashtag is, let alone how to use one properly.
Another stumbling block in Facebook’s grand hashtag experiment is the by-default private nature of its posts. Todd Wasserman over at Mashable hit on some of the major limitations of Facebook privacy when it comes to hashtags, namely that in order to create a conversation centered around a particular tag, users have to set all their posts to “public.”
Given the recent media furor regarding the NSA’s collection of public data through programs like PRISM and the conflicting reports of Facebook’s involvement in sharing its users information, it’s not surprising in the least that there hasn’t been a massive rush to participate in conversations on hashtag-specific news feeds.
This lack of public interactions makes it difficult for Facebook to accurately gauge which hashtags and which interests are driving the most traffic and generating the most engagement, which takes us to the last (and, in my opinion, most detrimental) flaw in Facebook’s implementation of hashtags:
No ‘Trending Topics’
Ask any marketer what they are hoping to achieve with their campaigns and you’ll likely receive some variation on the same response: Return on Investment. With social media, ROI isn’t always a direct, instant-gratification process, but the long-term success of a social media campaign begins with engagement. Without generating engagement, the investment (of overhead time, promotional materials, etc.) far outweighs the returns.
By introducing hashtags without an accompanying feature highlighting the most active and popular discussions (‘Trending Topics’ on Twitter; ‘What’s Hot’ on Google+), Facebook has created a feature it expects brands to make use of without any way of quantifying returns.
Many brands excited about the potential for hashtags to attract vast new audiences and exponentially increase revenue have likely discovered there isn’t quite as large an audience for their brilliant hashtag campaigns as they had hoped.
If Facebook doesn’t make adjustments quickly, they could very well lose the biggest brands and—isn’t this interesting—their best hope for a greater return on their investment in the feature to begin with. Hashtag-specific advertisements aren’t yet available on Facebook, but by the time they are, the companies with the largest ad budgets may have allocated their dollars elsewhere.
What’s Next for Facebook?
None of this is to say that Facebook is failing or going downhill; the company’s 53% profit hike over 2012 for the second quarter of this year does plenty to derail that train of thought. However, this may be a sign that the network needs to spend more time understanding how brands can best make use of their features before they are launched. Users fuel the conversation on Facebook, but brands fill its pockets.
Time will tell whether hashtags thrive—or even survive—on Facebook, but for now they appear to be an unprofitable investment of your valuable resources.