Hijacked hashtags: Learning from big brand blunders

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, British television broadcaster ITV supported their coverage with a Twitter campaign, asking people to tweet their #goalface, with the best ones potentially making it onto the television. As Buzzfeed pointed out: This was never going to go wrong, was it?

Hijacked hashtags have the potential to bring digital marketers out in a cold sweat. Fortunately ITV’s has been light-hearted and fun, and has probably worked well for them… But for every ITV, there’s a disaster. Here are some of the biggest hijacked hashtag horror stories – and how to avoid them.

  1. Marketing in silo

Australian airline Quantas went through a tough time in 2011. After a long running (public) dispute with pilots and engineers that led to industrial action and management temporarily closing the airline (leaving many thousands of passengers affected), a decision to restructure that would lead to 1,000 job losses didn’t make things any easier. The #QuantasLuxury campaign could not have come at a worse time. People were asked to name their dream luxury inflight experience. Instead, customers who had been let down by Quantas took to Twitter to share their displeasure.

More recently, UKIP’s #WhyImVotingUkip campaign also became the subject of Twitter trolls, using it to mock the party. Politics can be incredibly divisive, and they didn’t take into account just how vocal their detractors could be.

Vodafone’s #MakeMeSmile hashtag was also hijacked by protesters angry at allegations of tax avoidance.

How you can avoid it:

(UKIP comms team, look away now)  As with any type of marketing communication activity, it shouldn’t be run in silo, separate from the rest of the business. Whether the public aren’t your biggest fans right now, or you simply don’t have the resource to fulfil any new work that comes in, sometimes it’s just not the right time for a full-on sales and marketing push.

Take time to consider how your campaign might affect your business stakeholders (including customers and employees), and be as certain as you can be that they have a positive sentiment towards you before going live with that hashtag.

  1. Mixed messages

Susan Boyle was a contestant on a television talent show, who wowed the audience with her fantastic singing voice. She didn’t win the competition, but still walked away with an album deal. To promote it, a party was planned where Susan would sing and answer questions from fans. The hashtag #SusanAlbumParty was used to promote it – but it was soon hijacked as the Twitterati noticed it could read something else altogether… #SusAnalBumParty – providing numerous, erm… ‘off topic’ tweets.

In another example, people were starting to write obituaries for singer Cher before she confirmed that she was not, in fact, dead at all. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had recently passed away and the hashtag #NowThatchersDead had been misread as #NowThatChersDead

How you can avoid it:

Make sure you are clear and your hashtag isn’t ambiguous – or can be read to mean something else entirely. Write it out in lowercase, uppercase and play around with the capital letters to make sure it can’t be misconstrued.

  1. What’s your point?

Hashtags (by their very nature) are a great way of grouping tweets to a particular subject. #McDstories was McDonald’s attempt at talking up their suppliers and their produce, as farmers of beef and potatoes were showcased in videos on their website. Many readers of the hashtag saw this as an open invite to share their own McDonald’s stories… missing the point of the campaign and encouraging negative tweets. With millions of customers around the world, McDonald’s have many more happy customers than unhappy, but when a hashtag is hijacked in this way, the negativity becomes a lot more visible.

How you can avoid it:

McDonald’s used a hashtag that was open and vague. They actually started the campaign with #MeetTheFarmers which succinctly explains their intentions. The change to #McDstories practically asked people to contribute, and to hijack it! Make sure you review hashtags to see if your intention could be misinterpreted, or seen as a cue for jokes at your expense. Ensure your hashtag has focus and clearly relates to your campaign – otherwise it could miss the point and be used for something else entirely.

Have you seen any other hijacked hashtag horror stories? Please share in the comments below!

Moving forward

What’s the moral of this Bad Marketing story for you? What should they have done differently? What will you do differently in future?

Please comment below and share if you found this article useful.

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Chris Rogers

I curate stories of #badmarketing so marketing professionals and business owners like you can learn from the mistakes of others - and produce better marketing that’s right first time. Bad Marketing also aims to be essential reading for marketers, academics & students – and anyone interested in the challenges of marketing.

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