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Rethinking Hashtag Campaigns

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If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I approach hashtag campaigns very cautiously, as I have talked about here and here. But recently I have started to rethink the utility of hashtag campaigns, primarily in the area of raising awareness.

There is plenty of data to support the statement that hashtags work. I wrote about some of that data here. As I noted in that post, even Twitter itself has data to show that hashtags increase engagement for both individuals and brands. As my colleague Mark pointed out last week, it makes more sense to jump on an existing hashtag than try and start your own one.

Hashtags have been given a rough ride in terms of advocacy. Any kind of activity around hashtags is quickly dismissed as “slactivism” by the media and many in the political space. Examples like Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls are often used as examples. In fact, we discussed the latter in our video podcast a number of weeks ago.

But what about awareness? What if you are trying to raise the profile and wider conversation on an issue that is not getting a lot of profile? That is where my thinking has begun to change. Both #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls did an excellent job of increasing the profile of causes that would otherwise not even register as a blip on the public’s radar beforehand.

But my previous dismissal of hashtag campaigns was primarily challenged by an article in BuzzFeed, which interviewed a number of online activists to respond to a speech by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the TV show Scandal, where she stated that ” hashtag is not a movement.” Here is a sample:

“I have yet to meet a community organizer who hasn’t used social media to enhance their work. In the social movements course I took in grad school, I was struck realizing how a shift in historical consciousness was necessary before any large social movement. For me, hashtags are a way to use a tool created for corporate branding and use it for base building and consciousness raising.” – Suey Park

The various community organizers interviewed all agree that awareness is the first – and critical – element to any real change. And hashtags can play an important part in helping to drive that conversation, increasing reach and involving many more in a wider conversation.

What they do with that awareness afterwards determine what the ultimate impact of the campaign is, but as an initial step towards creating a wider movement, hashtags can play an important role.

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