How to fail or succeed at social media hashtags

I was asked recently, “How can I make a hashtag go viral?”

That’s like asking how you can make a file folder in your cabinet go viral in the office. After all, hashtags are tags. They’re a way of categorizing information, a way of retrieving it. They’re not super exciting.

Hashtags are the Dewey Decimal system of social media.

For most marketers, hashtags are also self-serving by nature. They’re for the convenience of the person transmitting information so they can go back at a later time and find out what happened with the tag. Do they benefit the audience? Only if the audience is looking for that specific piece of information.

So how do you make people want to share something that’s both boring and benefits you? The same way you make people do anything that benefits you: make it benefit them, too.

Libraries made the Dewey Decimal system (which benefits the library) powerful and useful to its audience by creating a standard and predictability. You know that martial arts books are going to be in 796.815 fairly consistently. You know that photography books are going to be in 770.

Likewise, if you consistently publish content to a hashtag around a specific theme, that hashtag becomes associated with your brand to your audience. For example, almost every weekday morning, I publish 5 interesting reads under the hashtag #the5. I’ve been doing this since 2009. What happens with consistency? People start picking it up:

The most influential sharers of #the5 according to Sysomos MAP.

They share and reshare until your content reaches millions:

Cursor_and_MAP_-___the5_ 2.jpg
The number of times #the5 has been seen and shared in the last 6 months.

The hashtag fulfills its purpose as a categorization system and an information retrieval system.

Compare this with how the average marketer thinks about hashtags. They see them as one-time use throwaways, part of very short-sighted, campaign-centric thinking. Hashtags are a checklist item at the bottom of the marketing plan. They don’t “go viral” because they don’t live long enough for people to see them and pay attention.

This is how to fail at hashtags; imagine a library that threw out catalog numbers every time you checked out a book. The next time you came back to the library, you’d have no idea where the book was. That’s what you do to your audience when you use hashtags only inside of campaigns.

Asking how to make a hashtag go viral is the wrong question. Ask instead how to be known for the content you create and share that incidentally also has a consistent hashtag.

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Link building is dead, long live link building!

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The king is dead!
Long live the king!

This cry from medieval times at first appears contradictory until you think about it:

The former king dies: the king is dead.

The new king ascends to the throne: long live the king!

The same is true of marketing techniques like link building. Old link building was:

  • Send mass emails to webmasters, begging for links
  • Spamming blog comments
  • Making widgets with automatic links back
  • Buying link placements
  • Submitting crappy guest blog posts
  • Auto-syndicating your content on thousands of low quality domains

Link building is dead! Google has even said so.

The new link building is:

  • Writing content so good that journalists and publishers pick it up
  • Connecting and building real relationships with influencers and journalists
  • Creating tools that people want to share
  • Guest posting for direct traffic, not links
  • Buying no-follow ads to reinforce your content’s visibility
  • Frequent social/email engagement with your audience, sharing your content and encouraging people to share with their audiences

Long live link building!

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Trends that confuse me: watching people do X

Julia Child might have started it all. I refer to the late television star who made “watching other people cook” an international sensation. That was the top of the slippery slope.

Next came Twitch. The avalanche took off.

Cursor_and_Twitch.jpg, acquired by Amazon, is the network that streamed live video of other people playing video games. eSports do provide education and entertainment for gamers who aren’t the best in the world. Watching people do player versus player (PvP) 3-on-3 arenas in World of Warcraft can give even the poorest PvPer an idea or two to try in their next PvP foray.


Then came things like LiveCoding. You can watch and interact with developers as they write code. Interesting, educational, but perhaps not as dramatic or exciting.

Today, you’ve got “Watching people do X” for nearly everything. Of course, the adult industry jumped in as soon as possible. But then there are the more unusual side branches of humanity. Case in point: the Korean video sensation muk-bang, in which people pay to watch… other people eat. I suppose this closes the circle that Julia Child started. Watch people cook, then watch people eat.


Watching other people, live on streaming video, is a thing. It’s more of a thing now, thanks to the capabilities of smartphones, widespread broadband and LTE, and services like YouTube that make streaming video easy.

So here’s the big question for you and your marketing: how can you make use of this trend? What things would people willingly watch? Don’t rule out your industry or company – after all, if people will pay to watch other people eat, nothing’s off the table.

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