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How to avoid hashtag heartbreak

If you’ve checked Twitter in the past week, you might have seen the latest PR faux pas. This time it’s from UKIP, as its attempt to get voters to celebrate reasons why they were voting for the party, utilising the hashtag #WhyImVotingUKIP, backfired.

If you missed the online storm that ensued, take a quick look at some of the most controversial #WhyImVotingUKIP responses on Buzzfeed. What started as a genuine attempt to promote the UKIP party turned rather silly rather quickly. Similar attempts have been torpedoed for McDonalds (#McDStories), HMV (#HMVXFactorFiring) and anything that David Cameron tweets, ever.

Social media is a fickle thing that can turn positivity to negativity in a heartbeat. However a good campaign can get you publicity that money can’t buy. Here are my top tips to avoiding hashtag howlers:

Choose your hashtag wisely

We all remember the release of that Susan Boyle album, don’t we? Think about the hashtag that you’re going to implement in advance, and ensure that it leaves no room for misinterpretation. Anything that does can leave a company with a very red face.

Know your audience

Who are you aiming to target? In what way are you hoping to engage them? Make sure to research these things thoroughly before you throw those little symbols around. Starting a hashtag campaign that gets no responses is not only a waste of time and effort but can also be slightly awkward in a “stop trying to make fetch happen” kind of way.

Choose your timing

After announcing a 9.2% price hike at the end of last year, British Gas thought it was a good time for its Customer Services Director, Bert Pijls, to answer questions from the Twittersphere. As they quickly found out, it couldn’t have been a worse time. The ensuing tweets included this gem:

Before you start your campaign, check how your audience is feeling towards your business. If they’re not happy, it might be wise to rethink your strategy this time.

Steer clear of promoting your brand through tragedy

Although this idea should have a flashing red light over the top of it and police tape all around, it’s surprising how many companies have caused a stir by ill-advised tweets surrounding various tragedies. For example, rapper MouthpieSe’s frankly awful 9/11 tweet: “I’m dropping 2 bombs 2 day! Get ready #IGOTABOMB #SEPTEMBER11″. Or Epicurious’ “In honour of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole grain and raspberry scones!” Epicurious later apologised for its insensitivity.

Check your photos

From airports tweeting pictures of crashes to Spearmint Rhino tweeting awkward baby photos, the wrong kind of image can get you all kinds of negative publicity.

Don’t be evil

Simple – if you’re a company that has a negative reputation, it might not be a great idea to start a social media campaign, a la Shell’s picture caption competition. Twitter on the whole has a rather strong moral compass and tweeters aren’t afraid to speak. If you find that your social media campaign is going sour, then cut it dead as fast as possible, and read my coworker Rob’s great blog about crisis comms.

If you live by the Oscar Wilde quote that “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” then feel free to hashtag with abandon, and good luck to you! But if your company reputation could be at stake, then make sure to stop and think before you send your campaign out into the world.