<< by Michelle Doty on June 18th, 2013
As you may have noticed, Facebook introduced clickable hashtags last week—a feature that Twitter can be credited with popularizing, but one that has now become standard fare on nearly every social networking site, new and established—from Instagram to Google+ – making Facebook quite late to the #party. Hashtags were originally used to help users find tweets concerning topics they were interested in, but they’ve moved on from that original purpose to become a cultural phenomenon, often used to convey irony. They’re still useful for grouping tweets, or discovering tweets from conferences or events, or following real-time news, but they’ve arguably lost their original sheen. Even so, personally, I was happy to see the hashtag finally adopted by Facebook; my friends were already using them incessantly, why not make them clickable, searchable, and at least a little bit useful?
From the mouth of Facebook itself, “Hashtags are a first step in surfacing relevant and important public conversations. Over time our goal is to build out additional functionality for marketers, including trending hashtags and new insights, so that you can better understand how hashtags fit into your overall Facebook advertising strategies and drive your business objectives.”
As with most of Facebook’s decisions these days, hashtags are yet another feature to make marketers happy, allowing for a potentially very effective way to target audiences in real-time, in addition to the already long list of targeting options available. While Facebook hasn’t announced any new ad features tied to hashtags just yet, you can be sure they will. If hashtags catch on, they have the potential to be that missing piece of the puzzle that Facebook has been waiting for to better understand its users. It has such a vast amount of information that users willingly divulge in their status updates, but even the most finely tuned algorithms (which Facebook’s Graph Search definitely does not seem to possess), can’t always discern what people are telling it. Think about all of the misspellings, the one or two word cryptic statuses that only those closest to the people sharing can understand, “Done.” If people began adding hashtags, along with Facebook’s emojis to express sentiment, Facebook would have a wealth of data that no other network possesses.
There’s a lot that remains to be seen before we can really start to assess the real value of this addition from both a user experience and marketing perspective. There’s a lot of potential, but it all depends on whether people choose to use these new features in ways that Facebook hopes—real-time news sharing for example—or, if instead, they decide to finally leave Facebook for other networks that haven’t become quite as commercialized, like myriad studies have shown teens are wont to do.
The problem with this feature-stealing, or copying—I’m not sure how to classify it exactly—is simply that the competing social networks are gradually becoming clones of one another. With that said, this ‘borrowing’ of features across social networking sites is nothing new. Google+’s Plus One (+1) is the equivalent of a Facebook Like, Facebook’s ‘subscribe’ is the equivalent of a Twitter ‘follow,’ Google+’s new layout is strikingly similar to Pinterest, and Facebook’s Instagram is likely introducing videos on Thursday, blatantly borrowing from Vine… nothing new is actually all that new. With every change each site makes, it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate, and soon there may be little to tell them apart from one another other than their brand names—a Coke versus Pepsi dilemma.
This isn’t actually a problem, it just means that marketers will have to become even more finely attuned to where their audience is actually participating online. Are they still using Facebook, or are they primarily on Instagram or Vine or Pinterest? There’s nothing truly new here, but the addition of the Facebook hashtag seemed like a great opportunity to drive home the fact that brands need to shy away from a Twitter-strategy or a Facebook-strategy and instead focus on the larger social media strategy, as it relates to the even larger marketing strategy—public relations, SEO, paid media, word-of-mouth, etc. Social media is just one part, and since these networks are changing daily to mirror one another, we all should be focused on the bigger picture, and stop chasing the one golden network.