Facebook has finally confirmed that it is joining the #crowd. Facebook has confirmed that it will be introducing hashtags to its social network. In a post on Wednesday, the social giant outlined how its new hashtag functionality would “surface some of the interesting discussions people are having”.
Similar to other services like Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, hashtags on Facebook will allow users to contextualise their posts in larger discussions or topics, as well as view feeds of what other people and Pages are saying about these discussions/topics.
Its statement concluded: “Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We'll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months, including trending hashtags and deeper insights, that help people discover more of the world's conversations.”
But while the Facebook post says the hashtag functionality is “starting today”, it’s not quite there yet.
“It’s not really ready yet,” notes David Skerrett, director of mobile social platforms, at R/GA London. “It’s not on mobile yet, it’s desktop only, so that’s half of Facebook use out for now. It’s not in most paid formats, it’s just in desktop newsfeed ads. So that means the majority of brand fans won’t see them. It’s not in insights and you can’t see if anything is trending, so the science of “learning by doing” will be interesting to start with. But inevitably this stuff will happen in full and brands will get to grips with using an additional tactic to generate more connected conversations between consumers and brands, and surface content in different ways – all powered by the consumer, and inevitably with the option to amplify with paid media.”
While experts have noted that there are certainly 'cultural' motivations for the move - "Facebook has introduced the hashtag because it’s missing out, without it, on a form of cultural grammar... The hashtag started out as a piece of user-created metadata, but it’s now really just a grammatical device, and probably more useful for it," says Neil Major, strategy director at Yomego - certainly one of the main drivers would seem to be its potential for boosting ad sales. And while the network has stated they won't be sold for advertising purposes yet, it is something that is extremely likely in the not-too-distant future - Facebook needs to improve its commercial performance to appease its shareholders and the hashtag offers some potential.
“I sense this may be a decision to appease investor interests, as opposed to a feature that users will actually find useful,” suggests Sam Haseltine, social media strategist at Greenlight. “Whether it’s a television programme or a developing news story, there’s great value in being able to own the online discussion around a live event. Brands are currently using Twitter to claim that ownership and Twitter is currently monetising that discussion to, apparent, great effect; Facebook appears to have recognised that it needs to control some of that share too.”
Skerrett adds: “The advertising world loves a hasthtag as a connector between conversations, a call to action on comms, and Facebook in embracing it are squarely moving into the second screen territory occupied by Twitter and search territory of Google. A clue to this is in their reference to 8-11pm peak usage hours of Facebook which are neatly aligned to TV consumption. Facebook ads and TVCs together: the media multiplier effect. Hashtag equals more ad products, and they will (eventually) work beautifully on mobile, Facebook’s Achilles heel.”
A boost to brands?
Rupert Staines, European MD of RadiumOne, believes the new functionality will be a boon to brands.
“As millions of potential customers are using hashtags to broadcast their feelings, these moments represent an untapped opportunity for advertisers to interact, in a useful way, with consumers in real-time,” he explains. “With the appropriate tools, advertisers will be able to instantly connect with consumers who show interest in relevant content through hashtags in real-time. Connecting with audiences that use hashtag targeting can enable advertisers to gain a competitive edge; and ultimately make more of their paid media. And this is surely a key driver for Facebook – the data! For example, a brand can identify consumers who use hashtags such as #nike #sport #fitness on desktop computers, tablets and mobile devices and build a campaign with full page ad roadblocks across desktop and mobile platforms to these same consumers online within milliseconds.”
“Assuming the adoption of the functionality by users, hashtags will help brands to increase the organic reach of their content,” adds Haseltine. “However, generally speaking I anticipate it will be a way for brands to unify the online discussion about their products, promotions, sales or competitions. It means that in marketing messaging, one hashtag can be communicated and consumers will know that it’s relevant regardless of the platform they use.”
Laura Dineen, head of strategy at social business agency, BLOOM Worldwide, notes: “The value will come from the clickable links that are created, that way traffic can be directed and then there is the possibility of sponsored links. Currently these are not monetised, but the value in tracking global trending conversations as they happen could be huge. Data taken from these conversations could identify a larger population of mentions and uncover usage trends, user information and usage metrics. It’s all about real-time marketing. The hashtag provides a way to give deeper insight on what is going on within a social network.”
She continues: “Brands will be able to join more conversations around topics, reaching wider audiences and of course have another way to listen. They will also have the opportunity to filter conversations for themselves to track user responses and trends as they happen. Listening tools will become more effective in receiving and filtering the data, but in essence the use of hashtagging in this way could see brands tracking users around events and trends without the need even for a listening tool.”
Haseltine speculates that Facebook has some big plans up its sleeve. “Whilst Facebook already lets brands target ads by topic (interests users have explicitly disclosed as things they are interested in), hashtag suggests to me that Facebook could begin to offer brands the opportunity to promote their content in a way that is relevant to the discussions that people have, and have had, on the platform i.e. targeting an advert towards someone who loves to talk about the #PremierLeague. I suspect that previously the interpretation of natural language would have caused issues in the accuracy of the targeting, hashtags will resolve this issue by allowing the users to organise and prepare their content ready for advertisers.”
Will it #fail?
But not everyone is convinced that hashtags will work as successfully on Facebook as they have on other networks.
“The very nature of Facebook is distinctively different to Twitter, it is a private network,” says Haseltine. “Similarly, a user addresses a very different audience on each platform; on Twitter for example, I care very much about the way people perceive me through the content that I share, whereas on Facebook it’s a chance for me to share photos of my holidays, or my family. Subsequently I anticipate hashtags on Facebook to serve as a great way for people to see all the photos their friends uploaded after #SamsBirthday, or perhaps what they’re saying about a popular television show. In this respect, I believe it could be fairly popular. However I doubt hashtags on Facebook will ever help to facilitate organic viral explosions we’ve seen achieved on Twitter in the past. The nature of the network just won’t allow it.”
And one major concern for both Facebook and its users is the possibility of brands piggybacking hashtags to bombard networkers with promotional messages.
“I have to wonder if it's a risky move for Facebook in terms of money making; will brands decrease their use of paid ads if it becomes easier to get their message across for free?” says Charlotte Healey, SEO coordinator at SilverDoor. “Facebook's primary function, at least at the start, was to connect friends. I know a lot of people who already get frustrated with brand invasion of their newsfeed, and it sounds like it's only going to increase with the use of the hashtag. You also have to wonder if it's even necessary since Facebook isn't so much about real-time news and that's the main idea on Twitter and Google+. Unless this changes, there's a potential that hashtags on Facebook will linger and therefore people will simply lose interest.”
Nonetheless, the general consensus is that while Facebook users are often fiercely resistant to change, the hashtag functionality will be warmly received, and most early feedback is positive about the Facebook hashtag and what it points to in the social platform.
“It talks to Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless focus on the consumer, the consumer, the consumer,” concludes Skerrett. “Consumers are already using hashtags. Facebook users don’t generally like change, the timeline had a negative response to start with. So introducing something already in use in everyday conversation and by the majority of their competitors (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+) is a no brainer. The majority of Facebook users will love it. And Facebook can make money from it. Two birds, one stone.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.