Parker Molloy
September 13, 2014 7:58 am

Earlier this week, Twitter hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhenILeft launched and immediately started trending. The two tags—which featured stories from survivors of domestic abuse—were created in response to the Ray Rice domestic violence controversy. These tags ruled Twitter, and served as a platform for a much-needed discussion about violence against women and abusive relationships.

In a completely mind-blowing move, one brand decided to use the popular hashtag for marketing purposes.

“#WhyIStayed You had pizza,” the official Twitter account for DiGiorno Pizza tweeted out late Monday. Though the brand quickly deleted the tweet amidst backlash from thousands of users who criticized the company for seemingly trying to use domestic violence as a cheeky way to drive brand awareness, the damage was done. “A million apologies,” the account followed up. “Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.”

This screw up is hardly the first time a brand has put their metaphorical foot in its metaphorical mouth, but it is one of the more cringe-worthy moments. “Real-time marketing” is a growing trend among advertisers and brand managers. In essence, it’s a brand trying to tie their name to an unrelated current event.

In recent months, hashtags have taken on a new meaning. They’ve become tools of activism and citizen journalism, raising awareness about serious issues and mobilizing groups of people to collectively share and consider each other’s experiences. They are powerful tools. However, if used incorrectly—as DiGiorno Pizza so disastrously illustrates—that messaging becomes diluted. So how do you navigate this brave, new world of hashtags? There are a few dos and don’ts we’ve picked up on. Big brands, listen up:

1. Do your research

Before hopping on a trending tag bandwagon, make sure to read a slew of examples of how people are using that tag. It’s important to understand the larger context of the hashtag you’re using, and to respect its intention. This is where DiGiorno went wrong. So very wrong.

2. Don’t use serious hashtags to hawk something

More and more, trending hashtags are raising awareness about serious issues. You don’t want to dilute their message for personal gain. That’s just not cool.

3. Do keep your own hashtag short and sweet

If you’re launching your own hashtag, be mindful of the fact that Twitter’s 140-character limit can sometimes be a bit restrictive, and every character of your tag will count against it. By creating a hashtag that’s too long, you’re limiting the amount of room you’re giving yourself (or others) to add to it. On average, the most effective hashtags are no more than three or four words—a simple phrase that prompts a discussion. Think #notjusthello or #askhermore.

4. Don’t feed the trolls

Some people use hashtag searches to try to pick fights with others online. As tempting as it may be to try to engage someone who tweets at you, I’ve often found it’s best to just block the spammers and to not let them get you down.

5. Don’t repeat the hashtag in the same tweet

Given that hashtags are used to keep conversations organized, using the same tag twice in a tweet is clunky, and doesn’t add any value to your tweet.

6. Make sure you’re using the right tag

If you want to join the conversation, do it right. As hashtags mushroom into movements, accidental variations can crop up. Make sure you’re using the tag that most effectively broadcasts what you want to say—in most cases, that means using the most popular version of the hashtag. Make your voice heard. And most importantly, say something that can make a lasting and positive impact.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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