#social media: changing behaviors in both directions with the “hashtag”

Posted on October 7, 2009. Filed under: Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , |

Much attention has been paid to the impact of social media on marketing and PR. However, the power that citizens and consumers have to promote change within corporations and governments has also been affected by the changing relationships in the media marketplace.

Traditionally, information traveled in only one direction: corporate world → traditional media → consumers. Today, though, social media has revolutionized the flow of information between companies and their stakeholders.

Today’s consumer/citizen produces his or her own content on the Web quickly, at little or no cost and as part of his/her daily routine. This “non-media” content circulates freely and quickly from one corner of the globe to another.

With the rise of these online networks, the relationship between the citizen consumer and large organizations has become far more democratic and horizontal. The resulting lack of control over content and the growing number of people joining the online conversation can result in uncertainty for businesses and governments.

A few examples below illustrate the way in which the “social relationship” between large organizations and the citizen consumer has changed with the arrival of Web 2.0 and social networks.

For companies to successfully join the social media conversation, they need to understand the rules and conventions of the game. In the Twitter world, hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and data to one’s tweets, and they help users follow conversations on the site. In addition, a hashtag is a way of notifying users that they can join a tweet to a specific discussion or event.

  • After the Iranian protests broke out, the volume of tweets using the tag #IranElection increased, resulting in thousands of tweets about the protests. Twitter then played a significant role as proxy servers were used to circumvent the government’s efforts to block access to the Internet. Citizens both within and outside Iran used hashtags frequently to inform and update people about the events and to help organize the protests.
  • Habitat, a British furniture retailer, saw its reputation at stake when it used Twitter in a marketing campaign to sell products and add consumers to its marketing database. Habitat used hashtags to promote an offer to win a £1,000 (US$1,900) gift card, but it chose hashtags already in use for other purposes, such as #mousavi, which was also used to protest the Iranian elections. Twitter users accused Habitat of improperly capitalizing on a serious political issue, and its mistakes were heavily retweeted on the microblogging service. As a result, Habitat pulled all the messages and replaced them with standard marketing tweets. It also apologized for its promotional messages on Twitter.

These examples illustrate that new media, such as Twitter, can become hubs of real-time information, and any player in the media marketplace – corporation, government or consumer – can contribute ideas, opinion, news and observations.

But as Habitat’s experience has shown, the properties of Twitter can result in a disadvantage since it is instantaneous and accessible anytime, anywhere, by thousands of “followers,” making mistakes more immediately visible to potential target audiences. The Habitat story also demonstrates that consumers are reluctant to “buy” just any information released by corporations on social media sites. On the contrary, they scrutinize content according to the rules established by the online community.

Consumers and citizens can now produce media content and messages that drive change in the offline world, as much as they receive information that seeks to change their behaviors. We know that the hallmark of excellent public relations is two-way communication. Now that markets are conversations, consumers have as much opportunity to change organizational behaviors as organizations have to change the behaviors of their stakeholders.

Claudia Schoenbohm is a writer and consultant in the Dow Jones Media Lab. This post is an excerpt from her graduate research studies at the London School of Economics.

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