Six months after being named ‘word of the year,’ the hashtag is coming to Facebook.
Yesterday, Facebook announced the first in a series of new features that will make it easier for its users to carry on public conversations – beyond their circle of ‘friends’ – within the platform. This marks a significant shift, as Facebook has traditionally built its conversation platform in a more limited, non-public manner.
Beginning today, users will be able to click through hashtagged words on Facebook. Upon clicking, they will be able to view all public posts – from both individuals and pages – on that same topic. Users can also enter a hashtag directly into the Facebook search bar to explore conversations there.
For Facebook, the move seems to make sense. People already proactively discuss major events and topics on the platform every day within their own network of contacts. Yet unlike more public platforms such as Twitter, these conversations have not been searchable and it hasn’t been possible for people to enter a broader conversation – beyond their own network – around a given topic.
And according to a recent Mashable report, only 28 percent of Facebook posts are ever made public beyond a user’s intimate circle of friends. Whether hashtags indicate that Facebook is making an effort to become an even bigger player in search remains to be seen; remember, Facebook doesn’t ‘crawl’ the public web like traditional search engines do.
Users remain in complete control of who can actually view their posts, so marketers must monitor adoption over the coming weeks. Consumer behavior across other platforms would indicate that many people enjoy following and participating in public conversations during live events and programs, but this behavior is completely new to the Facebook environment.
The addition of hashtags unlocks new potential to create greater conversations on Facebook, but if users keep their privacy settings limited, the impact of this feature will be smaller. It will also be interesting to see if the addition of the hashtag feature inspires people to use Facebook as more of a ‘real-time’ community than they do currently (e.g. live commenting on a sports game vs. sharing a few select posts).
Demographics will also play a significant role in hashtag usage and consumption. According to Pew Research Center’s most recent report, Facebook’s audience skews older than the Tumblrs and Twitters of the world, so hashtagging conversations is not as natural of a behavior to this audience. Moreover, the generation of digital natives that have come to utilize hashtags most – teens and Millennials – are spending less time on Facebook.
Implications for Marketers
So, what does this move mean for brands and how can they capitalize on it in the coming months? With Facebook’s constantly changing algorithms that affect how and when brand content reaches fans’ News Feeds, the use of hashtags in campaigns will make it that much easier for fans to seek out, discover and participate in specific conversations. Brands must tap into the power of hashtags within search functionality, content discoverability and conversation participation – all the while ensuring involvement is relevant and genuine.
- Search: Brand marketers, as Facebook suggests, can search for and view public conversations to (potentially) enter, where it makes sense for them. The hashtag search functionality will be a great tool for brands to leverage when uncovering real-time, trending conversations to fuel and reassess content strategies.
- Discover: Developing a cohesive hashtag strategy and alignment across all social platforms will be even more important in brand content and conversation discovery. The same creative best practices on Facebook still apply – compelling copy and photography that is in the brand voice works best. In addition, hashtags won’t impact the distribution of or engagement in News Feed on either desktop or mobile.
- Participate: Brands can enter into conversations that are larger than their current audience of dedicated fans. By participating in relevant conversations in real-time, brands will have another opportunity to get content in front of prospective consumers (exploring the walls beyond just “friends of fans”).
Looking ahead, Facebook has reiterated on its blog that hashtags are merely a first step in its endeavor to “help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic.” On the radar: trending hashtags and “deeper insights.” Once this next wave of features rolls out, we expect the opportunities for brands to multiply, especially from a paid media standpoint.
Cover photo via Mashable
Contributors: Orli LeWinter, Director of Social Marketing Strategy and Matt Wurst, Director of Digital Communities and Content Marketing at 360i.