Hashtag Takeovers vs. Hashtag Engagement

Yesterday, Anne Weiskopf and I staged a “Panel Takeover” at SXSWi.  The panel, organized by PETA‘s Royale Ziegler, was titled “#Hashtag Takeovers and Successes in Innovative Virtual Activism,” and the session description promised content that was very interesting to us:

“When NASA public affairs specialist Stephanie Schierholz was speaking on a customer service panel at TWTRCON, PETA asked monkey-loving supporters to hijack the #TWTRCON hashtag … . Tweets about NASA’s radiation experiments began appearing on the conference’s large projectors meant to display tweets about the event.”

Clearly, this panel was one that we had to attend.

The Background

If you attended our TWTRCON NY 10 conference, you experienced a live case study of the risks that brands face on the realtime web.  During the customer service panel, which included NASA Social Media Manager Stephanie Schierholz, tweets started flooding our backchannel, shouting:

.@NASA STOP TORTURING ANIMALS! http://ht.ly/1YkVy RT 4 monkeys! #TWTRCON

PETA was staging an “action” targeting NASA, and chose to conduct a “hashtag takeover” during our event.  Initially, attendees were interested in learning more about the cause, and the moderator asked Stephanie Shierholz to respond.  It was an interesting live case study of how brands need to be prepared to respond to PR challenges in realtime.

Once Schierholz had responded, however, TWTRCON attendees wanted to get back to the content & the conversation.  But PETA supporters kept flooding the backchannel, even after attendees asked them to “stop, please, we got the message & would like to go back to what we were doing now.”  In the end, PETA’s campaign completely alienated TWTRCON attendees who were initially supportive of the cause.

I’ll leave it to others to judge the cause or the methods that PETA employs.  To me, the more important question is this:

Are “Hashtag Takeovers” an Effective Tactic? — and, if not, how do you appropriately and effectively participate in hashtags?

The lightbulb went off when I read Meg Soto’s tweet during the SXSWi panel:  “PETA’s never been interested in conversation. They just want to broadcast.”

A Hashtag Takeover, in which you flood a hashtag with a message repeated endlessly, is no different from the old “bullhorn” approach to media.  You interrupt the program that the audience is interested in, force them to watch a message that is very likely to be irrelevant to them, and then measure results based on the number of eyeballs you’ve reached.  Fine.  Advertisers have been doing this for years.

But this completely misses the opportunity inherent in realtime media:  the opportunity to participate in a conversation and, by adding value to the conversation, to engage and influence a community. Imagine if PETA, instead of mindlessly and endlessly having their existing followers ReTweet their message, had used the conference as an opportunity to:

  1. Listen to the conversation on the #TWTRCON hashtag to understand the audience & their concerns.  Had they done so, they would have seen that TWTRCON attendees are interested in supporting causes, many work at or with non-profits, and were likely to be interested in the NASA/monkey story.
  2. Add value to the conversation around the customer service panel by sharing content that was relevant and interesting.  Perhaps they could have shared examples on how challenging it is for brands to respond to activist engagements (the SXSWi panel had some great examples of that).
  3. Build support and engagement by retweeting some of our attendees’ tweets.  This would have earned PETA a place at the conversational table and made them a legitimate member of the community.
  4. Having earned a place in the conversation, educate the community about the NASA radiation program by sharing information and links, as opposed to shouting and disrupting.
  5. Ask for support from the community and tell them how they can get involved.

By participating in the conversation, PETA would have not only gotten its message out, but also expanded the number of people who were supporting its action.  They might even be able to translate this support into a live, in-person conversation between our attendees and the NASA representative, which would have been impossible for us to filter out, as we finally did with the disruptive tweets.

PETA specializes in being controversial and disruptive.  But most brands or causes would prefer to win over 350 highly influential TWTRCON (now Realtime Conference) attendees, and convert them into ambassadors for their cause.