Should you ‘brand’ a hashtag?

Faisal Islam: Sure that all the brilliant BBC reporters realise that #BBCBudget goes against the entire point of SOCIAL media. It will be abandoned.

Two experiments by news organisations with Twitter hashtags during today’s UK budget have raised an issue around ‘branding’ and how appropriate it is to social media.

The BBC, it seems, is encouraging users to adopt the #BBCBudget hashtag to flag their tweets as part of the ‘national conversation’. Channel 4’s Faisal Islam, above, feels it’s a waste of 3 characters.

But Channel 4 itself is trying something not too dissimilar: #C4cuts aims to crowdsource details of UK spending cuts. Ed Fraser, online editor for Channel 4 News, is quoted by as saying the channel wants to “harness the power of social media and the wisdom of the crowd”.

But the crowd has already started doing this – Where Are The Cuts? most visibly and effectively, but also in niche areas by Voluntary Sector Cuts, Birmingham Budget Cuts (disclosure: run by my Birmingham MA Online Journalism students), and even The Guardian on library cuts.

I’m curious why Channel 4 didn’t decide to add to it, rather than going it alone with a ‘branded’ hashtag. Meanwhile, it raises a common issue with any crowdsourced project: who claims ownership on what is produced? By branding a hashtag (and there are good technical and editorial reasons* for doing so) you risk people thinking this is a marketing exercise – how do you avoid that distrust?

Opinions welcome…

*UPDATE: Ed Fraser says this “misses the point of hashtags – #c4cuts is to help group and identify cuts rather than brand”

I can see that from C4’s perspective (the editorial reasons mentioned above – it’s also why I use ‘brand’ in inverted commas – I’m not saying that C4 or BBC are trying to brand anything) but I’m talking about users’ perspectives. Some will be suspicious – and if there are other sites doing similar work that isn’t being linked to (for whatever reason) then those suspicions are likely to be increased.

UPDATE 2: CisionBlog have a visualisation of hashtagged tweets which gives a good indication why ‘branded’ hashtags may be useful on a subject so heavily tweeted:

Budget hashtagged tweets

FROM THE COMMENTS – UPDATE 3: The BBC’s Alex Gubbay explains:

“The potential benefits for us around using something like #BBCBudget are two-fold:

  • “It easily allows our audience to follow all the tweets from our main accounts and key tweeters on the story (ie: @Peston @BBCStephanie @BBCLauraK etc.) in a hopefully more manageable way.
  • “It gives both our audience and our teams a chance to filter the overall narrative where appropriate – based on prompts and the thrust of our on-air coverage.”

There’s a lot of very informed discussion in the comments – worth going through in full.

UPDATE 4 (March 24): The BBC’s Trushar Barot has blogged about the experiment and the reasons behind it:

“The key beneficiary of the hashtag experiment has been the Live Event Page on the BBC News website. One of our producers who was responsible for ensuring the best tweets went onto the page told me that having a dedicated BBC hashtag had made a huge difference editorially. Since the audience was proactively using the hashtag, it was easier for us to republish those tweets on the website, as their writers had made the choice to engage with us. It felt much more comfortable editorially than just taking tweets without someone’s permission – even if Twitter’s terms may allow us to do that.”

18 thoughts on “Should you ‘brand’ a hashtag?

  1. Adam

    Despite #C4Cuts, I’m with Faisal on this. There’s no point branding a hashtag. It’s just daft. If the BBC is trying to crowd source opinions on the budget, it should be listening to anyone who says something on the #budget.

    Of course, the alternative (weaker) argument, but one that is practical from a media producer point of view, is to say that the people following your channel are your audience, so it’s more strategic to listen to their opinions because those are the ones that are more appropriate for your audience. But the BBC is by definition pretty much a catch-all channel anyway, multi-demographics and all that. So a branded hashtag is daft.

    The BBC doesn’t do it all the time, I note. During the BBC 6Music discussion programme Roundtable, Twitter users are encouraged to the use the hasthag #roundtable, which always surprised me: if ever there was a case for a branded tag, it would be when it refers to a particular, branded programme. Doubtless there are other ’roundtables’ to be discussed on Twitter.

    Big Media: still institutionally lacking in understanding of social media?

    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Another argument may be that by tagging your tweet #BBCBudget you are giving implicit permission to the BBC to read your tweet on air. Yes, I know Twitter is public but never underestimate the fear of legals…

  2. Alex Gubbay

    Hi – Alex from BBC News here.

    Glad to see you’ve picked up what we’ve been trying today, which has been something of an experiment for us in terms of our coverage on a story like this (as opposed to a programme like Question Time for example where #bbcqt is well-established).

    I certainly wouldn’t claim we’re trying to counter hashtags that evolve naturally or from others – we often use those when tweeting news lines on the big stories or trending topics.

    But the potential benefits for us around using something like #BBCBudget are two-fold:

    * It easily allows our audience to follow all the tweets from our main accounts and key tweeters on the story (ie: @Peston @BBCStephanie @BBCLauraK etc.) in a hopefully more manageable way.

    * It gives both our audience and our teams a chance to filter the overall narrative where appropriate – based on prompts and the thrust of our on-air coverage.
    Though not necessarily to the exclusion of the wider conversation – so for example on #budget today.

    We’ll definitely look to review and see what worked well or didn’t in the coming days.
    And this isn’t to say we’re definitely going to do this all the time with other stories.

    But it felt worthwhile to try in a meaningful way today, and it was encouraging – for us at least – to see the hashtag help join up what we hope was informative and insightful coverage coming out right across BBC News on the Budget today.

    Keen to hear other opinions too though.



    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Thanks Alex – that’s what I was assuming was the objective. I guess if someone already feels part of the BBC or C4 ‘community’ then it works; if they are distrustful of those organisations, then it reinforces those suspicions – but then, community is as much about exclusion as inclusion and those people are unlikely to participate in any hashtag adopted by you anyway.

    2. Martin Belam

      Yes, congratulations Alex. I think one thing I was curious about was from the blog post about it, I wasn’t clear how a list on Twitter wouldn’t have achieved the same things?

      1. Alex Gubbay

        Thanks both.
        Re your list point Martin, yes we’re aiming to build more of these now we have a proper stable of accounts.
        But hashtag of course brings the benefit of a thread that has all the updates, reaction to them and ensuing conversation all together.

        Good discussion all round though.


  3. Vadim Lavrusik

    Alex’s point above is a valid one: sometimes using branded hashtags just makes sense and can have a greater benefit than using something broad or generic. It not only has the potential to make it easier to track, but it filters the conversation to readers/viewers/users of the specific news organization and its community. A news branded hashtag has the potential to bring some credibility to the conversation taking place as well.

  4. Pingback: Battle of the Budget hashtags | Cision UK Blog

  5. Mary Hamilton

    Another perspective – when I was working at the Evening News and EDP in Norfolk, live-tweeting last year’s budget, I used #nfkbudget instead of the more popular hashtags. That helped to differentiate my content from the great wide morass of general content available elsewhere – and it also meant that people who wanted local coverage had somewhere to go. I used that hashtag to discuss people’s hopes and fears beforehand and it meant I could target the coverage towards what was most relevant to my audience on Twitter, who were mostly local people living in a rural area with some very specific issues and preoccupations that mattered much more than the general national view.

    Not saying that that’s what #c4cuts or #bbcbudget are doing here, but I do think there’s an argument for local/hyperlocal sites to use hashtag modifications to collect and encourage niche conversations within the wider coverage.

  6. Paul Bradshaw

    Having drowned in the avalanche of #budget tweets on Tweetdeck there’s a clear argument here for ‘branded’ hashtags as a form of curation, both within the newsroom and by a self-selecting audience. By adopting #BBCBudget you are identifying yourself with that news org and its audience, and narrowing what you talk about. See, this is why I blog these things…

  7. Rich Harris

    The chart is very interesting – I’d expected #budget11 to win given it was the ‘official’ (i.e. HMT-sanctioned) hashtag. I find it surprising that we still don’t have an adequate solution to the problem of hashtag proliferation in the week of Twitter’s fifth birthday – there’s no real way to know in advance which hashtag will dominate, and no effective way to reach a consensus. Anyone out there working on a solution?

    What would help is a way to have niche hashtags (such as a hashtag for local coverage, as in Mary’s example, or a hashtag for a particular online community – not that I find Alex’s arguments for #BBCBudget especially persuasive!) that aren’t excluded from the wider conversation (yes, you can cram every tweet full of every possible permutation and combination, but after you’ve written ‘#budget #budget11 #budget2011 #BBCBudget #nfkbudget’ you don’t have much room left).

    So it would be great if, for example, #budget-nfk tweets showed up when you searched for either #budget or #budget-nfk (without #budget tweets showing up in #budget-nfk searches). Best of both worlds – it would allow ‘branded’ or niche conversations to happen without incurring Faisal Islam’s scorn.

    Don’t think it works with hyphens though. Alternatives anyone?

  8. Jess McAree

    The point of branding a hashtag is surely political – for brand marketing purposes.

    By adding BBC, C4 or Guardian to #cuts, you are inviting/attracting people who share the political leanings of those brands to congregate together in their tweets under those hashtags. If I search for tweets sorted under ‘#C4cuts’, I know I’m going to read tweets with a very different political slant from the one characterising tweets grouped under, say, ‘#telegraphcuts’.

    A large group toeing the BBC or C4 line on ‘cuts’, and tweeting the same political interpretation of them under one hashtag, creates a powerful impression of unity of opinion. Which, in turn, helps promote not only the political bias of the tweeters, but also the brand message/image of the publisher associated with the hashtag.

    I find it all pretty nauseating, actually. But hey. That’s media.

  9. Jon Bounds

    Rich:” there’s no real way to know in advance which hashtag will dominate, and no effective way to reach a consensus. ”

    That’s just what makes hashtags and tagging in general so powerful, there is so much more there that the simple collecting of information together. That they are so simple is the root of that power, there may be journalistic reasons for wanting more control but they work against the use I think — tools would be interesting, Twitter’s search API isn’t quite up to the job.

    (A great introduction to the power of folksomony is here )

    1. Rich Harris

      Thanks for the link Jon, I hadn’t come across the book previously. Looks interesting.

      I take your point but I’m still not totally convinced – it would be different if (e.g.) #budget, #budget11 and #budget2011 were separate because they’d emerged from separate conversations, but the intention (unless I’m very unrepresentative) of using any of these tags is to be part of ‘the’ conversation about ‘the’ event. Lots of us were asking on Twitter ‘so which is it?’ so clearly there is an appetite for some way of bringing order, even if it’s only among those of us who are relatively new to social media!

  10. Vicky Taylor

    Interesting blog Paul –just to note that Channel 4 Disaptches has used twitter with a # recently -without any reference to the brand. #trainpain trended number 1 on Monday around a Richard Wilson programme on the state of British railways, #sellornot also trended nubmer one around a live programme on selling off the nation’s assets a couple of weeks ago are just two examples. Doesn’t it depend on how linked to the conversation the Channel idwntification is — the #c4cuts is linked specifically to a map of user generated content pulling in information which the Channel 4 News programme is compiling – rather than a general conversation about cuts. As you probably saw when the Channel 4 News teams wrote about Japan on twitter they used #Japan along with everyone else.

  11. Pingback: Review of Online Journalism Blog « Georgie Flower

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