Technology Trends & Forecasting

#Decade: What ten years of hashtags tells us about consumers today

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On August 23, the hashtag turned 10 years old.  Before achieving internet fame, it was previously known by most as the pound sign, a symbol used primarily to complete requests on customer service phone calls.  But a decade ago, everything changed thanks to an entrepreneur named Chris Messina who was looking for a way to organize conversations among different groups on Twitter.

Even if you’re not that active on social media, it’s likely that hashtags are a part of your life – they’ve worked their way into everything from news articles to our daily slang to, as of 2014, our dictionary.  It’s estimated that around 125 million hashtags are shared each day on Twitter alone, with other social networks like Instagram and Facebook adopting them en masse as well.

Hashtags clearly aren’t going anywhere.  What can the rise, and continued cultural dominance, of this symbol tell us about where consumers, and brands, are headed?

  • Simplify the experience. At its core, the hashtag is a method of organization – an easy way to filter through endless social media posts to find the content most relevant to you.  Our GfK Consumer Life findings consistently show that consumers want more streamlined experiences in every aspect of their lives.  The personal value of simplicity (keeping your life and mind as uncluttered as possible) has risen four ranks in importance since 2011, and nearly one in three (32%) Americans today are willing to pay more for products that make their lives easier.  As this trend continues to dominate, brands that offer more efficient solutions will thrive.
  • Support the search for like-minded peers. The advent of social media has made it easier than ever to find a group, or multiple groups, where we can feel that we belong.  According to recent research from GfK Consumer Life, nearly three in ten (27%) Americans go so far to say that belonging to groups that share their interests or beliefs is essential to their well-being – almost as many (25%) feel that the groups they belong to say a lot about them.  Hashtags have made it easier than ever to “find your tribe” and communicate with them easily – no simple feat given the pace at which our social media feeds are multiplying.  Whether you’re catching up on “Game of Thrones” reactions or mobilizing for social change, hashtags connect you to the right people.
  • Let consumer input drive the future of your brand. Perhaps one of the most interesting details about the hashtag’s origin story is that the idea came from a user of Twitter, not from its executives or developers.  In fact, many other features that are now core Twitter elements originated outside of the company’s four walls, including the word “tweet” and the brand’s signature bird icon.  Enabled by social media and other innovations, the past ten years have seen consumers get far more involved in shaping a brand’s offerings, communications, and so much more.  As GfK Consumer Life data demonstrates, most (82%) Americans tend to trust one brand over another when the company listens and responds to customer needs, complaints, and feedback; another 68 percent say that brands who prioritize customer needs over profits are more likely to earn their trust.  It’s reasonable to anticipate that these brand expectations will continue to dominate consumer mindsets as time goes on.
  • Carefully develop your brand’s voice. Having a social media presence allows brands to communicate directly with consumers and many other audiences.  It also gives them a real-time channel for timely announcements, responses to current events, and updates associated with ongoing campaigns.  But as they join the online conversation with hashtags and the like, brands must be cautious – or they’ll immediately face social media backlash.  Whether they find themselves unintentionally soliciting negative feedback, or appearing unconcerned with larger social issues, the damage can be instant – and dramatic.

Not only do hashtags tell us a lot about the brands, news, trends, and pop culture that people care about, the mere usage of this symbol online gives us a deeper picture of evolving consumer priorities and behaviors.  As social media continues to grow and play an even larger role in our lives, it’s likely that the next ten years of the hashtag will be as important as the first ten.

Rachel Bonsignore is a Senior Consultant on the Consumer Life team at GfK. She can be reached at rachel.bonsignore@gfk.com.

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