5 important lessons from the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag

#BringBackOurGirls Empty Classroom
Photo by Naosuke ii (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ogwrnsk) / CC BY 2.0

The viral #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign demanding the safe return of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls has taken over the internet in a matter of days. The unprecedented reach of this social campaign may have already had influence on the presidential level, but it’s sparking a lot of debate as it plays out. As marketers, here are five important lessons we can learn from the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag:

1. They may be the exception rather than the rule, but hashtag campaigns can fuel real action

If you take away one thing from this post let it be that this campaign actually is helping the global effort to find the Nigerian school girls. While there’s some debate as to what extent, the visibility and viral component of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is undeniable. Evidence that the hashtag is responsible for increased international pressure for the girls’ safe return is only anecdotal, but we’d be remiss not to attribute at least some of the credit to the campaign that’s overtaken our social feeds. The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has gained the support of highly influential figures like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, among countless celebrities.

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Those who mock the campaign claim that a terrorist leader isn’t going to be influenced by a hashtag – and they’re right. But the hashtag isn’t for him – it’s for the Nigerian government and other global powerhouses who have the resources to actually do something, and they seem to be listening. The U.S. government is sending nearly 30 experts to aid the search effort.

These are inspiring advances that will hopefully result in the girls returning safely, but we need to remember the influence and success of this hashtag campaign is the exception, not the rule. The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag had a lot going for it that aided its viral component. It was prominently featured in the news, celebrities and global leaders were quick to get on board, and the cause itself was easy to rally behind. How could anyone not protest the kidnapping of innocent children trying to get an education?

But most importantly, there is an element of hope. People want to get involved because there’s something to be done. Broader issues like global hunger and poverty make you feel small and helpless – they’re problems that will take decades to tackle. However, in the case of #BringBackOurGirls, we can hope for a happy ending. With the proper resources and the right amount of pressure, we can all imagine their safe return home.

2. “Slacktivism” is a harsh way of putting it

The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has given way to heated debates about “slacktivism” — the idea that people will “like” and “retweet” believing it’s a legitimate replacement for real social action.

But here’s the thing – millions of people are using the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and garnering global media attention in the process. But if these people didn’t have a hashtag to rally behind, would they be donating to reputable organizations instead? Would people be calling their Members of Congress by the millions? Probably not. If someone is going to donate or call, they’re going to do it with or without a hashtag. As for the rest of them – this is all they would do regardless. Without the hashtag, they’d simply be silent.

The individual action of sharing a hashtag is miniscule – but we only get into trouble when we bloat our own sense of importance for doing so. And so far, I don’t see anyone taking credit for the accomplishments of this campaign. People seem to have a genuine understanding that each tweet is a small drop in a bucket that’s filling up rapidly.

3. Hashtag campaigns are fickle – and constantly in search of a new angle

When it comes to trends and visibility, social media is just like the news cycle – except it’s even more fickle. Because of its fast-paced nature, social trends can come and go in a matter of hours, and they rely on a constant stream of new angles to sustain themselves. Once the first wave is no longer the newest thing on the internet, it’s either sink or swim for a hashtag campaign – it has to either find a brand new component to stay afloat or sink into the abyss of the firehose.

Just look at this #BringBackOurGirls hashtag chart from Topsy. The spikes and drops are severe, and the campaign is already beginning to taper off.

Topsy ChartEarlier this week, has-been right-wing pundit Ann Coulter tried to put her own miserable twist on the campaign by tweeting a photo of herself with the hashtag #BringBackOurCountry, which wasn’t news until a slew of tweets followed photo-editing her hashtag with hilarious alternative messages.

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As much fun as it is to watch Ann Coulter’s rise as the butt of the joke, as marketers we have to remember that once these campaigns are out in the world they take on their own direction, and there’s little we can do to control it. According to Topsy, Ann Coulter was mentioned 3,000 times in conjunction with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag on May 12.  Notice the slight bump on the same date in the above chart? While Ann Coulter accounted for just 2% of the total #BringBackOurGirls tweets on May 12, when you consider how unrelated her meme is to the true intentions of the hashtag, 2% of 150,000 is actually quite staggering.

4. No one owns a hashtag campaign of this sort

If you knew that the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign was started by a Nigerian lawyer, you’re in the minority. Sure he’s gotten some press, but the brilliant move has by no means made him as famous as the hashtag itself.

But really, it wouldn’t matter if the campaign were launched by a household name – the focus is on the story and the cause, not the brands attaching themselves to it. So when you do – proceed with caution. This is a hyper-sensitive issue and the public is policing. They’re likely to see through initiatives that are attempting to hijack or take ownership of the buzz.

But that said…

5. It’s ok to drop everything and show your support

Being an active part of the conversation is different than attempting to take it over. If your brand is an authority on issues raised in a hashtag campaign like this one, you should be speaking up. This horrific story brings to light long-standing problems regarding gender inequality and access to education. More people should be educated about these important issues and their global implications – and right now they happen to be listening.



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