Love them or hate them, hashtags are reportedly coming to Facebook - sometime - and most marketers couldn't be happier.
Although there has been no official announcement or comment by the social media giant, the long-rumored idea of Facebook incorporating hashtags – the ubiquitous # symbol used on Twitter to make certain keywords or topics searchable – gathered momentum late last week after "informed sources" told The Wall Street Journal that the company is indeed serious about the idea. The sources reportedly told the WSJ, however, that the move is not imminent.
Still, the concept already has some marketers drooling at the prospect of being able to find and be found more easily on Facebook.
"Bring em on," enthuses Natalie Burgwin, senior manager, public relations at 1-800-Got-Junk? which bills itself as the world's largest junk removal company, about the hashtags. "Visibility is the name of the game on social media and hashtags are going to increase that."
Indeed, the possibilities seem endless, if little is yet known about how, when, and where Facebook will incorporate the feature. Hashtags enable topics to be categorized and searched, which in theory would make it easier for brands to insert themselves into conversations around certain topics.
That could make Facebook host more often to the types of discussion and interaction about TV shows that frequently occur on Twitter, notes Jean-Philippe Gaudette, social media strategist at Codmorse, a Montreal-based web agency.
"Instead of posting comments by the brand page, users will be able to share their thoughts and read other people's thoughts without using the 'official' channel," he said.
Companies will also most likely seek to fit themselves into current trends and discussions to get more visibility, much as they do with trending topics on Twitter.
"This will probably lead to some original and creative campaigns, but also to commercial spam on user-created topics, such as the Twitter trending topics based on jokes, that brands often use in a clumsy way to try and look cool," Gaudette said.
Taylor Aldredge, in charge of digital and social media for Boston-based Grasshopper, a provider of virtual phone systems, believes hashtags will help bridge the gap for Facebook users with more people outside of their network, which will change the way brands can interact on the platform.
"Facebook will look a little more organic with this addition as long as conversation is possible around a public hashtag," he said.
The tags could also give community managers, frustrated by perceived lower organic reach caused by Facebook's new algorithms, the prospect of regaining some audience attention. And hashtags could also serve as important tools for cross-platform marketing campaigns, according to Steve Birkett, marketing associate with the Esvee Group, a marketing and web services consultancy in Brooklyn. Users could also post promotional hashtags on their pages if they so choose, as they do on Twitter.
Facebook should also benefit from keeping people on its site longer. Microsoft recently used a hashtag on Facebook, the logo #Reborn, in a graphic to announce the relaunch of its "Tomb Raider" video game. Since there was no way to connect it to other Facebook content or campaigns, it linked to out to a pre-order site.
"Subject to how Facebook employs them, functional hashtags would allow more varied marketing content, without forcing people to leave the site," Birkett notes.
Not everyone believes the hashtag will be a huge success at Facebook, however.
Michael Freeman, senior search manager at ShoreTel Sky, which provides enterprises with hosted VoIP phone systems, says that the type of conversation coveted by Facebook may simply sit better over at Twitter.
"Facebook has a hurdle in moving B2B conversations predominately from Twitter and LinkedIn over to their platform because users view Facebook as the main place for their personal social life but not their professional life," Freeman said.
Facebook is the only major social media platform, other than Flickr, to not use hashtags. Google+, Pinterest, and even Facebook subsidiary Instagram commonly make use of the symbols.
But as many point out, the hashtag has taken on a meaning beyond just a search tool and come to represent a cultural phenomenon, often to demonstrate humor or self-irony, which is one explanation for why people and companies have been using it on Facebook.
Not everyone is amused, however. There is even a Facebook group - with 10,164 likes and counting - called "This is not Twitter. Hashtags don't work here." For their sake, let's hope that's not true for long.