The Verge’s Why’d You Push That Button squad is in the holiday spirit, so in this week’s episode, hosts Ashley Carman and Kaitlyn Tiffany discuss hashtag holidays. You might not know the term, but you definitely know the phenomenon. Maybe you’ve seen people participate in #NationalSiblingsDay, or #WorldNutellaDay, or maybe even #NationalBoyfriendDay. Why do people post, and why do they use those hashtags? Also, who invents these holidays?
Kaitlyn and Ashley chat with one of their producers, Bridget Armstrong, and her family to get their take on hashtag holidays and their Facebook posts about them. Then they talk with Lizz Kannenberg, the director of brand strategy at Sprout Social, about brands’ role in these holidays. Copywriters are infusing holidays into our lexicon with no one to stop them!
As always, you can listen to the episode below, and follow along with Kannenberg’s interview, too. While you’re at it, subscribe to the show anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends and family, too! Steal their phones and sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ashley Carman: We are back with Lizz Kannenberg. She’s the director of brand strategy at Sprout Social. Thanks for joining us. I don’t think Sprout Social is a name that most of our listeners know. Can you tell us what the company is and what you do?
Lizz Kannenberg, director of brand strategy at Sprout Social: Sure. Sprout is a social media software management platform, so we enable brands and organizations, businesses of all sizes, to efficiently and effectively optimize their social strategy by bringing all the things they have to do in social in one place.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: I used to use Sprout Social all the time as The Verge’s social media manager.
Ashley: When did you first start see hashtag holidays become a thing?
It really reached cultural awareness in 2012, 2013 when a lot of brands realized that they could get their messages in front of people who weren’t following them as a brand if they were using hashtags that people were already talking about.
Ashley: Do you feel like more specialized awareness occasions, like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, came first and then brands co-opted the hashtags, like National Oreo Day?
Yeah, when we were putting together some thoughts on this, we saw as far back as the early 1900s that especially causes around medical or visibility kinds of things were using days or months to bring people together to have a real conversation about where we were on those topics, so if it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you would have experts talking about research on where we are on our treatment and our planning for breast cancer, as well as people who had been affected by it personally. So it was a time for those people to all come together and sort of share their experiences and their information and feel like they weren’t alone.
So when brands started to see this natural behavior among people and social media as a place where that could happen more visibly, they were like, “Hey, I’ve got a brand. I’d like to have people talk about my brand for a day.” But the thing about it is, that’s only a possibility if you’ve got a really strong brand that people feel some sort of personal connection to and want to talk about. National Oreo Day is actually a great example. Last time, I believe in 2017 or 2018, in the data we looked at, there were 39,000 mentions of National Oreo Day on the hashtag on Twitter. Now there’s a broader hashtag holiday called National Cookie Day, which had about 98,000 mentions. So if you think about it, National Oreo day got a third as many mentions as the whole category of National Cookie Day. So if I’m Oreo, I think that’s pretty good. But that doesn’t happen if I haven’t established a really strong brand that people feel some sort of personal connection to, and when they use the National Oreo Day hashtag, it says something about them. I’m the kind of person who likes Oreos, and that’s why they do it. If you don’t have a really strong brand that stands for certain things, or that people feel personal connections to, they’re probably not going to use the hashtag.
Kaitlyn: How far back does something like National Cheeseburger Day go?
That’s a great question. I don’t know the exact answer, but I would guess whenever somebody who is involved in the cheeseburger business decided that it was a good idea to have everybody try to talk about cheeseburgers in a focused way for one day.
Kaitlyn: Do you think that’s pre-internet or this is purely a brands with social media accounts phenomenon?
Think back to pre-internet days. If there’s something like National Cheeseburger Day, you might hear a mention of it on Today or read about it in USA Today or something like that, but it would be sort of a passing, “Eat a cheeseburger today because it’s National Cheeseburger Day.” But with social media it’s very different right because people are more inclined to talk about their love of cheeseburgers on that day than they are to actually go out and eat a cheeseburger. I don’t know if that exactly answers your question, but I think it’s pretty hard to pinpoint when it first happened because it would have happened somewhere that wasn’t as visible as social media. That isn’t as trackable.
Kaitlyn: This is horrifying to me. Where did they all come from? Something that we noticed in the data that you sent over was that National Nutella Day was not nearly as much of a smash success as National Oreo Day. Can you explain why?
So actually when we looked at our data, World Nutella Day had roughly the same percentage of mentions that World Chocolate Day had, so if you’re going to compare National Oreo Day and National Cookie Day, World Nutella Day had 22,000 mentions and World Chocolate Day had 70,000 mentions.
I was talking with a colleague yesterday about whether or not this was good news for World Nutella Day, and I maintain that it is. If you’re going to get a quarter to a third of the same volume of mentions that the entire category you’re involved in gets, then you’re doing pretty well. So if there was another type of hazelnut chocolate spread that tried to do a day, they’re probably unlikely to have as many mentions as World Nutella Day, so that’s kind of the brand leader in their category.
But speaking about brand hashtags in general, like I said, you have to do all of the work to establish a brand that people feel some sort of personal connection to, or they’re not going to use the hashtag that includes the brand name. There are a couple of other ways to go about this for brands that I think have been really smart. American Express started the Small Business Saturday holiday where they encourage people to shop local businesses or small businesses. And the hashtag they use for that is shop small, and I love that hashtag because it’s an actual directive. They could have gone with Small Business Saturday as the hashtag, but by saying, “Shop small,” they’re actually giving you a call to action. They’re giving you encouragement to go out and do something that will actually have an effect on the world, that will bring business to small businesses that need it. And the American Express brand name is not in that hashtag at all, but they get to take credit for doing something that’s become something of a cultural movement because they started the holiday, and they initiated the hashtag, and they’ve turned it into something that people feel galvanized to do.
Ashley: We’ve danced around this question, but to be explicit, why do people participate in hashtag holidays?
We were talking about this when we were looking at some of the data. If you feel a personal connection to something, you feel like, “I’m a dog person. I’m going to share a picture of my really cute dog on National Dog Day.” That’s what you need to do to participate in these things. It’s a little bit of, “Hey, look at me. It’s National Dog Day, and I want to remind you that I have a really cute dog.” It’s a little bit of, “I’d like to see some of the other really cute dogs because I’m a dog person, so I’m going to click on the hashtag and look at the other photos that people have shared.” But you’ve got to feel like it says something about you, or it’s a serious part of your life, an important part of your life, that you want to share with the people who follow you and potentially with people who don’t follow you who will see your content on the hashtag itself.
Ashley: It also seems like it’s very easy for a brand to do this. It’s a low risk, potentially high reward if it’s literally like, “Hey, everyone in this room start tweeting with this hashtag. We’ll put out a press release.” And then it’s like, “Okay, if no one takes advantage of the hashtag, whatever, it was free to create.”
Yeah, definitely. I think the only risk is if you put resources towards it that could be directed somewhere else if you don’t have a sound strategy for putting it out there. But really yeah, you’re right. There isn’t a whole lot to risk. I used to work on the agency side, and one of my clients came to us and said, “We’d like to start participating in these hashtags.” It was a beer client, so let’s take our bottle of beer and put it next to a picture of a shark, so we can use the Shark Week hashtag. And we said, “Well yeah, we could do that with all of the other Shark Week hashtags, or we could issue a call to action to the people who follow us on social media for their pictures of our product in the context of Shark Week.” So rather than having one post from our brand that had Shark Week tagged to it, we actually ended up with almost 30,000 pictures of our product shared to regular people’s social media feeds with the Shark Week hashtag that gave us all of this free brand visibility that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. So it was a way for the brand to participate in the hashtag holiday without necessarily having it come from our brand handle and only be seen by our followers.
Kaitlyn: What about completely unbranded hashtag holidays like National Boyfriend Day or National Sibling Day? Why are people so drawn in by those? Is it just like, “I want to brag about the attractive people who are close to me.”
I mean that’s all social media really is, is we’re all sort of crafting our personal brands, and we share the stuff that matters to us, and we share the filtered version of our lives for people. So something like National Boyfriend Day is just an opportunity to remind everybody that you’ve got an awesome boyfriend, and you’re in a great relationship. Whatever you’re trying to portray on social. National Siblings Day is actually a really interesting one because it’s got such high participation. We saw over 2 million mentions of National Siblings Day this year.
Kaitlyn: What are some of the brand participations in hashtag holidays you’ve seen that have been the biggest reach for relevance?
God, there’s so many of them. There are so many. I would say it was in the early days of hashtag holidays sort of becoming a filler on your content calendar. We would see brands that just took whatever the hashtag holiday was and crammed their brand into it. So even if you were a bourbon brand, and it was National Sock Day, you would stick your bottle of bourbon in a funny-looking sock and take a picture of it, and that would be your content for the day. Bourbon and socks don’t have anything to do with each other, but for a while everybody thought, “Oh these hashtag holidays are really funny, and it’s actually going to be engaging and memorable to stick your brand into ones where it doesn’t make sense.” So I’d say there are far more examples of bad hashtag holiday integrations than there are good ones.
Kaitlyn: That sounds like a way more fun time on the Internet to me.
Yeah, I think if the goal of social media is to make somebody stop in their News Feed and either laugh or be horrified at what a bad idea it was, then there is a lot of success achieved. I don’t know if any more bourbon was sold.
Ashley: Do you at all worry about the sanctity of the word “holiday?”
I think that probably the alliteration of hashtag and holiday together is what made these holidays. They’re really just days. They’re awareness days. I don’t think they were called holidays when it was just Breast Cancer Awareness Month or World AIDS Day. It was just, “This is the the month we’re going to focus on this specific topic.”
So yeah, I’m going to go with it was totally just a copywriter who was like, “You know, hashtag and holiday sound really good together.”
Kaitlyn: Are people actually clicking through on the hashtags for National Siblings Day? Are these actually participatory events?
It totally depends on which one we’re talking about. If you look at the way people use hashtags today, you’ll see people use hashtags that you know no one has ever used and will never use again, and it’s just something very particular to that situation. So it’s almost more like meta-commentary at the end of their post, and we’re all just using the same meta-commentary for one day.
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A podcast about the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make.