by Martin MacGregor (@MartMacG) Is the hashtag in fashion or what? It has been building momentum since the launch of Twitter, but in 2015 we seem to be drowning in a constant stream of #weare’s, #noto’s and #mustfall’s.

This is citizen journalism gone crazy but why the almost universal uptake? People want to feel as if they care, are involved and doing something, and the humble hashtag allows exactly that. It’s an easy-to-use, off-the-shelf product that shows caring and being part of an indefinable mass who all think the same way.

3d Image Hashtag Concept Word Cloud Background by David Castillo Dominici courtesy of
Image by David Castillo Dominici courtesy of

Marketers are looking at this with rising jealousy. For years, there has been much talk about the shift from brands interrupting a consumer with a broadcasted message to a more interactive conversation which results in brand engagement. Digital platforms have hurried this thinking along, as the potential for a two-way conversation has become a reality.

The hashtag has become the obvious way to own the conversation, and brands are falling over themselves to mirror the passion and intensity that that the social consciousness hashtags have been generating.

But there is a problem. Hashtags, as is the case with the Facebook Like, are easy to use and to make it feel as if something has been done — but is engagement any higher than after watching a particularly emotional TV ad?

I have been affected but, essentially, I am nothing more than more aware.

Facebook has recently recognised this fact. The initial excitement around Facebook as an advertising medium was the interactivity of the Like button and how every campaign could now have an engagement metric.

But, like a kid in a sweet shop, brands after a while started to question what the value of all these gathered Likes was. It felt good to have a community, but did this really replace proper face-to-face engagement? The answer is no, and Facebook has backed off on measuring activity on its platform around Likes and is talking more the language of using NewsFeeds to drive awareness.

It’s disappointing for those who have been talking revolution in the advertising industry, but the right dose of reality, I think.

So where does this leave brands which want to engage with their consumers? The origin of this word is French and its original meaning was “pledge”. If you pledge to do something, you have a moral obligation to do it.

As with social causes, hiding behind a hashtag or similar just doesn’t cut it. Tweeting #saynotopoverty on your way to Woolies should not give you any right to claim that you have done anything whatsoever to end the scourge.

For brands, there is only one pledge that really matters — purchase. All other “engagement”, if it’s really unpacked, is nothing more than an awareness driver, and should be seen and assessed at that. Super 15 and Premier League supporters would do so whether or not Vodacom or Barclays were involved or not.

What about brand-created events? Consumers watch Red Bull events for the extreme action — very watchable and cleverly wrapped by Red Bull — but it’s a wrapping that drives awareness.

Let’s hope we see less brand communication trying to engage consumers going forward. It should really be focusing on the one thing that really matters — awareness — and use everything from hashtags to TV ads to make that happen. The real engagement of purchase will naturally follow.


Martin MacGregorMartin MacGregor (@MartMacG) is managing director of Connect, an M&C Saatchi Company, with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Martin has spent 18 years in the industry, and has previously worked at Ogilvy and was MD of MEC Nota Bene in Cape Town. He contributes the monthly “Media Redefined” column, in which he challenges norms in the media space, to



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One reply on “Media Redefined: The fallacy of engagement”

  1. Spot on Martin. Purchase is the only engagement that really matters. Having said that, there are some things we can do in the digital space that take us an awful lot closer to that purchase engagement than Facebook likes or hashtags do. Check out Old Mutual Live, a digital radio station created by endurance athletes…for endurance athletes. Genuinely useful content delivered on a consistent basis and housed within Old Mutual’s environment.

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