Today is the 10th anniversary for Twitter’s hashtag, the number, pound or hash sign associated with everything online from brand hype to hate.
The milestone, which Twitter is celebrating with a special hashtag of its own today (#Hashtag10) as well as an emoji, marks the birthday of a ubiquitous symbol of the social platform’s own brand. But it’s also a reminder of how one little symbol can permeate culture to such a degree that everyone from advertisers and media companies to comedians and politicians have used and abused it for marketing their own messages.
In a blog post today celebrating the anniversary, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who recently rejoined the company, wrote about the hashtag’s humble origins, starting long before the site’s users began tweeting it 125 million times a day (Twitter’s most recent total). Stone, recounting a summer day in 2007, said user and web specialist Chris Messina walked into the company’s Silicon Valley office and suggested an idea.
“His proposal was simple, useful, and fun—just like Twitter,” Stone wrote. “Because brevity is essential on Twitter, he suggested using the ‘pound’ or ‘hash’ character common on phones (this was pre-iPhone) to create groups of related Tweets. It was an undeniably elegant proposal, but I really needed to get back to work. I turned back to my computer screen to help get Twitter back up and running, hurriedly ending the conversation with a sarcastic, ‘Sure, we’ll get right on that.’”
Despite the sarcasm, the hashtag was born that day, Aug. 23, 2007, and has since evolved from a way to group tweets to a way to highlight brands, causes, news and events.
While the symbol’s original purposes were modest, the hashtag has become an icon of Twitter in a way that’s arguably more central to the brand than its blue bird. However, while it’s become a linchpin of Twitter’s boasts of relevancy, it’s also been a useful tool for advertising campaigns, both online and offline.
Over the past 10 years, the use of hashtags has grown exponentially. According to Twitter, the most tweeted hashtag in 2007 was used about 9,000 times, while the most tweeted hashtag so far in 2017 has been used more than 300 million times. (The company declined to say which hashtags are associated with those numbers.)
“Even nine or 10 years later, the hashtag is still the star; it’s the lead character,” said Alex Josephson, Twitter’s head of global brand strategy.
While the hashtag has humble origins, it’s brought in big bucks for brand campaigns. As recently as last year, promoted trends—which allow a hashtag to live atop the list of Trending Topics—were going for $200,000, with some packages going for as much as $1 million.
While the hashtag was used organically by brands for years, it has evolved to become part of the revenue stream for Twitter’s advertising products. In 2015, Twitter introduced branded hashtag emojis that advertisers could buy to get a custom image attached to a hashtag. Coca-Cola, the first brand to buy one, used it for its #ShareACoke campaign, receiving 169,000 mentions and garnering 620 million impressions.
Here are a few of Twitter’s brand strategy team’s favorite brand hashtags from over the years:
Piggy-backing off a fan’s challenge to receive free chicken nuggets for a year, the fast-food chain and its rallying cry of #NuggsForCarter ended up becoming part of the most retweeted tweet in Twitter history, with Carter Wilkerson’s request for retweets getting shared 3.7 million times.
Knowing that people don’t leave social media aside when they’re in the bathroom, Charmin opted for a bit of potty humor with its #TweetFromTheSeat campaign.
Bucking the Black Friday frenzy, the outdoor gear retailer shut its doors on the busiest shopping day of the year, challenging people to enjoy the great outdoors rather than fight the crowds indoors. The company’s #OptOutside hashtag ended up becoming a call to arms of sorts, pushing the brand’s vision for exploration beyond the aisles of commerce.
To celebrate the long-awaited arrival of the taco emoji, Taco Bell and Deutsch L.A. started the#TacoEmojiEngine hashtag, and created 600 pieces of content that were sent to Twitter users who sent an image of the taco emoji with another emoji.