Since debuting on Twitter in 2007, hashtags have rapidly spread across social media. Today they are used on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Vine and seen in print, TV and elsewhere on the web. But while social media users have readily embraced hashtags as an important way to discover new content and connect with others, many companies are still wondering whether hashtags are just a fad or are a feature that can drive revenue.

Today hashtags are deployed as part of calls to action in television commercials, magazine ads and sponsored posts on social media. But a savvy hashtag campaign does not end with a simple call to action. Here are five ways that companies can enlist hashtags to launch complete campaigns that engage, showcase, aggregate and repurpose social content to drive business value.

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1. Encourage user-generated content. Unlike traditional marketing, which serves as a one-way pipeline of information from company to consumer, social marketing has a disruptive potential in its ability to turn social media users into content generators. When the true power of social media is harnessed, users’ comments, photos and videos become marketing messages permeating the online environment.

So how do you start to build this social media momentum? When hashtags are inserted into television advertisements or other marketing messages, they alert consumers that they are invited to participate. And if coupled with contests, sweepstakes or giveaways, hashtags can encourage a vast social media response that spreads across Twitter, Facebook, Vine and Instagram.

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2. Aggregate and showcase the response. Hashtags give businesses the unique opportunity to showcase user-generated content. Photos, videos and status updates featuring hashtags can be aggregated and displayed on a Facebook landing page or website, revealing responses to a campaign and stimulating even more participation. Look for social-marketing services that can turn a fragmented social-media conversation into one presented on your website or Facebook landing page. Use this aggregated conversation to monitor, track and curate reactions to your campaign.

3. Connect campaigns. Hashtag campaigns can be remarkably effective but especially when tied to other efforts. If you are increasing engagement by using hashtags and offering prizes, leverage this response by asking users to opt into recieving an email newsletter or becoming a fan of your social media page. Turn your hashtag campaign success into the development of an expanded email newsletter audience and accumulate a great social media fan base and build tighter connections with potential consumers. Connecting your digital ad buys to the campaign by targeting people who search for the hashtag will bring in an audience of people who have already showed interest in your brand.

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4. Repurpose hashtag-driven content. One of the great benefits of social media campaigns that is rarely capitalized on by companies is the amount of authentic marketing content available to a brand. If your contest stipulates that user-generated submissions can be tapped for other purposes, think about ways you can expand your marketing with the high-quality photos or videos collected on social media. Savvy brands are using user-generated content in television commercials, in-store displays, social ads and email marketing.

5. Relate to consumers in real time. Consumers flock to social networks to interact during must-see TV or live events (whether it's the Super Bowl or the Consumer Electronics Show). Armed with a hashtag and a little creativity, companies that insert themselves into these conversations can be rewarded with large audiences and viral reach.

Focus on events that have an obvious tie-in to your target market. Or find a clever way to insert your brand into the conversation without resorting to overt sales pitches.

Real-time marketing rewards risk taking and quick thinking, but companies that master it can deploy hashtags to drive vast social-media engagement among the millions who flock to Twitter during TV events like the Super Bowl, Oscars or Olympics. 

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