Facebook’s #hashtags will be great for marketers (users, not so much)

After Facebook caved and added hashtags, users brought up the one topic that comes up anytime the company makes yet another of its infamous updates: Privacy. Privacy. Privacy. We’ve been programmed to accept the hashtag as a gateway to content and conversations far beyond our own. So it would seem natural to assume that any content hashtagged would become visible automatically, on a global scale – and so goes our Facebook statuses, our photos, our everything.

Well, actually, no. Your data is safe. (Safe enough, anyway. For now).

The bigger news about hashtags is for brands and advertisers. Companies have been looking for ways to connect to fans outside their sphere of influence, and hashtags should help.

What they mean for users

Facebook privacy settings still override every other action, so if you hashtag a status that has been set to be restricted to your friends, then only your friends will see that hashtag in a search. It’s basically business as usual for individual users – which is why we’ll likely never see conversations form on Facebook in the way they do on Twitter.

The hashtag on Twitter is the pulse of the moment. Thoughts, actions, ideas form around these beacons and, in turn, instantly reach a global audience. Although privacy options exist, the platform is innately public, and because of that, the conversation is free to roam as it pleases. Facebook is none of those things: Its now strident and complex privacy settings mean that the hashtag’s very strength – its ability to aggregate and collate and continually track a conversation path – will never come to fruition. The bulk of conversation on the platform currently exists within the comments section of an update. None of this conversation, public or not, is currently being presented within hashtag searches. Opportunity missed.

What it means for brands

Brands, however, will likely find reason to celebrate this new functionality, as it will prove easier to port content from network to network. Suddenly those ubiquitous hashtag campaigns that are born from everything from TV spots to restaurant menus will resonate just a little more and become a bit more synergistic. So for example, GE’s ‘Brilliant Machines’ campaign was a close-knit, synergistic affair that crossed from TV media to Twitter and Instagram and to the web. But Facebook, although present in terms of echoing content, lacked both the heavily-promoted #brilliantmachines hashtag to tie everything together, and the ability to connect the brand to individuals with whom the campaign resonated enough to post about it. So the hashtag opens up the brand’s reach beyond that of their own page – privacy settings dependent, of course.

Facebook has undoubtedly been watching brands leverage the hashtag across all forms of media. What’s flashed in the corner of a myriad number of TV shows, front and center, next to the ident – is it a cumbersome link to Facebook? No, of course not, it’s a hashtag, elegant in its simplicity and now implicitly understood by the viewer who sees it. The hashtag has become almost ubiquitous as the means to connect with an audience – so much so that Facebook was all but forced to adopt them simply to stay relevant with the way we now communicate with brands.

The hashtag is the funnel for change in social (and, crucially, how you can register your disapproval that Matthew was killed off in Downton Abbey), and for now it is how brands can most easily bridge the divide between them and you online. That just became much easier.

What it means for advertisers

Advertising will likely prove the real winner of the Facebook hashtag in the end. Brand X can’t read your hashtagged status update, but its targeted ads will now reach you ever more accurately. Of course, interest targeting on Facebook is nothing new, but if a user takes the time to hashtag a post in the here and now, that adds a great deal of weight.

After all, you might have “liked” Led Zeppelin two years ago but never given them a moment’s thought since, and so a hardcore fan’s “like” is the same as the casual listener who “likes” one song. But if you just hashtagged the band in a status update you posted five minutes ago, chances are there’s an advertiser out there who would like to meet you. That’s relevance. That’s timely. And that’s probably the biggest change that will come from Facebook’s hashtag adoption.

Andy White is director of social business strategy at social media management and engagement platform Sprout Social. Follow him @white.

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