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The Emperor’s New Hashtag — What are DMO hashtags accomplishing?

I just watched an entertaining Skift conference video of New York’s DMO CEOFred Dixon talking about their new #thisisnewyorkcity hashtag campaign. The hashtag got attached to 15,342 posts right away, he explains in the video.

Sounds like a success story, right? Why else would Mr. Dixon mention it?

The purpose, according to Mr. Dixon, is “to inspire inspiration in this new generation.” And he insightfully notes that destination marketers can’t be control freaks … “we have to learn to let go of our image and let go of our voice.”

In other words, he’s using the hashtag as an inspiration platform.

But what if this common practice is just a digital marketing example of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Consider the following:

1) Travel is the most shared content on social media. (People sharing images and experiences authentically with their network.)

2) A marketing organization can sabotage authenticity by trying to force their way into the middle of an organic conversation.

So, a question worth asking is, does this hashtag campaign (or other similar ones) get current visitors to post better content so that potential visitors will want to visit or is it inspiring more distracting and less authentic social media noise?

I understand and appreciate a hashtag with a cause like SF Chronicle Travel Editor Spud Hilton’s famous carryon luggage shame campaign. Or a political movement. Or following the unfolding events of a conference. Or the banter that allows fans to connect during a televised event. And I understand it as a way to gather free user photos that can be sifted through and shared by a main account, like Tourism Australia is doing with their 1.9m followers on Instagram. And I would even understand it if New York tried to encourage visitors to post more enticing material with a hashtag along the lines of #MostEpicNYXperience (because, let’s face it, most visitor posts are of their kids posing next to scenic backdrops – nice memories of the trip but not necessarily the biggest destination drivers).

If we dig a little deeper, not only does the current campaign feel like a reproduction of the organic hashtags already in use (eg HONY), it may even compromise the authenticity of the posts and those who post them.

That is, people who share their material with #thisisnewyorkcity are seeking additional attention for their posts and, as a result, may put up content they wouldn’t have otherwise shared.

Everyone talks about the upside of such hashtagging, but could there is a downside as well? Consider the trend when people started posting every workout and took a photo of every meal they prepared. I don’t know about you, but I started to block or ignore those people. I know others felt this way as well.   So if you’re a marketer who is encouraging people to post stuff, be aware that it can backfire and make those people less effective voices for your cause or any other.

When I try to visualize how such a hashtag plays out in real life, I picture someone storming into a big party full of people who are already chatting with each other and shouting: “Hey everyone, here’s a conversation topic for you: Weird stuff!!” Then they leave the room and take credit for anyone who says anything weird.

Again, I’m not trying to pick on New York here. (They’re doing some clever stuff, especially when it comes to turning their old payphones into high-speed free Wi-Fi stations.)

Many social media consultants offer hashtags as part of their services and trumpet the benefits. And there are, as I mentioned, legitimate reasons for them. But I wanted to solicit some other opinions on the use of this type of hashtag, so I spoke with Chris Elliott, an American travel journalist who writes for USA Today and has been a long-time contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Peter Moore, an Australian author and magazine travel editor based in London, and Nick Hall, the head of Digital Tourism Think Tank, a European-based consultant group. All three noted that this sort of hashtagging’s main purpose is to provide digital marketers some impressive metrics.

Mr. Dixon noted in his talk that destination marketers need to let go of their image and voice. Maybe the best example of that is to simply focus on providing great product and service and then just let people share what they experience.

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