by special guest author Statton Hammock, Principal of ASHnet Legal Services, PLLC
At this point, everyone is familiar with octothorpes, right? An “octothorpe” is simply the fancy term for the “pound” symbol (#), now also commonly referred to as the “hashtag.” Hashtags were initially used with numbers, but today they are the means to discover social media content related to a specific topic. Hashtags make it easier for non-profit organizations to search social media and to connect with volunteers and potential partners who are passionate about an organization’s mission. Hashtags also help volunteers and donors navigate social media to find the non-profit’s informational posts which allows them to follow events, activities, and important announcements related to an organization’s charitable purpose. As useful as hashtags are for social media users, it is important for non-profits to take actions to not only maximize the promotion potential of hashtags but to protect their brand online.
Mobilizing support. Using a hashtag in connection with a popular social issue related to an organization’s mission can draw followers to a non-profit’s featured content. Think about how strong hashtags like #stopclimatechange, #survivingcancer, or #womensrights are in drawing users to content that can mobilize supporters and donors who want to make contributions to these social causes. Having an organization’s content include hashtags that match closely with powerful social causes can attract more interest from individuals passionate about making change.
Branded hashtags. Non-profits can promote their mission and grab attention from potential donors by creating their own branded hashtag. For example, the Red Cross created #DoingMyPart to increase the voice and visibility of local Red Cross volunteers, donors, and supporters during the pandemic. Remember ALS’s #IceBucketChallenge? A classic. If a non-profit is creating its own branded hashtag it’s important to not string too many words together and keep it short and easy to remember. Also, do not create a hashtag that is too obscure like #forcedpositivity, because it will be harder for users to understand and therefore less likely to adopt. Finally, limit the number of branded hashtags you create and use. It looks “spammy” when several hashtags are included on a post.
Choosing a hashtag. When deciding which hashtags are most appropriate and most effective for a non-profit’s use, there are three things that might help. First, find out which hashtags, related to an organization’s cause or mission, are trending. There are many online tools that aggregate hashtag data such as RiteTag or HashtagsforLikes which can give insights into what terms are trending on popular social media sites. Second, consider using a free tool that generates hashtags based on your mission or cause. Hashtagify.me or Keyhole are popular tools used to identify appropriate hashtags. Lastly, whatever hashtags an organization chooses, they need to be engaging and memorable to social media users.
Trademark protection. Organizations may not be aware, but in the United States and in some other jurisdictions globally, a hashtag is protectable as a trademark and a non-profit can file an application for registration if the hashtag serves as identifier of the non-profit as the source for charity related services. However, merely adding a hashtag symbol in front of an unregistrable trademark mark (e.g., one that is merely descriptive or generic) will generally not make the hashtag registerable. For example, #homelessshelter for an organization that provides shelter for homeless citizens would not be registrable since it merely describes the services of the non-profit organization. However, #HomelessNoMore may be registrable since the hashtag is combined with wording that is neither a descriptive nor generic term for the services. Non-profits, however, will have to submit an acceptable specimen showing the hashtag in use to be registered. Acceptable specimens include promotional materials or packaging so the non-profit may not strictly use the hashtag on social media. Before undergoing the process of trademark registration, a trademark clearance search should be done to ensure that no other party is using or has sought to register the hashtag for services that are similar or related to those of the non-profit organization. Once a hashtag is registered as a trademark, a non-profit can assert its rights against a third party using that hashtag without permission.
Social Media Monitoring. To protect a non-profit’s registered hashtags and reduce the risk of inappropriate use of a non-profit’s trademarks, an organization should invest in an automated social monitoring tool. There are hundreds of free tools on the market now but some of the more popular and widely used tools were evaluated in a recent Hootsuite post. Social media monitoring services can provide valuable data on the effectiveness and reach of a non-profit’s social media content as well as protect against abuses. If someone or another organization “hijacks” a non-profit’s hashtag campaign: 1) identify the perpetrator; 2) from your social media feed and 3) continue to monitor and moderate the social media platform for inappropriate use of hashtags.
Maximize Accessibility. It’s important to make sure that all of your social media – including hashtags – is created to be accessible to people with disabilities. One way to do this is by employing “CamelCase”, which capitalizes the first letter of hashtags that are made up of multiple words. This makes the hashtag easier to read and more consumable by screen readers that use the capitals as cues to reproduce accurate pronunciation.Princeton University provides a great set of social media accessibility guidelines here.
Hashtags are an effective means to drive media attention to a non-profit organization’s cause or mission. They are a great tool for engaging and connecting users, volunteers, and donors. Promoting and protecting your brand are equally important. To ensure both objectives are successfully met, leverage the power of hashtags.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Statton Hammock is a recognized expert in Internet-related law, policy, and brand protection. Statton advocates for regulations, procedures, and industry best practices that promote the security, trust, and safety of the Internet and use of online platforms. Statton has worked with the world’s most recognized brands and non-profit organizations to develop and protect their intellectual property rights online and enhance their digital presence.