10 Tips to Creating the Perfect TV Show Hashtag

Listen to your fans and don't get too clever, network execs say

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Knowing that many TV viewers watch their favorite shows with smartphone in hand, network execs are keenly aware of the power of the perfect hashtag.

While the show title itself, or certain character names, are always reliable hashtags, many of the most successful hashtag efforts go a step further: a mixture of the familiar and enticing, all in as few characters as possible.

"There is truly an art to the hashtag. It's a language all its own," said Colleen Mohan, svp of brand marketing for USA Network. "It's like writing a headline or a jingle. And we put a lot of effort into them."

That's because engaged fans on Twitter become key marketers for a show. A new Nielsen study found that Scandal had the top program loyalty of any TV show on Twitter last season, with 24 percent of Scandal's Twitter "authors" sending tweets about three or more episodes. 

Adweek asked marketing and social media execs from CBS, The CW and USA to share their best TV hashtag tips. Here's what they had to say:

Keep it simple.

Given the brevity of Twitter—where no tweet can be longer than 140 characters—concise and clear hashtags are essential.

"We always want to make them simple, and make them connected to something that's going to resonate very, very quickly," said Mohan. For USA's unscripted comedy Chrisley Knows Best, the network uses #ChrisleyNation, "which becomes a rally cry for fans."

USA will also opt for clear messages like #SuitsFinale or #SuitsPremiere, "so people know there's an occurrence, something happening that night," said Mohan. "It reads very clearly what it is, so people know what's going on."

One size doesn't fit all.

"Sometimes you lead with your hashtag strategy, and so you put things out there that you want people to follow, and you do want to trend, [but] sometimes you follow," said Mohan.

That strategy changes with each show. For USA's new anti-establishment drama Mr. Robot, "we use #MrRobot, because anything outside of that that would be kitschy or clever would be off-brand for that show and wouldn't be authentic, so we would never do that," said Mohan. "But then fans came up with #DaBot, and so we follow and we use that on everything that we can. So things become very organic."

Mohan's team will take a look at the episode in advance and "have things in our back pocket, and feed those in as people go," she said. "But we're always listening, and what the fan says is going to dictate ultimately what we're using. Wherever the passion is, we go to that."

Late-night talk shows "have a ton of ideas flowing through, whereas a show like NCIS or a more procedural type show is going to have less variation as you go through it," said Marc DeBevoise, evp and gm at CBS Interactive.

For events like the Grammys, the CBS team keeps an eye on what, and which artists, viewers are reacting to most, and adjusts their hashtag efforts accordingly. "We take things from the ether and put it up onto the screen," said DeBevoise. "That tends to work better on events like the Grammys where we're really trying to play off of the artists."

Don't get too clever.

After going a little hashtag crazy in recent years, attaching many oddly themed hashtags to episodes, marketers have started to back away from that, in favor of letting fans choose.

"I hate [gimmicky hashtags]. I really do. I don't think it's organic, I don't think it's spontaneous. And I don't think it's genuine," said Rick Haskins, evp, marketing and digital programs, The CW, adding that his network learned back in the Gossip Girl heyday to "let the viewer be the lead because it is the most genuine, it is how they're talking to their friends, and we wanted to talk to them as friends as opposed to talk to them as a studio or as a show."

Another problem with those too-gimmicky hashtags: "They're sometimes too long," said Mohan. "Sometimes short is better—too many letters, all blending together, it doesn't need to be a puzzle! It needs to read and translate quickly."

Let the viewer be your guide.

The CW's marketing and social team doesn't push their own hashtags on viewers, instead letting audiences decide which ones will dominate the social media conversation.

"That feels the most organic and doesn't feel forced," said Haskins, whose team monitors all social media conversation around a particular episode, honing in on hashtags that are generating momentum and incorporating those into that week's or the following week's episode. "What I don't want to do is put what I think is the perfect hashtag and give it to the viewer because they're the ones that are using them more than we are."

Usually, the most popular fan-generated hashtags revolve around two characters that have been  "shipped" into a romantic relationship. "They come up with names of the perfect relationship and those we use all the time," said Haskins.

For example, Arrow's Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) begat #Olicity. "So that what we'll do is we throw it back to them: You made this up, what do you guys think about it? But the relationship ones tend to be the most fun, and the ones that gain the biggest ground because people can add onto it or change it or disagree with it," said Haskins.

Relationship-themed hashtags are among the most popular hashtags at CBS, for couples like #Lenny (The Big Bang Theory's Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki, and Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco). For its freshman drama Scorpion last season, CBS asked fans to decide whether Happy Quinn (Jadyn Wong) and Toby Curtis (Eddie Kaye Thomas) should be called #Quintis or #Tappy (they chose #Quintis).

Quality always trumps quantity.

Audiences don't want to be overloaded with multiple hashtags during a particular episode. "I believe less is more because I think the genuine conversations that build on themselves work when you only have one or two, and let the consumer take the lead," said Haskins. "I think if you have too many conversations going, they stop short and you don't get full advantage of them."

Mohan agreed: "I think there's one principal hashtag and there's a couple of sub ones, but I don't think we ever use more than two or three per episode. And three would be a very special occasion."

Trending isn't everything.

While trending on Twitter is still important to some networks—"We're always out to trend," said Mohan—others have shifted their focus away from that.

"Now what we're seeing is there may not be a different correlation between trending and ratings," said Haskins. "To me, which is more important is that I'm engaging my audience and getting them to participate in watching this live and making them feel like they're part of the show."

Always target new fans.  

When coming up with a hashtag, "thematically, you're trying to fit the show, but you're also trying to reach out to other fans that are not necessarily watching at that moment. So you're both trying to be smart about the content that you're making but making it broad enough to be able to reach others," said DeBevoise. "That's harder than just coming up with show character names or title of the episode. You're really trying to make it fit there."

Be decisive, yet nimble.

"You have to be very nimble because the dynamics of the audience do change and move, and you've got to be part of the conversation to keep up with it, or else you're going to be left behind and not really be able to take advantage of it," said Haskins, who empowers his social media team "to take that leap of faith" and decide which fan-generated hashtags to push out to audiences. "Add if it doesn't work, we'll switch it up until we find something that does."

Use Twitter as your ballot box.

Marketers have also incorporated hashtags into Twitter polls. "We definitely use social voting," said DeBevoise. In January 2013, CBS let viewers choose the ending to a Hawaii Five-O episode by voting via hashtag for one of three culprits: #theBoss (chosen by East Coast viewers), #theStudent (picked by the West Coast) or #theTA.

USA took that one step further for Psych's 100th episode in March 2013, which was clue-themed. Dunkin' Donuts signed on as the episode's social TV sponsor, and USA incorporated the company's name into its "pick the culprit" hashtags: #PsychButlerDDit, #PsychGroupieDDit, #PsychManagerDDit, #PsychAuthorDDit and #PsychHostDDit. "So there's lots of clever ways to bring in sponsors, too," said Mohan.

Make sure it looks good. 

Finally, a hashtag's appearance can be as important as its content. "It's very important how they look, too. Uppercase and lowercase are very important," Mohan said. "There's simplicity in how easy they are to read because you want people to connect with them, much like a headline."

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.