Brands tweet about trending topics all the time, but they don't always use the platform's powerful reach in order to promote themselves beyond a Twitter conversation.

Brands tweet about trending topics all the time - we write about it every Friday. If something gains enough viral traction, like the dress that was definitely blue and black or the UNIQLO fitting room sex tape incident, we'll even write about it on a different day of the week. But all too often, brands let their contributions to the conversation live and die on Twitter. They might tweet funny pictures that are enjoyed for a second and then quickly forgotten. It doesn't have to be that way though - hashtag hijacking is a great way to turn a trending topic into brand lift.

Last week's Democratic Debate was a huge trending topic on Twitter. According to advanced social media analytics company Talkwalker, the #DemDebate hashtag received 25.5 million mentions and 9,300 engagements between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also received a combined 541,000 mentions, each gaining thousands of new followers in the process.

talkwalker-demdebateEngagement refers to likes, retweets, and shares, with the green arrows representing changes over time. Potential reach is the sum of all media types.

Since politics is understandably something brands tend to shy away from, most of the Tweets came from individual people (and Donald Trump). But Frito-Lay was all over the #DemDebate hashtag, as one of its brand mascots live-tweeted the debate.

Cheetos mascot Chester Cheetah offering his opinions on the debate was amusing, but more than that, Cheetos used the hashtag to elevate its own campaign. Keeping with the political theme, Cheetos is in the middle of a campaign involving Chester Cheetah running for mayor in the tiny (Read more...) of Chester, Montana. All of the brand's #DemDebate tweets also included the #ChesterforChester hashtag.

"One of the things we strive for in our marketing is shifting from the old advertising that's based on persuasion to content we're sharing. We know we've won when consumers become our media and retweet on our behalf," says Jeff Klein, vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay. "When there's a spotlight on a particular subject, such as the Democratic Debate, it allows us to insert ourselves into that conversation and be a part of that conversation. The days of talking at consumers are over."

According to Talkwalker, Chester Cheetah got 200 mentions on Twitter during the debate. That may not sound like very many given the vast number of #DemDebate Tweets, but don't forget that Chester Cheetah is hardly the most esteemed political commentator because he is a cartoon.

Klein says that Cheetos has an advantage when it comes to getting in conversations on social, having a branded character with a distinct personality. But for brands who don't have a built-in spokesperson (or spokescheetah), he recommends authenticity and effort.

"Too often when brands jump on hashtags without a well thought-out strategy behind it, it becomes marketing to marketers rather than engaging with a consumer," says Klein. "I think that some brands are maybe chasing the wrong metrics. It's not all about eyeballs for us - it's about how people engage. We want to take consumers on a longer journey, rather than just get a smile as they continue to scroll. Our long-term approach is connecting people to our narrative, and I don't think you can take short cuts with that."

Todd Grossman, chief executive of Talkwalker's American division, thinks Cheetos did hashtag hijacking right because of timeliness. The "Chester for Chester" campaign ties in with the Democratic Debate, so it made sense.

Another brand Grossman commends along these lines is Ralph Lauren. While Breast Cancer Awareness Month lacks the ephemeral virality of a single hashtag, it's still a background trending topic that lasts throughout October. Ralph Lauren has been tweeting throughout the last few weeks, reminding people of its charitable Pink Pony campaign.

"It can often be tricky, but you should allow a certain amount of time for a hashtag to gather organic momentum from members of the public first," says Grossman, adding that social listening is a good way to judge the right timing to jump in and participate. "I think what that's doing is basically finding opportunities and ways to reach a wider audience that you couldn't otherwise speak to by participating in a public hashtag."

From there, one action brands can take is identifying any influencers who may have engaged. Maybe some of Chester Cheetah's Twitter fans (ClickZ is following him, obviously) who shared his political commentary have large followings of their own. Using a popular hashtag and combining it with your own hashtag is another way to achieve additional brand lift.

Timing and identifying influencers are good tactics, but both will fall flat if the brand fails to read the room. In order to redirect a conversation, you have to first be aware of where it currently is.

When #TheDress was being debated back in February, Papa John's contribution was along the lines of, "Who cares? Everyone loves pizza." For some strange reason, everyone cared. That was the whole point.

Want to move beyond Twitter?

  • First, have an ulterior motive. Many brands endear themselves to consumers through amusing Tweets - fast food brands are particularly adept at this. But if you want to hijack a hashtag, you need to a goal beyond simply making people laugh. Make them laugh and direct them to something else.
  • Know what you're getting yourself into. Read the conversation before you jump into it. Nobody likes a tone deaf Tweet and the bigger your audience, the more people will see yours. If you fail to understand the vibe, well, you may just make the 10 Worst Social Media Fails of 2015.
  • Be relevant. The fact that Chester Cheetah is running for mayor created a perfect tie-in for the brand to Tweet about the Democratic Debate. Had Ralph Lauren tried to appeal to that audience with his Pink Pony campaign, that wouldn't have made as much sense.
  • Remember that timing is everything. Twitter moves fast so be sure to gauge the right time to jump in. If you make a misstep, your Tweet risks being lost in the void.
  • Be spontaneous. This piggybacks off the timeliness. You never know what's going to go viral or how long something is going to stay viral, so you have to act fast. Oreo seized the moment so well during that now-famous blackout Tweet that people still talk about it, nearly three years later.
  • If you have a GIF of your cartoon spokesperson kissing a baby, absolutely use it.

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