Van Life: Capitalizing on a Social Media Phenomenon

Companies like GoWesty tap into popular hashtags and use visual marketing to build brand identity and grow their customer base. Here’s how your brand can harness the power of social media to do the same.

Move over, tiny houses. Right now, millennials the world over are opting to pack it all up and live the van life. Foster Huntington is the #vanlife hashtag pioneer and the author of Home is Where You Park It as well as his upcoming Van Life book. Following in his footsteps, people are embarking on van-based adventures and sharing their experiences. Most of these shares are on Instagram. The hashtag #vanlife has been used more than 3.4 million times on the platform to date.

What’s the appeal of #vanlife and the lifestyle it represents? According to Jad Josey, general manager of California-based GoWesty Camper Products, #vanlife is largely about a pared-down nomadic lifestyle, adventure, and communing with nature. He traces it to the 2008 recession. As they faced financial strain, many people eschewed expensive vacations and opted instead to discover the country’s national parks.

“For GoWesty, the concept of #vanlife — and, more specifically, #westylife — is rooted in the power of these vehicles to become memory-making machines,” Josey explains. “There’s nothing quite like hitting the road, finding a place that speaks to you, and popping the top — just like that, you’re home.”

But #vanlife is something else to GoWesty, too. It has become a means of increasing the company’s exposure on Instagram. By associating its brand with the popular hashtag, GoWesty can insert itself into the consumer conversation about van life and increase awareness of its products. It’s an easy and effective way connect with potential new customers.

Here’s how your brand can do the same.

Making the Most of a Trending Hashtag
Van Life: Capitalizing on a Social Media Phenomenon — Making the Most of a Trending Hashtag

Image by Julia Tim.

About seven years ago Foster Huntington quit working at Ralph Lauren and moved into his 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. That’s when he wrote his first book on van life. He helped revive and popularize a concept that had already been around for decades, says Josey. “The VW bus helped make van life more accessible to nomadic adventure-seekers, those seeking to live a more simple life, and everyone along that continuum back in the ’50s, ’60’s, and ’70s,” he says. So when the #vanlife hashtag hit the scene, GoWesty was instantly aware of its potential. “The hashtag helps organize images and reach an audience of people interested in what, exactly, van life means.”

GoWesty uses #vanlife in conjunction with branded hashtags like #westylife and #westylifeboardriders. They even use #WestySessions, which features musicians performing in VW campers. The van life hashtag also inspired spinoffs. Those include hashtags like #plasticfreevanlife, which reflects GoWesty’s concerns about plastic waste in the world’s oceans. It also serves as a promotional tool for the company’s short film on the subject.

When it comes to marketing, #vanlife offers GoWesty the best of both worlds. It’s popular—hundreds of thousands of consumers worldwide use and search it. But, more importantly, it meshes perfectly with the GoWesty brand and its social media strategy. “Instagram is a great social media platform for visual marketing, and it’s where we focus most of our social media energy,” Josey says. “From a business perspective, we want to share the story of our brand — but it goes beyond trying to calculate marketing ROI. We love these vans, and we pride ourselves in helping people get into the outdoors, under the stars, gathered around a campfire.”

Josey adds, “That’s where the real magic happens, and if an Instagram photo helps inspire someone to pack up the van and hit the road, we’ll call that a success.”

Best Practices for Marketing with Hashtags
Van Life: Capitalizing on a Social Media Phenomenon — Best Practices for Marketing with Hashtags

Image by Batshevs.

There’s no question that visual content is an indispensable tool for brands. EMarketer reports that nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of American consumers will spend time on a social network at least once monthly this year. Instagram now has one billion active monthly users, surpassing rival app Snapchat. One of the best ways to maximize your brand’s presence on this platform is to use hashtags.

But, using hashtags effectively requires some careful consideration. There’s a right and wrong approach, according to Jennifer Burns. Burns is a senior community manager at social media marketing agency Ignite Social Media.

“Say we’re putting together a post for a client,” says Burns, who works with brands that include Discover Boating and fashion boutique Altar’d State. “Typically, we’ll look for extremely popular trending hashtags that have 100,000 to 500,000 posts so we can insert the brand into that already popular conversation. Then we’ll include some moderately popular hashtags with 10,000 to 100,000 posts.” Burns includes both niche hashtags that resonate with her brand’s target audience, and branded hashtags specific to the company. “Aim to have around 10 to 12 hashtags per post,” Burns says.

Showing some restraint with your hashtag use is important, because failing to do so can negatively impact your brand. It may seem as though adding as many hashtags as possible will broaden your exposure. Sure it might get your post in front of more potential customers. But, this technique can also reflect poorly on your company and even alienate your audience.

“A lot of times we see brands doing hashtag stuffing in their posts, and that can come across like spam,” Burns says. “You don’t want to clutter your copy with hashtags.” She also advises against incorporating hashtags into the post copy. Instead, add them under your caption to “keep the post clean, but also brand-relevant.”

When she’s using trending hashtags similar to #vanlife, Burns doesn’t just think about brand relevance but brand safety, too. “We always research hashtags to make sure they’re brand-appropriate — like with the hashtag #boatlife. You’d think it would just be gorgeous pictures of boats, but it can quickly go in another direction,” she says, referring to the #boatlife hashtag’s somewhat sexualized content. “Before we tie a brand to it, we make absolutely sure it clears that brand’s guidelines.”

Trending hashtags can be a dark temptation for marketers. It’s easy to assume that aligning yourself with them is a smart move. But take a cue from GoWesty, and heed a social-media marketer’s advice. If you want to make the most of them for your brand, use hashtags like #vanlife wisely.

Top Image by Julia Tim.

Want to learn more about content marketing? Check out these articles:

The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice
Agile Management Practices That Are Changing the Creative Process
Your Business Guide to Making Better Instagram Stories
Why Localized Visual Content Generates Value in Paid Advertising
The 5 Essential Steps of Successful Social Media Marketing

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