Source: Instagram via Bloomberg

Wedding Hashtags: Here Comes the #Upsell

What started as a free and easy way to organize photos at events could become the next big thing for the wedding business

Matt Barranca and his fiancée Liz are getting married in November. They’re all set with the guest list, photographer, and venue—an historic banquet hall in Hartland, Mich. They’ve also decided on a hashtag.

The hashtag has quickly become a standard part of millennial matrimony. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks automatically organize photos posted with a specific hashtag into a feed, giving attendees and those who couldn’t make it an easy way to see the pictures everyone is taking.

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Barranca, a 32-year-old teacher, and his soon-to-be wife will ask family and friends at their wedding to include “#BecomingBarrancas” in the captions of photos they share online. The decision process involved ruling out ones that have been already used for other events. For example, #LizLovesMatt would be a decent option, but a search through Instagram reveals that a couple had chosen the hashtag for a wedding in Virginia. Because of the competition for short, memorable phrases, Barranca says picking a hashtag is something they couldn’t leave for the last minute, which would risk having their wedding photos intermixed with those of some other couple.

“We are making little signs to be placed throughout the venue that have the social media logos for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” Barranca says. “They’ll say something along the lines of, ‘If you're taking pictures tonight, we’d love for you to share them with us,’ with the hashtag.” He’s hoping the younger attendees will help his grandparents figure it out.

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The wedding hashtag trend has grown organically among young couples looking for a free and painless way to outsource some photography work and collect every shot taken during their special day. For many, crowdsourced pictures aren’t replacing professional photographers. U.S. weddings are a $55 billion industry, according to market research firm IBISWorld. It’s a life event Americans are willing to splurge on, and hashtag management could become the next add-on for an already expensive occasion.

Some companies have begun to monetize the wedding hashtag. For $399, photo site Eversnap will print instructional cards for guests, create a live slideshow during the event, and apply a custom watermark to all the photos. A second company, PastBook, compiles photos from hashtags shared privately or publicly on the Web to create a physical book of wedding photos.

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WeddingWire and Zola, two of the largest wedding sites, host guides to teach people how to create hashtags and retrieve the photos later. WeddingWire also offers a hashtag generator, which Barranca used to come up with ideas. The site’s suggestions include #Barranca4life and #BarrancaPartyof2. The companies are looking at hashtag services as a way to draw in customers; the tools are currently free. WeddingWire’s hashtag generator has been an effective marketing tool. Since it went online five months ago, it’s been used by 600,000 couples, according to the company. This is a lot, considering that just 2 million Americans get married each year, according to government data.

Kimberly Harris, who got married in Connecticut last month, used the hashtag generator after her younger cousin recommended it. Harris’s girlfriends helped her pick the winner during her bachelorette party: #MeetTheMelvans. “You can't make it too long, or it’s something people won’t remember,” she says. After the wedding, the couple was able to discover moments missed during the rush of the big day. “As bride and groom, you know everyone is there, but you don’t get to hang out with all of them,” Harris says. “My husband didn’t even have Instagram before, and I literally couldn’t pull him off his phone looking at all the pictures.”

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Zola’s app, which is mainly used for wedding registries and gifts, now has a feature that culls photos tagged with a particular hashtag from around the Web and presents them as a sort of digital scrapbook. About half of Zola’s users have experimented with the feature, according to the company. “It's really a mobile 2.0 version of the Polaroid cameras on every wedding table,” says Shan-Lyn Ma, chief executive officer at Zola. “This kind of thing will replace the traditional wedding album.”

A widely Instagrammed wedding isn’t for everyone. Some couples request that attendees stay off phones for the duration of the event, urging guests to live in the moment. Others have rules about pictures: While a professional photographer will select the most flattering photos, as well as edit and airbrush the images to perfection, a guest with a cell phone might capture attendees in a drunk and sweaty state. Debates about etiquette have raged on the Internet, with professional photographers warning about how things can go very wrong.

Resistance from some wedding purists hasn’t slowed the rise of the hashtag. WeddingWire says it is seeing so much interest in the hashtag generator that it’s expanding investment in the product, according to Sonny Ganguly, the company’s chief marketing officer. For example, WeddingWire needs to refine the tool’s recommendation to prevent two couples from seeing the same suggestion. “We’ll definitely need to evolve the algorithm,” Ganguly says.

And those with hashtag fatigue should brace for what WeddingWire is working on next: tools to generate hashtags for bachelor and bachelorette parties.

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