#ThisIsOTR: How a hashtag made its mark, turning into a movement to grow a great neighborhood

CINCINNATI - It’s a chilly Wednesday morning, so it’s no wonder that Collective Espresso , a small coffee shop on Woodward Road in Over-the-Rhine, is filled to the brim with people looking for a warm cup of coffee.

Tucked between a teal brick building and a small playground, the shop its owner describes as “kind of out of the way,” is a place where baristas pour drinks with care, dripping latte froth into a design fit for a likeable Instagram photo.

Owner Dustin Miller has noticed that images of many of the shop’s beverages actually end up on the social network, usually with the hashtag #CollectiveEspresso and often aggregated by #ThisIsOtr, a hashtag that’s given the neighborhood an online identity.

“I feel like the #ThisIsOTR hashtag, kind of you see anything from people, to dogs, to Taste of Belgium, to coffee, to having beers at Neons,” Miller said. “It seems to bring in all the different parts of what being and living and playing in this neighborhood is all about.”

That’s exactly what #ThisIsOTR’s creators Mia Carruthers and Michael Chewning were hoping to achieve when they started the movement.

“It was like two years ago. We both worked at Urban Sites at the time and we were, I think, just trying to think of something fun to do,” said Chewning, who is the chief financial officer and chief operation officer for the real estate agency. “That would be just a way to connect people who lived in different buildings down here.”

Nearly 21,000 posts and pictures later, they’ve succeeded.

“For me, it was trying to find a way or something to show clients at Urban Sites that were looking to rent what it was really like to live here,” Carruthers said. “Me telling them in a meeting--it doesn’t have the same affect as pulling up the website. When it launched it was like, 'Wow, there’s so many people you don’t know when you think you know a neighborhood and the people.'”

What's in a name?

Coming up with a moniker for the project was fairly simple.

“WeAreOTR.com was taken,” Carruthers explained, and #ThisIsOTR worked.

More than just a hashtag, Chewning and Carruthers are using the aggregate to give back to the neighborhood they love.

There will be a #ThisIsOTR party at Japps on May 15 to benefit Main Street OTR, a group looking to improve Main Street through streetscaping and safety initiatives.

“It’s all about making a positive impact and showcasing the great stuff,” Carruthers explained.

Not only is the hashtag making a difference in the Over-the-Rhine community, it has also provided a marketing tool to local businesses.

Aaron Kohlhepp, an owner of sports bar Rhinehaus , said he and his staff try to include the #ThisIsOTR hashtag when posting on Instagram or Twitter.

“There’s no real rhyme or reason for it, but it’s extra exposure, absolutely,” he explained. “We’ve done so little actually monetarily (to advertise.) Our marketing budget is pretty much nothing, so we rely on word of mouth and social media for pretty much  everything.”

It’s a method that seems to work. Sean Grace, a board member of American Advertising Federation Cincinnati , said he uses the hashtag during AAF Cincinnati meetings at MOTR Pub .

He said seeing the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram allows the viewers to get an idea of what’s going on in the neighborhood.

“It gives you a sense of identity, a sense of belonging,” Grace said. "You’ll see a lot of activity on the hashtag, where the hotspots are. It’s becoming powerful.”

Empowering businesses

So powerful that frameshop, located on Main Street, also relies on it for marketing.

“So (my partner) runs Facebook and I run the Twitter and Instagram,” said co-owner Jake Baker. “We divided it just because you don’t want three sites doing the same exact things at the same exact times. “

Baker said social media has been “incredible for business,” and unites customers.

“I think it’s the community aspect of it, that’s the biggest part,” he explained.

Baker’s comments are a reflection of something that happened at Rock Paper Scissors , a specialty art supply store also on Main Street.

One of the owners, Lindsay Nehls, posted a photo of a sweatshirt available at the shop on Instagram. Later that day, someone came in to buy one.

“When people come in (to buy something) they say ‘Oh, I saw it on Instagram,'” Nehls said of the store’s social media efforts.

Rock Paper Scissors also uses Facebook and Twitter regularly, too.

Customers ore are often featured on Instragram, under the hashtag #AwesomePeopleAtRPS, because like  many of the new venues and shops in Over-the-Rhine, Rock Paper Scissors doesn’t have a large  marketing budget.

“We’ll take pictures of what people are getting, I use it to showcase things,” Nehls said. “All of our music is local and we have locally made art supplies.

#513: There's an app for that

Katie Dobson moved to the neighborhood from Louisville five years ago, when things were different. Now 21, she came to Cincinnati to attend art school. She's the creative force behind the

Over-the-Rhine sweatshirts sold at Rock Paper Scissors.

“Over-The-Rhine was the underdog,” Dobson said. “Now I think the biggest battle is fighting that it’s not uppity, not too hipster, not condescending.”

Dobson has put herself into the fight, especially because much of her artwork has been inspired by the neighborhood itself. With the blessing of people with Urban Sites, she’s launched a history project through social media, called “This Is OTR.”

“(These are ways) to communicate the history of OTR,” she explained. “So many people love OTR but they don’t know why they like it. Everybody goes there and they don’t know that it’s the largest urban historic district in the U.S.“

Part of the purpose of Dobson’s campaign is to spread awareness about the area’s history through things like her screen prints and shareable images with historical tidbits that she posts on Facebook and Instagram--of course, using the hashtag #ThisIsOTR.

Another element of her initiative is part of her senior project for the Art Academy of Cincinnati: the #513 App.

The app isn’t available for downloads just yet, but Dobson says it will provide users with filters for Cincinnati-themed photos they take and want to post on social networks. Dobson developed the script for the filters, which have options like “Cincinnati,” “Over-The-Rhine” and “Washington Park.”

“The #ThisIsOtr hashtag, the only way that find out about it is if they see #ThisIsORT (tagged." They have to know someone who knows someone (to see it),” she explained. “So I wanted to make the hashtag more accessible to give it more life beyond just the hashtag at the bottom of the picture.“

Libby Cunningham writes about the intersection of social media, digital platforms and the real world. You can connect with her on Twitter: @WCPOLibby .

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