Often the biggest results come from the smallest actions. 

Take Twitter hashtags, for example...

The concept itself is deceptively simple; just add the “#” symbol in front of a word or a group of words with the spaces between them taken out.

This tiny bit of detail lets Twitter organically categorize your tweets, as well as anyone else’s, that make use of the exact same hashtag. In a very big way, it is the 140-character equivalent of assigning keyword tags to documents and blog posts.

Just as anyone searching for content about a specific keyword gets pointed toward the articles containing that keyword, anyone searching on a hashtag gets a listing of tweets containing that hashtag. Reflect on that for a moment, for therein lies the power of the humble hashtag.

By including a relevant hashtag in your tweet, it becomes visible to people searching for that specific topic, adding your voice to the general discussion. Conversely, hashtags automatically narrow down your audience, allowing your tweets to reach and engage only those interested in the same subject matter.

The probability of your tweets being retweeted are also higher when you use the right hashtag to share your comments or insights about a subject. People have a natural desire to share these useful insights. Ultimately, you could gain new followers, not because of the hashtags per se, but because your ideas and messages will reach those interested in them in the first place. Including you in the conversation is just a click away.

Given such a powerful tool for initiating conversation and soliciting engagement, the natural next step is to use these hashtags to market products and services using the Twitter platform. It makes good sense; Twitter is awash with stories of how companies have successfully carried out their marketing campaigns using Twitter hashtags.

In the U.K., Domino’s Pizza slashed a penny off the price of its featured flavor each time someone tweeted with the hashtag #letsdolunch within a specified time frame. The campaign generated 85,000 tweets and a host of happy diners who were able to enjoy the pizza at a huge discount. Radio Shack asked people to tweet #kindofabigdeal and earned more than 80,000 mentions.

Even the Obama administration scored a victory over the Republicans on the payroll tax debate. The administration invited people to tweet about what #40dollars means to them. The system’s utter simplicity makes it easy to get your hashtag campaign started. Here are some tips on how to get started.

  1. Determine the kind of value you aim to derive for yourself and your followers from using the hashtag. Do you intend to crowdsource information? Do you aim to create buzz? Are you looking to provoke conversation? Make sure your intentions and purpose for employing the hashtag are clear and focused. Formulate a hashtag that is relevant to your purpose and the subject you intend to tweet about.
     
  2. Check to see if the hashtag you have in mind already exists and is in use. It is also very important to check if your desired hashtag has not taken on some other meaning. Twitter Search, Hashtags.org and Tagalus are some tools you can use to do a quick hashtag check.
     
  3. Start tweeting your hashtag. It helps to set the context of your hashtag by briefly explaining what it means. Tweet with moderation. The last thing you want is to be seen as a spammer. Always ask what value you and your followers can get from the tweet you are putting out.
     
  4. If it does not exist yet, add your hashtag definition to online tools such as Tagalus.
     
  5. Set up an automatic alert tool that sends you an email alert when someone tweets your hashtag. Twilert is one such tool.

As you can see, the process is simple, but it is not without its pifalls. Just ask McDonald’s. One of the hidden perils of this marketing tool is that your hashtag could get hijacked and used against you. In the case of McDonald’s #McDStories, they mistakenly assumed that the general public shared their own glowing view of themselves.

To spare yourself from Twitter hijacking, you will need to plan your Twitter campaign to the smallest detail. But since it is more difficult to foretell how anything will end up, you could join in on existing hashtag trends, instead of creating a new one.

If the conversation is already on-going and established, there is less of a chance that it will get hijacked. And be human. People warm up more to other people rather than faceless corporations.