Last week as I was organizing my Twitter account I decided to re-evaluate the search terms I was using to find interesting content. This led me to take a closer look at hashtags and their latest use by marketers for business purposes.

As many know, the use of the pound sign (#) is at the crux of the hashtag. Putting symbols in front of words for taxonomy purposes isn’t a new concept. The @ sign has been at the center of email universe for decades now. Not surprising, it’s also used to address someone on Twitter.

However, the Twitter hashtag is more than a simple way to categorize content, identify themes or track real-time conversations. They're increasingly being used by companies to drive positive online conversation and build brand recognition and loyalty.

Hashtags Driving the Popularity of SocialTV
Television networks have been quick to leverage the power of the hashtag by displaying it in the bottom corner of the screen during a broadcast. Usually it’s the name of the program or TV show such as #Revenge, #TopChef or #PanAm. I noticed that LifeTime’s Project Runway gives each contestant their own hashtag for voting purposes, which is a fantastic idea and also provides more ways for fans to tweet about the show. Expect to see more creative uses of the hashtag by entertainment companies and TV networks in the near future.

Hashtags as Branding Vehicles for Companies
Many marketers are starting to use hashtags as branding vehicles for campaign awareness. A good example is Audi that recently promoted their new LED headlights with the hashtag #solongvampires. The unique hashtag was connected to a TV ad that showed the headlights destroying vampires because of their extreme brightness (part of the product message). The result was a memorable campaign with excellent integration between multiple mediums.

While hashtags can drive massive attention for a branded campaign, some companies are going even farther by using them organically to convey value proposition. Red Bull’s tagline, “It Gives You Wings,” has been parlayed into the #givesyouwings hashtag and is quite popular with consumers when discussing the brand on Twitter and referencing other activities synonymous with the tagline.

The Perils of Hashtag Hijacking
Just like any other communications tactic, careful consideration needs to be given to hashtags. Unfortunately, McDonald’s learned this the hard way when it decided to offer up stories on the healthy aspects of its food using the hashtag #mcdstories. Within hours of the first tweet, consumers hijacked the hashtag and posted negative stories damaging the McDonald’s brand. What started out as a solid communications platform for the burger chain quickly turned into a PR nightmare. (Read: When a Hashtag Becomes a Bashtag on Forbes)

Marketers need to think about how hashtags can be integrated into broader media campaigns without losing control of the narrative. This is especially important since hashtags are now moving beyond Twitter and into other media channels. We’ve only witnessed a glimpse of their true potential and the real opportunities that they can bring for brands and the marketers that use them.