Second only to Facebook, Twitter is the largest and among the fastest growing social media sites, breaking the 500 million user-mark in early 2012. In fact, it’s predicted to grow four times faster than Facebook through 2014.1 So it’s no wonder businesses of all sizes are trying to get in on the microblogging sensation to help market their company.

Don’t fear the hashtag. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed the “#” starting to show up in collateral, print and even broadcast ads. The “#” symbol is called a hashtag. The hashtag symbol follows a keyword phrase and is used as a search tool, similar to keywords on Google™, to help organize tweets in specific topics. For example, #DexOne or #Findable are both hashtags.

Why hashtags? A hashtag allows users who aren’t connected (called “following” in Twitter speak) to talk about the same topic and have their tweets appear in the same stream. Typically, the most common hashtags are conferences, celebrity news, major events and natural disasters. But they’ve also become an effective way for businesses to expand their reach and enable consumers who aren’t following their company to find them on Twitter.

How to get a hashtag. You don’t have to be a Twitter expert or visit a special site to get a hashtag. They are simply text you create yourself by adding the “#” before typing a targeted keyword or group of words. Hashtags don’t use spaces so it helps to use camel case (capitalizing the beginning of each word) to improve readability such as “#ILoveItWhen.” A hashtag can be placed at the beginning, middle or end of a tweet to get yourself added to a specific conversation stream.

Tips for selecting hashtags. Before dipping your tweeting toe in the hashtag pool, it’s always best to check out a tag to make sure it’s unique or not already associated with something totally irrelevant (or embarrassing) to your business. Plus, you’ll reduce the chances of individuals that aren’t in your target audience polluting the conversation. There are a number of ways to find out which hashtags are popular or “trending” at any given time. You can search on Twitter trends, What the Trend?, Twubs, or one of the many other directory-type sites. Look for relevant hashtags around yours and see what topics people are discussing. Choose industry or brand keyword tags to help people find you and try to avoid sentiments such as the word “love” which can sometimes backfire. Above all, keep it short—you have only 140 characters.

Using hashtags.Like most forms of social media, there are a lot of unspoken rules in Twitter—especially when it comes to promoting your business using hashtags. Here are a few tips to help get noticed and avoid any major faux pas:

  • Always promote your hashtag by adding it to your other marketing channels.
  • Always make sure you explain what your tag is early on so people can understand what it means.
  • Always be relevant to a hashtag conversation.
  • Try to incorporate trending tags in your tweets, but do it honestly. Don’t insert yourself into a conversation where your business has no connection to the topic.
  • Occasionally tweet without a hashtag so users know you’re a real human and not a spamming computer.
  • Use the official hashtag for a conference or event you’re attending to get yourself listed in the stream of others attending the same event.
  • Create a unique hashtag for your business event such as “#DenverSkiConf.”
  • Use popular hashtags with the words “#coupon,” “#deals,” “#bargain” to tweet about sales.
  • Never repeatedly tweet the same topic without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get a topic trending.
  • Never use more than two to three hashtags in a single tweet. You’ll look like a spammer.
  • Never hijack hashtags relating to sensitive subjects such as the Japan tsunami or the Egyptian revolution.
  • Never tweet about a trending topic and then post a misleading link to unrelated content or an advertisement.
  • Never list the trending topics in combination with a request to be followed.

Still confused? Sometimes the best way to understand something is to see it in action. Try logging in to Twitter Search Home and typing in the name of a company or a celebrity in the top right search box to see what they’ve been tweeting about. Spend a few minutes playing around and learning about Twitter and you’ll see why it’s one of the fastest growing social media sites on the web—and a great way to promote your business to new audiences.

1 – eMarketer: Facebook’s US User Growth Slows but Twitter Sees Double-Digit Gains, March 5, 2012

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