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#HashtagFails? 5 Tips That Will Change Your Fortune

The hashtag is the haiku of modern Internet culture. Despite the apparent randomness in which ones gain popularity, there's an art and science to selecting hashtags.

You may be familiar with the epic failures. Susan Boyle’s #susanalbumparty and Research In Motion’s #RIMjobs will long be remembered for their extraordinary lack of awareness. And #AskJPM and #McDStories, too, have become case studies in what not to do on Twitter because their use unleashed a barrage of quips and attacks. (Hint: Open-ended questions can become bulls-eyes for trolls.) 

I would argue, however, massive noticeable failures are the exception not the rule. It's more common to put out a hashtag that's ignored.

Hashtags are a way to capture, organize and advertise an idea. Marketers must master their use to reap business results on social networks.

With that in mind, here are five things to do to change your hashtagging fortunes:

1. Be informative, not abstract.

The handles #IceBucketChallenge and #BringBackOurGirls were winners on Twitter, but #WTFF (what the French fry) was not.

People intuitively understood the first two hashtags. But Burger King’s attempt at cleverness doesn't seem worthwhile, with people needing to do a web search to figure out what was meant.

The Keep It Simple Stupid (or KISS) principle offers good guidance for those creating hashtags. Short, clear hashtags, preferably with one or two words and four max, are the most likely ones to catch on.

2. Proofread carefully. Add capital letters.

If your hashtag can be misread, it will be. The longer your hashtag is, the more there's a risk of misinterpretation. Proofread carefully for alternative readings. And for the audience’s sake, capitalize the first letter in each word.

In 2013 when Margaret Thatcher passed away, the hashtag #nowthatchersdead was read by many people to be #NowThatChersDead, prompting rumors that the famed pop icon had passed away. A hashtag #NowThatchersDead would not have resulted in that misunderstanding. 

3. Incorporate hashtags on multiple channels.  

If a hashtag is rocking on Twitter, take it to other social networks, billboards, your company's website, print media and stores -- whatever platform the firm uses to connect with consumers. Hashtags are popping up everywhere because they work: The best onea convey enough information to provoke an emotional response from readers.

But before bringing your hashtag to every channel, test it. Checking the appeal of a hashtag inside your organization will reveal a gaping hole in user comprehension or an accidental lapse into vulgarity.  

4. Don’t overdo it.

The more hashtags you add to content, the more diluted and confusing a message becomes. As a rule of thumb, limit a tweet to having no more than three hashtags. Thus, “excited about #SummerVacation” is a clear, simple message.

But “#excited about #summer #vacation #2015! #summer2015” is not. You don’t need to be in each conversation and try to dominate every single related hashtag.  

5. Listen carefully and pick an opening,

To be an effective hashtag artist, be immersed in a variety of conversations and look for an opening. Following hashtags is an extremely effective way to track trends in an industry.

You'll see what competitors are doing, what influencers are saying and how customers are reacting. This intelligence should inform your hashtag use and reveal openings you might not create on your own.

For instance, you can live tweet during major events such as the Super Bowl, World Series or Olympics or a live music event to take advantage of strong engagement. These mega events offer a window for a company to tap into a shared cultural experience with its own message. Just be sure you're contributing to the experience (adding humor, commentary and entertainment) rather than exploiting it.    

Hashtags exist to connect otherwise siloed comments into a shared dialogue that brings together strangers. It’s easy to let hashtag-marketing strategies get in the way of this purpose.

The hashtag itself is essentially a tool to start or enter a conversation, but it's not the conversation itself. If you hijack a trend without contributing anything substantive to the conversation, people will notice and you won’t build appreciation for your company. 

You can’t judge the success of a hashtag too quickly. Often, it takes weeks or months before one gains traction. Use a hashtag consistently and encourage its use by favoriting, retweeting and rewarding your followers when they acknowledge your hashtag. To keep track of what’s working, consider using an analytics tool (such as one offered by my company, SumAll). 

#HashtagFail or #HashtagWin? It’s not up to chance. It’s up to you.