There are many who use Twitter for their social media marketing; however, there are few who use it effectively to create conversations rather than just as a broadcast mechanism e.g. to announce new blog posts, news, or links to press releases etc.

One way to begin conversations on Twitter is to use the hashtag feature. A hashtag is a mechanism to create a ‘channel’ or a way to group together all tweets about a similar subject.

If you look at hashtags.org you can see many of the popular tags. For example, if you type in superbowl (hashtags.org/superbowl), you can see all the recent occurrences of the hashtag #superbowl and how frequently it has been used.

Another example is #followfriday. (http://hashtags.org/followfriday) which obviously peaks in usage every Friday, when people around the globe recommend others to follow on Twitter. This works brilliantly as a recommendation engine so you should investigate who the people you follow are following each Friday. There are multiple other versions of followfriday based on industry sector e.g. #wirelesswednesday so it is worth exploring to find any which may relate to you.

In order to benefit fully from these types of recommendations, you need to get actively involved on Twitter and be seen to be worth recommending. Simple actions such as thanking people for retweets (when others have forwarded your tweet to their list of followers and shown as RT) or retweeting tweets you like or think will be of interest, mean that people will recommend you (if they remember!) the following Friday.

Many events and conferences offer hashtags to allow discussions both before and after the event, and these can be extremely useful sources of information, both conference and sector related. For instance, the tag #digitalbritain was used prior to the Digital Britain report in 2009, but is now in regular use to refer to anything regarding digital inclusion, broadband, technology, Martha Lane Fox, UK Online Centres, and so on.

It is worth watching the hashtags being used by those you follow, and is one of the reasons why following people rather than just gathering followers is important. Hashtags can make Twitter an extremely useful information gathering tool for your industry sector, as well as means of finding like-minded people and customers.

One of the rather neat tools which is available is http://www.paper.li This relies on Twitter hashtags to gather together all items that fall under specific hashtags and reproduces them in the format of a daily newspaper. From a marketing perspective, there are interesting ramifications to creating a paper.li

For instance, if you want to keep up with all that is being said on Twitter about the Apple iPhone, you should firstly subscribe to http://paper.li/tag/iphone This will give you a daily update on all the tweets including that hashtag in a simple, easy to read format. However, inclusion in the daily paper gives you an additional opportunity to reach a larger audience than just your followers. All you need do to be included is to find the paper.lis that cover the topics whose audience you wish to reach and then place the relevant hashtag in your Tweets.

If you are covering a niche topic, or holding an event that you wish people to get engaged with online, you can create your own paper.li on the subject. As you promote it, more people will use the appropriate hashtag, read the paper.li, and it becomes a self-promoting cycle, as long as you are encouraging people to tweet news they find, ideas, thoughts, blog posts etc all using that specific hashtag.

You can spot which hashtags are trending on twitter at any given time using a variety of tools: http://tweetstats.com/trends http://www.trendistic.com and http://www.whatthetrend.com explains why specific topics are trending.

However, you should be careful with your use of hashtags. There is a certain ‘netiquette’ involved in using hashtags, particularly as hashtags evolved through the community need, rather than as a planned feature of Twitter.

Firstly, your hashtags must relate to your post. You cannot just add a trending hashtag in order to reach a wider audience unless it is directly related to the post. Otherwise, it will be seen as spam and may do your reputation more harm than good.

Before creating a hashtag to relate to an event or for a specific topic, check whether it is already being used for an unrelated topic. As many hashtags are acronyms eg #csr (Comprehensive Spending Review) you may find your tweets lost in the noise about an entirely different subject.

Do not use too many hashtags per tweet. Three or four should be plenty in an average tweet. If you want to reach a wider audience, and there are multiple hashtags you could be using, rewrite a second tweet using different hashtags and different wording. It is also worth considering creating a different landing page for each tweet. This will enable you to measure audience reaction to different hashtags.

Hashtags do not need to be placed anywhere in particular in a tweet. However, there are certain types of tweet where the hashtag is placed at the end. For instance, if the hashtags you plan to use form part of the sentence that makes up your tweet, you include them naturally within that sentence. Otherwise, place them at the end.

e.g. #SEO #blog shows how to use #socialmedia in your small #business <link>

Whereas Twitter Haiku always have the hashtag at the end. So, on a lighter note, here are a selection of the tweets which end with #haiku http://haitotheku.com/

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology