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Making a hash of hashtags

There were more than a few distraught Cher fans on Twitter last Monday. Stumbling across the hashtag #nowthatchersdead, they assumed it referred to the popular singer of If I Could Turn Back Time instead of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who died that day following a stroke.

It's not the first time either that an ill-chosen hashtag has led to confusion. To celebrate the launch of singer Susan Boyle's new album last year, her well-meaning PR people came up with the hashtag #susanalbumparty. Now read that again, carefully. The hashtag with the unintended double entendre was quickly dropped by the record company, but not before thousands of Twitter users had the chance to mock it.

Hashtags are a convenient way to find tweets on the same topic on Twitter, but they can prove very tricky. Not only is there scope for misunderstandings if it is phrased poorly, but there is also a chance it will get hijacked by people who don't agree with you.

When McDonald's launched the #McDStories tag to encourage people to share their positive experiences with their restaurants, it was quickly seized upon by its critics to have a go at the chain.

It is also important to get your timing right. In November 2011 Australian airliner Qantas came up with the #qantasluxury hashtag shortly after it grounded planes as part of a dispute with its staff. Qantas hoped the tag would lead to passengers talking about how luxurious the service was, instead it was used by disgruntled customers and employees to hit out at the company.

Still, we should not exaggerate the importance of hashtags. Using social media involves accepting you are not going to have total control over your message as it is by its nature interactive and democratic. So even if you get your hashtag right, you are still not guaranteed the result you want.

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