Social networks are powerful media with massive potential audiences, so when a hashtag starts trending, it’s natural to start pondering how you might be able to join the conversation, using it as a vehicle to reach the crowd of people following it with a message to help further your mission.  However, before you push post, there are two key questions to ask: Is it appropriate to jump into this conversation? And, if so, what is the right timing and approach?

Let’s tackle the first question:

Imagine an earth-shattering news event happens just as you are on Facebook or Twitter and within minutes, a powerful hashtag emerges, and within hours it gathers immense attention. Don’t be hasty. Hashtags have been known to morph and gain momentum that may not at first be expected. For example, in the early hours of #Ferguson you may not have expected it to come to represent the wide variety of issues that its momentum attracted.

Let’s say you hopped into the conversation early on when things were still calm. How were you to know it would soon turn into this?

#Ferguson

The other reason not to be rash is that hashtags are often grouped together to cover more virtual ground. So what was just “#Ferguson” was soon joined by #DontShoot and #JusticeforMikeBrown. You see how your cause could quickly become associated with a topic you hadn’t initially intended.

Harness your impulse to act quickly and instead ask if this is a topic that needs your voice or if it’s too sensitive for your cause. Is it a conversation where your audience would expect your participation; can you add genuine value to the discussion?  If not, sit it out. Trust me, another relevant hashtag will present itself soon enough.

However, if the conversation is a fit, when should you dive in?  The sooner the better.  While this can be a fine line given what we’ve just discussed, if the news event is relevant to your cause, the sooner you are able to weigh in, the better.  Note, we’re not talking about news jacking here like The Salvation Army did with #TheDress, but rather joining a conversation that is relevant and timely to your cause. Bring a genuine voice and add value to the conversation. Helping further the conversation can garner positive feedback and capture the attention of new supporters.

What strategies can causes use to create repeat success?

  • Do your homework. Before you do anything, make sure you really understand what the original hashtag stood for. After all, you don’t want to wade into something, thinking it is one thing, and then have something very different suddenly linked to your cause. If everything checks out, feel free to build on the trend with your own hashtag.
  • Know your audience and platform. While hashtags can be used across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+ and even Tumblr, they do perform differently across platforms – and different audiences tend to engage on the different platforms. Engage where your audience is most active and will be most receptive to hashtag participation.
  • Create your own. By all means, feel free to create your own hashtag for your cause, initiative, campaign or nonprofit. Use it regularly and consistently. If you’re attempting to generate awareness by creating a hashtag for something else, be careful. It takes some finesse and can be situational.  Remember, “From the moment you start spreading a hashtag, you are essentially handing over control.”
  • Turn Engagement into Action. When audiences are motivated to participate in hashtag conversations, it is a great time to ask that they take a social action such as signing a petition or a card, effectively transferring engagement into action.
  • Have a backup plan. You never know when a hashtag might morph into something unintended. As a result, it’s wise to have a backup plan in case things take a turn you didn’t expect.

Hashtags can be powerful allies for nonprofits looking to make a serious impact. With a few thoughtful questions and smart steps, organizations can harness this power to make a positive impact on their mission. Start strategic hashtag marketing and you’ll soon see the benefits of creating greater connectivity to your issue, expanded reach and awareness, and the power of influencing people to action.