Twitter hashtags are among the most powerful tools in social media because they allow Twitter users who might not be following one another to come together around shared interests. (New to Twitter? Watch our quick video tutorial.)
Tweetchats, a virtual gathering on Twitter to discuss an agreed upon topic, usually at a prearranged time, are just one way to leverage the power of hashtags.
Two recurring examples of tweetchats in the physical therapy community are the Tuesday night #SolvePT chat and the Wednesday night #DPTstudent chat. In both instances, a host determines a topic in advance and then moderates the discussion at the scheduled time.
Participating in tweetchats requires nothing more than a public Twitter account and a basic understanding of hashtags.
To host a tweetchat, here are some basic tips:
Step 1: Pick a short, unique hashtag.
Because all of your tweetchat participants must include the selected hashtag within each and every tweet, you want a hashtag that's short — ideally 8 characters or fewer.
You also want a hashtag that's unique. Hashtags can be spontaneously created and used by anyone, which means there is always the potential for multiple groups to use the same hashtag for different purposes, creating confusing cross-conversations.
Once you've determined the hashtag you want to use, perform a Twitter search with that hashtag to see if it's being utilized by others for a different purpose. For example, the American Physical Therapy Association wouldn't want to host a tweetchat using a #APTA hashtag if the American Public Transit Association also used #APTA in their tweets.
Step 2: Pick a time.
Most tweetchats last 1 hour. Preferably tweetchats should be scheduled at a time when both East Coast and West Coast residents can be available to participate, presuming you want a national audience.
Hosting a recurring tweetchat — such as the weekly #SolvePT and #DPTstudent chats — allows for consistency and may increase the size of your audience over time. But tweetchats don't need to be part of a series to be successful. You could always bring work groups together to share ideas over Twitter on an as-needed basis.
Step 3: Pick a topic.
What do you want to talk about? Are you looking for advice or guidance? Are you looking for debate and discussion?
Once you know the topic, you can communicate that in your tweets promoting the upcoming tweetchat. If the topic is too complex to adequately summarize in a single tweet, you could write a blog post about it and link to that longer description in your promotions.
Step 4: Promote your tweetchat.
Send multiple tweets over several days to promote your tweetchat in advance. If possible, encourage your peers to help you spread the word.
Although usage of Twitter is steadily increasing, most of your peers probably aren't on Twitter, so consider e-mailing some of them about the upcoming tweetchat and encouraging them to create an account and participate. Tweetchats are a terrific (if potentially overwhelming) way to demonstrate the value of Twitter to new users.
Step 5: Chat.
There are several ways to participate in a tweetchat.
Using the desktop version of Twitter, you can enter the hashtag in question into the search field. After the results appear, be sure to click the "All" link to ensure that you see all tweets using that hashtag, not just the "top" tweets or the tweets of those you already follow. This will ensure you see every tweet during the tweetchat.
Another option is to use a social media dashboard, such as HootSuite, which allows you to set up a column dedicated to streaming all tweets using a specific hashtag.
There are mobile versions of Twitter and HootSuite, too, if you want to use a smartphone or tablet.
The moderator of a tweetchat should take responsibility for beginning the conversation and keeping it going, asking questions, replying to participants, and so on.
All participants in the chat must include the appropriate hashtag within each of their tweets to ensure that all participants see each tweet (your Twitter account must be public for this to work). If you reply to a tweet within the tweetchat, don't forget to add the hashtag, otherwise the conversation will quickly become fragmented: lots of small and potentially overlapping side conversations rather than one group conversation.