If you’ve ever used a Twitter hashtag, you may be aware of some of its main benefits: It allows your tweets to be seen by a wider audience than just those who follow you, your tweets become searchable and clickable even after you post your original message, and most importantly, it puts your tweet in a stream of other tweets from like-minded people who are interested in the same topic as you. Take all of the benefits mentioned above, repeat the process at a regular day and time each week and you’ll have what’s known as a Twitter chat.

In any given week, there are hundreds of active Twitter chats attracting thousands of regular participants. Chats cover a wide range of topics from those that you might expect — advertising (#adchat) and social media (#SMChat), to more niche topics like insurance (#inschat) and science fiction (#scifichat).

It’s typical for participants to tweet about specific topics that have been determined in advance of the chat (and usually published in advance on Twitter, blogs, or other social media channels). Generally, the idea is for experts on any given topic to connect and chat about the topic not only with their peers but people who are looking to find out more about these topics; those people are usually encouraged to participate as well.

As with Twitter at large, engagement and interaction is the lifeblood of any good Twitter Chat. Given the focused and specific nature of the conversations within Twitter Chats, however, they represent an opportunity for brands to engage with people who are already interested in topics related to those brands (even if the brand association is not direct).

We interviewed the moderators behind three very different Twitter chats and asked them about the content and makeup of their chats,  and the opportunities for brands (or agencies representing brands) to participate. We also uncovered some best practices in case you’re interested in starting up a Twitter chat of your own. These particular examples grew organically out of communities, but there’s no reason your company can’t produce something similar with a little legwork.

#DadChat

#DadChat, as you might have guessed, is a Twitter chat that revolves around topics like fatherhood, parenting, and children. Its audience includes professional speakers, authors, and bloggers who make their living talking about these issues, but it’s just as likely to include fathers on Twitter who just want to commiserate with other dads for parenting advice, tips, and support.

However, #DadChat founder and moderator Bruce Sallan is quick to point out that this chat also attracts a large number of women, “because I invite guests that have valuable perspectives to share and because of the quality of the discussions we have around parenting as a whole.”

With a professional background in TV production, Sallan has been developing #DadChat with the same level of dedication, effort and strict adherence to quality content as the TV shows he used to produce for network television. The results have paid off in spades for Sallan, his chat, and the participants who regularly show up to add value to the conversations around parenting issues. “Every week we get 100-200 moms and dads participating in the chat, and we generate about 1200 tweets in that hour that we’re together,” Sallan says. According to Sallan, #Dadchat also generated over “600 million impressions in 2012” and is on track to break that record this year.

Big brands have taken note. For example, Ford Motor Company was a recent sponsor of one of his weekly chats. Unlike Twitter parties or Facebook contests where prizes are given away without any real connection with the brand, Sallan engaged his audience by talking about car safety for kids. He asked participants in the chat to find relevant information on Ford’s website and moderated the discussion to encourage people to talk (and tweet) about the information they’d found.

Sallan warns that successful Twitter chats require a lot of work and preparation, and that “moderators should be prepared to go where the conversation leads.” He also says that moderators shouldn’t be afraid to “promote the hell out of their chats” as long as they are offering some social good to their audience in return. You can join in on #DadChat every Thursday at 6:00 p.m. (Pacific) and connect with @BruceSallan on Twitter to inquire about the topics for that week.

#UsGuysChat

#UsGuysChat originated from a diverse group of tweeters using a related hashtag (#UsGuys) as a way to stay in touch with one another on Twitter. “We started out just inserting the #usguys hashtag in tweets that we wanted our whole group to see,” says Joseph Ruiz, one of the moderators of #UsGuysChat. “We welcomed anyone and everyone to join our ad-hoc group. All they had to do was include the #usguys hashtag in their tweets.” This informal discussion group quickly became so popular that it got a little difficult to focus on specific topics being discussed amid all the regular chatter of new people joining the #usguys community, according to Ruiz.

“That’s when we decided to formalize a Twitter chat called #UsGuyschat for those of us who wanted to discuss things other than coffee or beer — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it allowed us to have more organized discussions, on a variety of important topics, on a regular basis,” he says. “Each month we pick a different theme for the chat and we develop specific discussion topics around that theme.”

“Twitter chats are a great way to identify and solidify a cohesive community on Twitter,” says Ruiz. He advises that anyone thinking about starting their own Twitter chat should focus on consistency. “You’ve got to be there every week and if you can’t make it, you’ve got to have a backup. Consistent promotion of your chat is also vital, so that people know when and how to find you.” You can check out #Usguyschat every Monday at 3:00 p.m (Eastern).

#bizforum

Sam Fiorella, the founder and moderator of #bizforum, takes a unique approach to the way this Twitter chat is structured. “I designed #bizforum to be more of a debate, rather than a conversation,” says Fiorella. As a professional marketer, Fiorella says he sees a lot of business professionals and cliquish groups on social media that do very little to educate themselves or the communities they serve. “Too many of these groups turn into mutual-adoration societies, and I wasn’t interested in participating or perpetuating anything like that.”

In the #bizforum chat, Fiorella will make a statement based on current trending business topics and then ask the chat participants whether they agree or disagree. Whatever side anyone takes, Fiorella will take the opposite position, not to be combative but rather to “challenge their beliefs and force them to support their positions.”

Fiorella says he’s heard from a number of #bizforum participants who compare his chat to “an abbreviated MBA program.” “What we’ve created here is a forum for really smart and passionate business professionals to become even more informed, and more passionate about their beliefs, because they’ve been forced to defend them publicly among their peers.” Fiorella adds, “our participants, and the clients they serve are much better for it.” If you’re ready to debate your position on any number of trending business topics, join Fiorella and the #bizforum chat group every Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. (Eastern).

Know of any other great Twitter chats that would benefit brands or the individuals and agencies that represent them? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image credits: US Department of Labor, Jim Capaldi, Victor1558]