Every couple of months or so, another story about a Twitter hashtag campaign gone awry infiltrates the Internet, and we all feel sorry for the poor saps who gave it the green light. You can’t help but wonder how they didn’t see the potential hijacking disaster that lay ahead, but it’s not as easy to predict as one may think.

Brands spend millions to promote their hashtags through various channels. The most successful implementations however, are from companies that have made sure to cover all their bases before taking the leap. Here are a few tips to help avoid the worst case scenario, and to keep your hashtag campaign on the right track.

1. Consider Every Single Thing That Could Go Wrong

“Ignorance is bliss” is not the mantra to adapt when trying to create viral hashtags. Don’t assume your campaign will bring out the best in humanity; take some time to consider every single way the hashtag could be twisted into something inappropriate, critical or even damaging. If you’re finding your list is a rather long one, it’s best to change your approach.

Starbucks’ failed “#SharetheCheer” is one example of a hashtag campaign gone wrong — it happened just last week in the UK. It provides good insight into how a seemingly harmless hashtag can leave a lot of wreckage. The hashtag was intended as an uplifting holiday campaign, but UK were fans enraged by Starbucks’ controversial interpretation of tax law; the company paid only £8.5 million in UK taxes in a year when it earned £3 billion in profits. As a result, the hashtag was used as a platform to share sarcastic comments about Starbucks’ taxes.

2. Stay Away from Controversial Topics

Politics and hashtags aren’t typically known for functioning peacefully alongside each other, yet they’re still being utilized on a somewhat frequent basis to encourage the public to voice its opinion. The White House recently created the #My2K hashtag (seen above), asking middle class Americans what they would do with an extra $2,000 they could potentially save in taxes. Some people did use the hashtag as it was intended, but many people also took it as a chance to criticize current and potential government policies.

This is a good reminder that hashtags give people with negative feelings or sarcastic mindsets the opportunity to speak out — unfiltered. Corporations and businesses should be especially wary of voicing political opinions—it almost guarantees you’ll alienate customers, and probably even lose some.

3. Be Realistic

Sometimes the general public sees a brand differently than the brand sees itself. It’s completely normal to have an optimistic point of view of your business, but by no means does this mean everyone shares the same feelings. Companies with an unstable reputation are better off completely staying out of the hashtag campaign arena altogether.

Even the most seemingly fail-safe campaign can go wrong if your brand is going through a rough patch, such as with the case of Blackberry’s “#BeBold” campaign. Research in Motion (RIM), the creators of BlackBerry, have been on a steady decline for the past few years and its something consumers are well aware of. According to Mashable, RIM launched the hashtag last year on New Years Eve during Dick Clark’s Times Square countdown, asking for consumers’ New Year’s resolutions through the #BeBold hashtag. However, it quickly morphed into a chance to mock RIM’s superhero-themed campaign, lack of marketing skills, and steady decline into irrelevance.

4. Avoid Asking Open Ended Questions

All of the above examples have one thing in common: they all used very vague, open-ended questions in their copy that left a ton of room for contortion and misappropriation. If you eliminate this ambiguity in your campaign, the chance of your hashtag being hijacked drops dramatically. David Berkowitz, of the digital agency, 360i, gave a great example in Mashable: “If Delta does a campaign to win a free flight and uses #flydeltafree, it won’t be attacked in the same way as if it uses #whyilovedelta that invites sarcasm.”

Asking yourself if the potential ROI outweighs the risk can also help you decide if a hashtag campaign is right for your brand. What is the ultimate goal of the campaign, and is there a safer or more relevant alternative?

Know of any other classic hashtag hijacks, or how to avoid them? Let us know in the comments.

[Image credits: Jimmy Snell, Ryan Milani]