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As chief psychiatrist at Field of Screams' Frightmare Asylum, Dr. Malpractice preys on visitors' worst fears. This year, the demented character got his hands on a smartphone and began using hashtags to draw more victims to the haunted attraction in Mountville.

Malpractice may be new to social media, but the owners of Field of Screams and the marketing firm they've hired recognize Twitter's power to build hype. They started posting deranged musings from Malpractice's handle (@drmalfos) a week before the annual opening.

Many of Malpractice's tweets will be labeled with #FOSVictim, allowing users to type in the phrase and find all the creepy elements of a story he tells 140 letters or numbers at a time.

"I wanted to get everyone involved, whether it's following us or tweeting us back," says social media marketing coordinator Melissa Van Dyk. "This is a great way to keep people interested in Field of Screams beyond the season and allow for anticipation of next season."

If all this talk of hashtags has you confused, you're not alone. The almost forgotten numeric symbol has a new lease on life, but many novice social media users have no clue what to do with it.

Placed before a word of phrase, the hashtag creates a searchable record of all similarly labeled posts on Twitter. It helps determine what's trending on Facebook. It's all about grouping related posts in a way that resonates with friends or followers and encourages others to use that same hashtag.

Sometimes they fit naturally into a tweet. Other times they make sense at the end of a message. Among novices —and occasionally among those who ought to know better — they can be used in a way that detracts from the whole social media party.

When the former British prime minister passed away last year, the website IsThatcherDeadYet? celebrated by creating #nowthatcherisdead. To American fans confused by the tag's length and lack of capital letters, it seemed that pop icon Cher had died.

"People make hashtags that are too long, too vague or just forgettable," says Stacey Irwin, associate professor of communication and theater at Millersville University. "You're just trying to whip something out really quickly."

But as the Twitter fan wiki advises, Twitter should be about telling followers what you're doing, not necessarily what hashtags you're using. A tweet with nothing but hashtags will likely be ignored. Do it enough, and you might lose Facebook friends.

The stakes are higher for businesses that fail to strategize when it comes to hashtags. Companies and celebrities who bring a sense of humor or irreverence to their tweets seem to get better traction. But hashtags can also be powerful messaging tools for serious causes.

It's best not to confuse the two.

#WhyIStayed trended as a way for domestic violence victims to share their stories following the release of video showing an NFL star knocking his girlfriend unconscious. DiGiorno Pizza jumped in with both feet, tweeting "#WhyIStayed You had pizza," and landed in deep trouble.

"Especially in a commercial setting, not researching a hashtag before you incorporate it in a campaign is just really dangerous," says Kae Kohl, co-founder and chief marketing nerd at Lancaster-based Kiwi Marketing Group.

Kohl commended the company for removing the offensive tweet quickly, and for responding personally to many who were offended. But she said others can avoid the same trap by researching trending topics on Twitter or at hashtags.org. That site also allows users to post a definition for a tag they plan to start using.

Kohl and fellow co-founder Bede Fahey say Twitter hashtags are often used to sort information and make it searchable. They're also a way to publicize and connect people with events like conferences (#TTL14 for the IU's Tech Talk conference), or to track issues or organizations (search #SCOTUS for Supreme Court goings-on); or to provide context, snark or irony.

Kohl says irreverent hashtags can work well, but that they have to feel natural and match the voice or persona of the brand's other social media messaging. Creating a hashtag out of your company name too soon can come off as pompous, but it can be a wise move for established organizations.

Kiwi is the voice behind Dr. Malpractice and his victims. The storyline is largely drawn out, but it allows for responses to things that happen online or in person. Upon arrival, one follower recently tweeted "I'm here for my check up" and got a personalized threat from Malpractice. The good doctor also promised a local news station that he'd send a visiting reporter's "best bits back."

Van Dyk is working to link the evolving dialogue to followers on other social media platforms, too. She established the Malpractice story on Facebook to nearly 500 likes and asked followers to track @victimannfos on Twitter.

Irwin says hashtags are an easy way for advertisers to provide trans-media saturation, meaning they can roll out their story in ways that reach interested people on one platform or many.

"It makes perfect sense to harness the hashtag for that purpose," she says.


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