As a leader of a social media agency, I often obsess over the tweets that my staff sends on behalf of brands. That’s because a well-intentioned interaction can backfire at any moment. I'm fairly well versed in what to do and what not to do when this happens. But I can only imagine how a small business might feel when readying to engage on social media--one misstep can reverberate well beyond the intended target.

Avoid a Twitter #hashtagfail by remembering three pieces of advice.

The authentic voice is the loudest.

When McDonald's launched the promoted hashtag #McDStories, it envisioned a stream filled with tweets of love. You know, fond memories of good times at the chain. Instead, it turned into a McDonald's bashing party, where moms rallied against the company's highly processed, unhealthy options. The intention was to promote products and recall cherished memories of family trips to McDonald's. Instead, the brand received tweets like these:

One time I walked into McDonalds and I could smell Type 2 diabetes floating in the air and I threw up. #McDStories (via Twitter) 

Dude, I used to work at McDonald’s. The #McDStories I could tell would raise your hair. (via Twitter)

Ate a McFish and vomited 1 hour later….The last time I got McDonalds was seriously 18 years ago in college….. #McDstories (via Twitter)

This doesn't mean that McDonald's needs to steer clear of Twitter. But creating a hashtag around its brand's aspirations versus its brand's reality certainly did backfire. 

It's not about you.

It goes without saying that the Oreo "Dunk in the Dark" moment at the Super Bowl changed the game of engaging around real-time events on Twitter. It won every advertising award under the sun, and brands flocked to Twitter to search for what major event they could tap into next.

Award shows, holidays, and other pop culture events became reasons for brands to share their messages. However, brands have repeatedly taken this a step too far. Many brands took the opportunity to use September 11th, a day of remembrance, and make it a day about themselves. AT&T was a classic example; they posted this image of the lights at the 9/11 memorial as displayed from an AT&T phone. September 11th is not about AT&T. When people are talking about September 11th, they're not thinking about the sales being offered by brands. If you want to post a message around a holiday or event, don't make it about you. 

If you have to stretch to make a connection, don’t. 

With the recent push for real-time content, brands are desperately trying to connect themselves to current events.

According to Twitter, the birth of the royal baby generated conversation measuring at 25,300 tweets per minute. Brands felt the need to participate. This made sense for baby-product-only brands, such as Pampers or Johnson & Johnson.

But many companies tried to make a connection to this momentous occasion despite the fact that their brands had no relevance to the event itself. Nintendo made the birth all about their Princess Peach character. Worse, Charmin tried to connect their toilet paper to the "royal throne." 

The bottom line: If you have to stretch to make a connection between your brand and something happening out there, it's not likely to work.

Want to know the most effective way to use Twitter, try just listening. By listening to what your customers are talking about, what your competitors are saying, and what's happening out there in the Twitterverse, you'll be able to speak--or in this case, tweet--in ways that are more informed and which then have more of an impact.