#SMChat sees hundreds of people take to Twitter each week to discuss social media marketing. #BlogChat participants produce over 6,000 tweets about the tools, tricks and tribulations of being a blogger. These are two of the biggest Twitter chats out there, and they’ve developed a “secret sauce” for hosting the perfect chat.

Luckily for us, the secret sauce doesn’t have to be such a secret. I’ve been a participant in dozens of Twitter chats – but I decided to take a closer look at how some of the best chats function. So what are the secrets of hosting a great Twitter chat?

1. Choose the right theme

Before you dive into creating a Twitter chat, you need to decide on a theme.

Typically, a brand should have a reason for hosting a Twitter chat. Will you be hosting a chat about social media tools? About fishing tips? About home décor? Choose a broad topic that is related to your industry, and if you’re planning on rerunning your chat each week, choose a sub-topic for your first week.

A word of warning when deciding on your chat topic: do a little digging in your industry first. Search Twitter, industry blogs and your professional social networks a bit to make sure that no one in your industry is already hosting a similar chat. There’s no need to step on anyone’s toes – there are plenty of topics to choose from that will appeal to your audience without rubbing someone the wrong way.

2. Choose the right hashtag

Every Twitter chat is organized using a hashtag. Typically, chat hashtags contain the word “chat” and a few characters describing the topic of the chat, like #BlogChat and #SMChat. The absolute most important thing you should do when choosing your hashtag is to research it first. All this means is to brainstorm your hashtag and then search for it on Twitter.com. If no one is actively using it, it’s yours!

Tip: keep your hashtag short and sweet. The shorter it is, the easier it is to memorize and the more characters your audience will have to work with when tweeting.

3. Advertise the chat before it goes live

There’s nothing worse than an empty Twitter chat. It’s hard to host a conversation when no one is participating! So well before you launch your first chat, advertise the heck out of it.

Find your audience (whether it’s directly on Twitter, via LinkedIn, your company blog or another medium), and tell them you’ll be hosting a chat. Write a blog post explaining how to participate. Tweet the date and time a week or two in advance, and once or twice a day in the two or three days just before the chat. Write a Facebook post about it. Take a super cool Vine of your chat setup at your office. Do whatever it takes to alert your audience to the fact that this chat is happening and they need to be there.

4. Choose the right timing

Most Twitter chats occur at a specific time and day each week or month. Choosing your chat’s timing is essential to get an engaged audience that will continue to attend.

You’ll want to use tools like Tweriod to discover when your audience is actually online. When you’ve pinpointed a few times that they appear to be most active, go back to your research and see if any other, popular, chats conflict with that time. You’ll notice that #BlogChat happens every Sunday at 8p.m. Central while #SMChat goes down at 1p.m. ET on Wednesdays. This is no accident: the audiences for these two chats intersect, so hosting them at the same time would be bad for business.

A final word on timing: consistency is crucial. Be sure to host your chat at the same time each week or month. If you keep moving it, you’ll lose your audience’s interest.

5. Use the right moderators

Every chat needs a moderator – someone who feeds questions to chat participants, highlights the best-of via retweets or even a post-chat blog article, and generally keeps things moving forward.

You can moderate your own chat, or bring in a team member, guest host from your industry, or even a celebrity to add some sheen to the event. You can stick with the same moderator each chat, or bring in someone new. Just remember that your moderator will effectively be the face of your chat, so choose wisely.

6. Bring in guests

The best chats out there manage to be consistent, while remaining interesting and essential. And that’s hard to do when you’re basically talking about the same thing every week!

I’ve noticed that the most vibrant Twitter chats tend to bring in guest hosts to act as their moderators. Bringing in a guest to act as a moderator is a great strategy for a number of reasons: One, it takes a lot of the work off your shoulders; two, it makes the chat a must-participate if you choose an influential person to host that week; and three, it varies what could otherwise become a boring exercise for you and your audience.

7. Retweet and respond

Why are you hosting this chat? If even a small part of your reason is to increase your brand’s visibility within your industry, it’s important that your brand’s Twitter handle participate in the chat. Even if you’re not going to be the moderator, you should step into the chat and make your presence known.

You don’t want to dominate the chat, nor do you want to steal anyone’s thunder. The best brand participants I’ve seen in chats typically highlight other’s ideas by retweeting them, and by consistently responding to any tweets directed to their account.

8. Prepare enough questions for an hour

The standard length for a Twitter chat is one hour. Some chats choose to let the conversation flow freely in this time, but I find the better ones have prepared questions from the moderator to keep things interesting and on-topic.

If you assume that your audience will spend about 10 minutes talking about each question, and that maybe one or two will be duds, that means you should prepare about 5-7 questions for your chat – giving yourself some time for introductions and sign-offs.

Part of coming up with questions is also preparing a couple of follow-up questions in case the audience seems to want to stay on a certain topic for longer than you anticipated. The best moderators will be watching the conversation flow and will be ready to usher in a new question or not depending on how active your audience is.

9. Use multimedia

We all know photos and videos perform on social networks better than text as a general rule of thumb. This same rule of thumb is applied to Twitter chats, too.

Try showing your audience a video, image or other multimedia to get the conversation started. Get your moderator to link to a controversial article in the first 5 minutes, and discuss its implications at the end. The more variety you can introduce, the more your audience will engage and participate.

10. Extend the chat after it’s over

Once the hour’s up, your work’s not done! You could just wash your hands of the whole thing right at the end of the hour, but why not do a little work to keep the momentum going?

Try archiving your chat and linking to it a few hours or days after it’s ended. TweetArchivist and Storify are great tools for this. Or, you could write a blog post summarizing the highlights of the chat and sharing some statistics. Whatever you do, do enough to keep your chat alive until the next time you meet.

Do you have any tips of your own for hosting a great Twitter chat? Let us know!

(Chat image via Shutterstock)