Hashtags have become a part of popular culture, moving beyond the realm of social media and into casual conversation. Basically, they're words or characters preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) that identify conversations about a common topic. They're most commonly used across social media channels to help people search and contribute to the aforementioned conversations. There are many ways to use hashtags. Nevertheless, it pays to understand and follow best practices when using hashtags on Twitter or other social media sites.
Keep it short.
#LongHashtagsAreHarderToRead. See what we mean? It's brutal. At least capitalize the first letter of each word if you have more than one word in your hashtag. Long hashtags also take up a lot of space. Keep them to two to four words — max. It is particularly important to keep them short when using Twitter.
Don't use too many.
No more than three hashtags in a post is a good limit, although it might not be a problem to go beyond this number on some social media sites. Know what is acceptable on the site to which you will post.
Hashtags are used to find related content. Therefore, make sure you use the same hashtag for the same content. Don't use #UMM in one post and #UMMen in another. If you mix them up like that, people will only find part of the conversation.
Trending or humorous hashtags can lead people to take a second look. For instance, you may see @GhostJohnWesley regularly tweeting about #GhostProbs. #CatchGodsWave might be an intriquing hashtag to promote your VBS program.
However, be careful to use hashtags in the correct context. For example, "#Tworship with us" may work as a Twitter invite, but it's not a great fit for your church marquee
Your content (not the hashtag) is key.
On Twitter, you have a limited number of characters. Make sure you complete your message before you worry about whether to include a hashtag. There is no point in hashtagging a message that doesn't make sense.
Don't use hashtags on every post.
Overuse of hashtags will dilute their meaning. Your followers already know if you always post about the same topic.
Some social media sites use hashtags primarily as subject tags for your posts. On those sites, it may be OK to use hashtags more often.
Use what people search for.
If you want people to find your content or follow your hashtag, be sure the hashtag is something for which they are looking. Use hashtags that will interest others, not just you. Check out this helpful list of common ministry hashtags.
Once you select your hashtag, promote it. You may need to tell people about your hashtag through other means. For instance, if you created the hashtag for an event, put the hashtag on all of your event materials and in your bulletin so event attendees and visitors to your congregation may follow it and use it online, whether it is on Twitter, Instagram or somewhere else.
Check your hashtag before using.
Do a search on the hashtag you are considering before you post it. Someone else may already be using it for another purpose.
For example, perhaps you want to use #MissionWhoville for your local mission event. It is possible that another church or nonprofit in Whoville is using that hashtag for its program.
It got a little confusing this year when reading tweets using #AC2015. Does that stand for Annual Conference 2015 or Anthro-Con 2015?
Avoid spaces and symbols.
Most social media sites do not include spaces or special characters in their hashtags. Know the rules for all the sites on which you plan to use the hashtag. When in doubt, don't use spaces and symbols.
Make it memorable.
People will not use your hashtag if they cannot remember it. Be certain the hashtag aligns clearly with your content. This will encourage others to join your conversation by using the same hashtag.
Consider creating a hashtag for an upcoming sermon series in order to make the sermon preach all week. Of course, using a hashtag during Sunday service may be a little out of the box.
Remember these best practices the next time you want to engage in a larger conversation on social media. They will strengthen your impact and encourage others to participate.
-- Andrew J. Schleicher, Project Coordinator, United Methodist Communications. Andrew is an ordained deacon, a blackbelt hashtagger and is certified in Christian communications with The United Methodist Church.