What are #hashtags? (And why your ministry should use them)

A few months ago I was having lunch with two associates at a little diner just outside of St. Catherine’s Ontario. We were talking about the future of Christian bookstores in light of modern technology when my friend, who was a store manager at the time, asked: “What is a hashtag?”

Now it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen the “hash” symbol before or didn’t know what it was. Sometimes it’s called a pound symbol a number sign. Everyone knows that. But what is a “hashtag“? I understand the question because for a long time I didn’t know either. Below I’m going to try to explain what a hashtag is and why you should use it in your ministry.

What is a hashtag in social media terms?

A hashtag takes the hash symbol “#” and attaches it to the front of a word or short phrase to tag it. Hence, to hashtag the word “hashtag” you would do this: #hashtag

The hash symbol organically transformed from a simple symbol on your phone to what one person called, “one of today’s most valuable marketing tools.” And not marketing just for business, but marketing for anything really, including ministries and causes. In fact one of the earliest causes that really launched hashtags on Twitter was “#sandigofire” to bring awareness to the wildfires in California in 2007.

[Offerpop has a great infograph on the History of Hashtags, though it stops at 2013.]

Essentially a hashtag is a way to group conversations and bring people together. When people use the hashtag symbol on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, every post, image or update that uses the hashtag are pulled together put in one place on their respective platforms.

I’ve come up with a metaphor to help me visualize how hashtags work. Maybe it’ll help you too.

Imagine a social gathering of 50 people broken up into groups of three or four each. Of those 50 people imagine 40 of them are all talking about the latest thing  (such as: “There’s a new website to help church leaders leverage social media“). But like any normal social gathering, people at one end of the room have no idea that people at the other end are having the same conversation.

This is what social media conversations were like before the introduction of the hashtag. People would have conversations on Twitter with only their immediate followers and have no idea who else in the Twitter-sphere might be having the same conversation.

What hashtags do is allow everyone in the social gathering to come together to join in the same conversation. It’s as if someone in the room stood up, hoisted a sign over her head that read “#churchleaders” and then said, “Hey! Everyone who wants to talk about that new website for church leaders, come over here and join in the conversation.”

Chances are the 10 people who were not talking about that subject will come over and join in too simply because they don’t want to be left out. And when new people enter the room and see the crowd of people talking about the same thing with the sign “#churchleaders” overhead, they’ll probably want to join in as well. That’s the power of hashtags.

Why ministries should use #hashtags

The power behind the hashtag is in it’s organic nature. There is power when people come together to stand for a cause and hashtags are one of the most powerful mediums to make that happen. When people come together on Twitter to take up a cause, promote a book or share an idea, the world listens.

But on a local level hashtags work well too. An example is if there’s an event held in your city such as a leadership conference or joint Easter service. A great hashtag in those cases would be something like #yourcityleadership or #yourcityeaster.

An example tweet or Facebook update could be something like:

“Joint Easter service @LSA. Come and be one with us this Easter! #WindsorEaster.”

Another example could be:

“Pastor Mark from @LSA, Pastor John from @DCC and Pastor Torrie from @PGT are all speaking at the joint service. #WindsorEaster.”

If someone clicked on the hashtag “#WindsorEaster” or did a search for “#WindsorEaster” they’d be able to see both of those posts (and any other post that used the #WindsorEaster hashtag) even if they aren’t connected to anyone who shared it.

There are several things that happen when you use hashtags like this.

1. You create an awareness of your event and that awareness grows with each Tweet or Share.

2. Your turn out could potentially be much larger.

3. Your message will receive a bigger audience.

4. The different ministries tagged (e.g. @LSA) will receive exposure.

5. Their websites might receive more exposure.

6. You’ll encourage conversations around your event or even during your event which then creates even more positive exposure!

If you have an event worth sharing, and an audience who are enthused about it, one of the best things you could do is create a social media hashtag campaign around it.

What if a group of your friends are meeting downtown for an evening to minister to the poor by providing food and material to help them survive? Create a hashtag campaign and get your friends and ministry partners on board.

What if you’re starting a community garden in a dense urban area? Create a hashtag campaign and get your friends and ministry partners chatting about it.

What if a group of you are planning to meet in a dark corner of your city to beautify it and breath new life into a place that even the municipality has abandoned? Create a hashtag campaign and get your friends and ministry partners on board.

What if you’re holding a community barbecue to reach the local suburban community around your church? Create a hashtag campaign around it and get your friends and ministry partners on board.

What if you’re preparing to plant a church? Create a hashtag campaign to build anticipation and get your partners on board.

I could go on and on. There are many more uses for hashtags and I haven’t even scratched the surface. The point is that ministries like yours should be all over hashtags because hashtags are great tools to help advance the ministry God has entrusted you with.

In upcoming posts I’ll talk about right and wrong ways to use hashtags and how to launch a hashtag campaign. But for now…

Question: How have you used #hashtags successfully in your ministry? What are some other benefits to using #hashtags that I didn’t mention? Do you have any questions about #hashtags you’d like me to answer? You can leave a comment by clicking here.