Twitter has been a runaway success since the status message inspired Web application launched about three years ago. More and more businesses are turning to the micro-blogging service to help promote their business and to increase traffic to their Web site. The key to maximising the potential of Twitter is to control a niche in order to expand your traffic and make money, says Christian Harris, Editor of BusinessComputingWorld.

But how do you achieve this when you’re new to the service, you’ve never used the Internet to market your product, or you’ve barely got time to answer your e-mail? The majority of people I’ve spoken to about Twitter—and social marketing in general—are totally overwhelmed when they think about where to begin. For many, Twitter is a distraction. It saps your attention and pulls your focus away from other tasks. Twitter usage involves an investment in time and attention, but it can be extremely rewarding once you integrate it within your normal workflow.

Understanding Twitter

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as ‘tweets’. The point of all this following is that you get to see what goes on in other people/customer’s lives between the phone calls and your other interactions with them. Assuming you have other interactions with them.

Twitter gives you a fragmented experience of opinions, events, news, ideas and feedback largely because it is structured to accommodate non-contextual usability: You can easily follow thousands of users and listen in and enter into conversations conducted among multiple users at any point. And this is usually the case. On the other hand, Twitter can be actively used as a tool to push out messages that capitalise on the attention you’re receiving from other users. Yes, I’m talking about self-promotion and marketing. This involves active user engagement.

Twitter is ranked as one of the 50 most popular Web sites worldwide. Although estimates of the number of daily users vary because the company does not release the number of active accounts, at the beginning of the year Twitter was ranked as the third most used social network based on its count of 6 million unique monthly visitors and 55 million monthly visits. In March, a Nielsen.com blog ranked Twitter as the fastest-growing site. Twitter had a monthly growth of 1382%, Zimbio of 240%, followed by Facebook with an increase of 228%. However, Twitter has a very high turnover of users?only about 40% of its users are retained.

Simplicity has played an important role in Twitter’s success. People are eager to connect with other people and Twitter makes that simple. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the sender’s profile page and delivered to the sender’s subscribers who are known as ‘followers’. Senders can restrict delivery to those in their circle of contacts or, by default, allow open access. Users can send and receive tweets via the Twitter Web site, Short Message Service (SMS) or third-party applications such as TweetDeck. While the service costs nothing to use, accessing it through SMS may incur phone service provider fees.

Who uses Twitter?

So who uses Twitter? The short answer is that it’s a mix of everyone. From the young to the old, from the interesting to the boring, from the glamorous to the not so glamorous, from the sole trader to the enterprise. Twitter is a good way to interact with people all over the world, both like-minded people, and not like-minded people. All of these people are on Twitter for their own reasons?mainly for self promotion or to plug a product?so you need to figure out why your company wants to be on Twitter. Imagine Twitter as a global, 24-hour-a-day cocktail party. Who can you trust in your company to keep a cool head? Who can be friendly, be interesting and be themselves without denting your brand’s reputation? Remember that Twitter is a social tool that facilitates marketing?it is not a marketing tool in itself and users don’t take kindly to being ‘sold to’.

Twitter for business

Twitter allows you to monitor how influencers think or feel. You can also get into their attention zone via active networking. For businesses, Twitter is another channel which connects current and potential customers with your product or brand. It allows deeply infiltration into the lifestyles of interested participants, which helps to build brand persistence/loyalty.

In its most obvious form, Twitter can be seen as a traffic generation tool. The placement of links within profiles and conversations can direct visitors to your company Web site and is especially powerful if you pitch to early adopters and influencers. As a lead acquisition tool, it doesn’t always reach the audience you want. Most Twitter users are somewhat Web savvy and it is extremely difficult to target a specific subset of the general demographic and determine their level of potential interest. As there isn’t an option to advertise within Twitter (unlike Facebook), Twitter marketing is a task that involves two-way audience engagement, on the part of the marketer or business owner. In a way, this is a good thing.

Setting goals

Before you start your Twitter campaign you should clearly define your goals. Realistic expectations, such as how many new followers you can expect per month, is an easy way to help you further define your social media goals so that you can try different tactics to increase the percent change over time. If you want to use Twitter to increase traffic to your blog, define the baseline immediately to get better insight into traffic that Twitter is driving your way. Your goals should be achievable and measurable. Some goals you can measure include Twitter giveaways, hashtag campaigns, link sharing, retweets, referrers, total followers, total following, and tweets per day, week, or month.

Most businesses will want to use Twitter to search for new merchants, resellers, or customers. The key metrics around followers are just a stop along the way. In this case you should be tracking conversion rate: How many users following you are converting to a sales call and then a customer once you can send them a direct message? Key for Twitter’s return on investment is to take your metrics much further to actual real results rather than intermediate metrics such as views and followers.

Tracking your return on investment

Combinations of third-party measurement tools make sure you’re generating insightful graphs, demonstrating ROI, and tracking specific campaigns. I recommend you take a look at Trendrr for tracking, Bit.ly URL shortener for getting an insight on how your shared links are performing, and ViralHeat to create profiles with keywords, phrases, names, or expressions. If your company has a blog, you can also use the Tweetmeme retweet buttons to encourage visitors to retweet your posts, and then track shares via retweets and bit.ly analytics. Only then can you create and define reports that you can use to demonstrate real value. It is then up to you to organise data in a way that your boss or team members can measure against the agreed goals.

What to talk about

Your boss has given you the green light, you’ve defined a set of goals, and you’ve got your tracking tools all set up?what do you talk about? You need to determine how you are enhancing your followers lives/businesses, what are you ‘giving’ them, and what do they value you for? But it all comes down to knowing why your company is using Twitter and committing yourself to keeping your use of the medium relatively on topic. This doesn’t mean every Tweet has to be fulfilling a need (Twitter is a playful and forgiving medium), but you should keep coming back to fulfilling those needs and problems and adding value over time. Get a handle, deliver, and I suspect your use of Twitter will become more and more successful.

Here are some tips to get you on your way:

  • Instead of answering the question, “What are you doing?”, answer the question, “What has your attention?”
  • Have more than one Twitterer at the company. People can quit. People get fired. People take holidays. It’s nice to have a variety, but remember to set a corporate ‘house style’ for the tone of writing.
  • When promoting a blog post or Web article, ask a question or explain what’s coming next, instead of just dumping a link.
  • Ask questions. Twitter is ideal for getting opinions.
  • Follow interesting people. If you find someone who tweets interesting things, see who he follows, and follow him.
  • When you talk about your company’s products or services, make it useful. Give advice, blog posts, pictures, and so on.
  • Share the human side of your company. If you’re bothering to Tweet, it means you believe social media has value for human connections. Point to pictures and other human things. Talk about non-business, too, and throw in a few humans.
  • Don’t toot your own horn too much.