A Twitter Primer for Small Business

Today's business executive is overwhelmed by interactive tools, ranging from Web sites to Facebook to LinkedIn to blogs, which can all be used to market products and services.

And then came Twitter, a micro-blogging tool made famous by actors such as Ashton Kutcher, who tells more than 1 million people a day what he's doing at any given time. My clients are asking me what Twitter is and how it can help their businesses.

Twitter allows people to broadcast messages of 140 characters or fewer to others who choose to "follow" them. More than 10 million people use Twitter.

Joel Comm, author of the new book Twitter Power, does a good job of explaining what Twitter is and how to use it as a communication tool. The following is an interview with Comm.

What is the profile of a Twitter user? The latest statistics are strong toward middle-aged professional males, though recent adoption by high-profile celebrities and influencers such as Oprah and Ashton Kutcher have brought a younger and female demographic to the site. I believe usage will continue to broaden across both age and gender, while appealing to a tech-savvy middle- to upper-middle class.

What is the difference between blogging, micro-blogging and Twitter? In order to have your blog or micro-blog entries viewed, people have to visit your site. Because Twitter members "tweet" (post) to the same site, there is a community and network that individual blogs and micro-blogs don't enjoy. It's much easier to have your message seen in a community context of a large site such as Twitter.

What are some of the ways businesses can use Twitter as a marketing tool? The power of Twitter comes from its ability to be a relationship-building tool. It should not be treated as a blatant marketing tool. Just as the door-to-door salesman doesn't make many friends knocking on doors, the Twitter user who attempts to market and sell will not fit into the culture of the site.

There is a four-step process to building relationship that leads to sales: Like me, know me, trust me, pay me. Twitter is not just like real life. It is real life. You cannot circumvent the process of relationship-building and expect great results. The good news is that for the engaged businessperson, Twitter allows you to move people through the relationship-building steps much faster and more efficiently than traditional means of marketing.

Businesses can build this kind of relationship successfully when they are interested in others and when they become interesting to others. This doesn't necessarily happen through direct marketing. It happens by engaging in a dialogue with others, seeking to bring value to the conversation. It happens through participation in the community, demonstrating that you place value on your potential customers as people...There has been a paradigm shift in Twitter; one that gets back to the basics of building a following based on the value you bring, not necessarily the products or services you wish to sell.

What are some of the ways businesses can use it as a sales tool? Sales are a by-product of relationship-building and branding done properly. Twitter allows businesses access to millions of people, some of who can become raving fans. Whether local, regional, national or international, having a large network of followers provides an opportunity to introduce people to your products and services just by having a Twitter presence and engaging with other members.

Comcast ( CMCSA) (Stock Quote: CMCSA), not known for being a leader in customer care, has embraced Twitter in a very positive way. Frank Eliason manages @ComcastCares and demonstrates how Twitter can be used effectively to address customer support issues thoroughly and publicly. Starbucks ( SBUX) (Stock Quote: SBUX) shows they listen to feedback from their customers through their @MyStarbucksIdea Twitter account. Naked Pizza of New Orleans (@NakedPizza) illustrates how a local business can generate word of mouth from Twitter members who aren't local to make more local sales.

It's important to remember that while many people who may follow you on Twitter are not local to your area, the odds are that they are networking with others who are in your area. Since third-party endorsements are very effective, Twitter can help connect customers with businesses in their area very effectively.

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) Do you have examples of non-entertainment companies that successfully use Twitter? Thousands of new business-related Twitter accounts come online every day. They run the full spectrum of products, services and subscription programs. Here is a small sampling. @TheHomeDepot uses Twitter to answer customer questions. @MondayMorningVA provides administrative support for businesses and direct sellers worldwide. Twitter is their sole source of customers. Dr. Christine Farlow of @DrFarlow helps people make wise nutritional choices. She posts useful articles, answers questions and occasionally promotes a product. Beth Todd of @BethToddCreatz is an artist and designer who displays her work and interacts with prospective customers.

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) Is it a fad or will it become part of everyday use like instant messaging? Instant messaging, email, forums and chat rooms have all found a permanent audience by facilitating intuitive interaction. I believe Twitter is quickly becoming part of the social fabric of the Internet and will be around for the long term.

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) Are there any hidden costs to using Twitter? No, Twitter is free, for now. Some have speculated that Twitter may begin collecting fees for corporate use of the site.

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) How long does it take to setup a professional Twitter page? The most important parts of branding your Twitter page are selecting the right user name, uploading a profile photo and uploading a custom background. The entire process can be done internally or outsourced inexpensively to a background designer like TwitArt.com. It can easily be accomplished in less than 24 hours.

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) Are there any downsides to using Twitter? Once you post a tweet, it is permanently indexed. Some people forget that others reading their tweets may work in the same company or otherwise have an interest in defaming or unusual tweets. Ask James Andrews, an agency person from Ketchum who posted a derogatory tweet about the city of Memphis just hours before he was to present to the worldwide communications group at FedEx ( FDX) (Stock Quote: FDX).

( CMCSA) ( SBUX) ( FDX) What do you see as the next online communication technology that will leap over Twitter? Twitter is so pure and simple that I don't see another service leaping over it. However, I do see more uses of mobile technology on the rise. As mobile bandwidth increases and technology improves, we will see more peer-to-peer and peer-to-community broadcasts of video to mobile and the Web.


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