When Twitter becomes good business

It’s easy enough to dismiss social networking service Twitter as a place for people who want to be virtual friends with celebrities, but you’d not only miss out on the chance to have people like Stephen Fry brightening up your day in less than 140 characters, you’d also be throwing away new business opportunities.

If you want to use Twitter to extend brand awareness and win new customers, you need to look deeper than the surface chatter. At first glance, Twitter seems to be filled with people who don’t have much worth saying – unless you really do care about strangers who have got stuck in traffic, are meeting their boss for lunch, or are being bored to death at a workshop on paperclip storage solutions for the 21st century.

To make a success of Twitter, you first have to realise that this seemingly trivial chatter is a commercial goldmine — if you have the tools and the talent to exploit it. And while every company will need to take a slightly different approach, the following are techniques that unite many of the most successful business twitterers.

1.   Banter means business

In the same way that it’s more effective to sell to existing contacts than it is to make a series of cold calls, business on Twitter is built on relationships. Whatever your Twitter friends are talking about, join in: laugh at their jokes, sympathise with their setbacks and praise them for their successes. If other Twitterers feel they’ve got to know you, they’re more likely to give you their custom.

2.   Forget the hard sell

Imagine you sell handbags. If you want to sell them on Twitter, then the worst thing to do is to set up an account in your company name and tweet only about your latest offers. You won’t pick up many followers, and you’ll soon lose the ones that you do. Tweet about how you burned your breakfast, how your daughter got sent home from school and how a pigeon made its mark on your best outfit. And then mention your handbags – people will be more receptive to your business if they’ve got an insight into your life.

3.   Add those followers

This is the tactic that separates people who use Twitter as an online social circle, and people who have business objectives. If you’re serious about selling, add everyone who asks – whether you share their taste in music or not. The more relationships you strike up, the bigger your audience of potential customers.

4.   Help out others

The best way to build up close networks is to give people a mention. Doing this makes people visible to all your followers, and will pick them up new followers in their own turn. Retweet messages that your network will find useful, funny or interesting. If you’re good at it, people will retweet your own much more often. Similarly, use memes such as #followfriday to give followers valuable exposure.

5.   Use the right tools

If you only engage with Twitter via its website, you’re not making the best of it.

If you’re serious about business twittering, you need to use a desktop client that has a search function: I recommend Tweetdeck or Seesmic (both PC and Mac), as well as Tweetie (Mac only). By running permanent searches on business critical terms – for example, I search on “copywriter” and “freelance writer” – you can quickly identify Twitterers who share your interests, and who might be in the market for your products. Doing this is not an alternative strategy to building your own network: approach a potential customer and they will immediately check your profile to see whether you are properly engaged in the medium, and not just a salesperson.

6.   Be inventive

Think about clever ways you can use your Twitter account. One baker in London uses it to tell followers there’s a new batch of bread coming out of the oven. And never pass up the opportunity to shout about your username. Did you know that ours is @coastdigital? We’d love you to follow us. Or me.

These tips are aimed primarily at businesses that are just starting out on Twitter, or are thinking of doing so. In a future post I’ll be taking a close look at how brands and individuals become entwined on Twitter – for better and for worse.