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Should You Twitter?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Weigh The Pros And Cons Before You Tweet
By Mollie Neal

What do Oprah Winfrey, Ashton Kutcher, NASA astronauts, and Sea World’s killer whale, Shamu, have in common? They all use Twitter, a social networking service that enables its members to communicate with one another through short messages known as tweets.

Twitter is gaining popularity at an astonishing rate, and it’s not just for those in the limelight.

ComScore Media estimates that during April 2009 alone, there were 17 million U.S. visitors to the Twitter.com Web site. This overshadows the adoption rate of other popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Early adopters used the free Twitter service to connect with friends and family. Then large businesses like Disney, Starbucks, Dell, Microsoft and other heavyweights jumped on board and started communicating with employees, clients, customers and prospects. Gravitational Media estimates that more than half of Twitter activity is currently business related.

Now that this relative newbie on the social media scene has gone from having a modest following to becoming a mainstream Web attraction, micro-business owners are questioning whether it’s worth the time and effort for them to become involved, too.

Eric Glazer, founder of Marketing Studio, which helps small businesses navigate social media, says small businesses avoid participating in Twitter for three fundamental reasons:

1. They are unfamiliar with it or find it confusing
2. They question whether their target audience is participating
3. They simply don’t believe they have the time to master another tool

A business owner’s first priority is making money. And Twitter isn’t easy to monetize because it’s primarily used for networking, he says.

However, you’ll never know if Twitter can be a viable tool for your micro-business unless you test the waters. Fortunately, it’s free.

Learn To Tweet
Becoming an active Twitter user is fairly simple. You visit the homepage, www.twitter.com, and select a user name and password. You can then create a short, concise profile, including contact information and a photo. You can also include a link to your Web site or blog.

There’s a box labeled “What are you doing?” Your answer is essentially a micro-message that’s limited to just 140 characters—and it’s called a tweet.

You can also choose to follow, or monitor, other people’s tweets. After you’ve been contributing for a while, others may become your followers by monitoring your tweets, too.

Social media experts encourage users not to tweet about trivial activities, but instead to comment on what they’re thinking or what has their attention.

By sharing compelling information, you’ll generate more interest, spur discussion with other members, and encourage others to forward your messages to their follower network.

The Power Of Twitter
If you’re not sure how to get started, spending time monitoring other people’s posts is a good first step and can be valuable for the business education alone, says Glazer.

“I’ve gained more insight, gotten more ideas and stretched my thinking more than I did in business school,” he says.

For example, “someone could point you to an article about how psychology can boost your business,” says Glazer. “You can read the article and fundamentally change the way you deal with your staff.”

At most networking events you generally talk to one or two individuals at a time. On Twitter, you can hear what hundreds of people are saying at once. Fortunately, there are tools like TweetDeck that help you manage the flow of incoming communications so you can easily weed out information that isn’t helpful.

Rodney Rumford is CEO of Gravitational Media and author of “Twitter as a Business Tool,” an e-book he published in January. He equates Twitter to a large party.

“At that party you can follow anyone you want or stand outside the circle and listen,” says Rumford.

Tools like Twitter search enable you to find specific individuals, competitors, and groups of people based on geographic location or interests like advertising, finance or lead generation.

You can also find out if someone is talking about you, your business or your products and services.

This is not a popularity contest, however. It’s more important to focus on the quality of the relationships that you develop than the quantity of followers you amass, says Rumford.

“People don’t want to be beat over the head with a marketing message,” Rumford says. “When you meet someone at a party, would you first say ‘this is what I do’ and ask ‘how can I do business with you?’”

You have more social grace than that, and you should maintain it on Twitter. Heavy-handed self-promotion is often shunned.

Tweeting For Business
Until two years ago, Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of the Chicago-based public relations firm Arment Dietrich, was skeptical about the value of Twitter. Nonetheless, she gave it a test by commenting about her favorite football teams and their recent games.

When her business was hit by the economic downturn, and Twitter volume was reaching a greater mass, Dietrich established a new user name for her business. She now sends tweets about blog posts and magazine articles she’s written. Dietrich includes links so her followers can read the material in its entirety. She also comments on running a business and news about public relations. She follows other CEOs and prospective clients.

By sharing interesting, relevant and compelling information, she’s established herself as a leader in her areas of expertise, become an active member of a viral community, and created her own following.

“The way I look at it is, it’s a networking event that I go to every day,” she says.
Her business has increased nearly 30 percent, and she credits most of it to the relationships she’s developed by tweeting.

Tina Hilton, owner of Clerical Advantage Virtual Assistance Services in Conover, N.C., is also reaping the benefits of Twitter. The numerous referrals she’s received from her Twitter followers have resulted in four new clients during the past year.

Being part of a massive community can be a drain on her time. So, Hilton focuses on communicating with her target markets—life coaches, writers and legal professionals. She estimates that 75 percent of her posts are business related, and the remainder reflects her personal activities and interests.
“I think it’s important that people get an idea of who you are as an individual, too,” Hilton says.

Creative Ways To Twitter
Apart from networking, small-business owners are starting to find other creative ways to use Twitter.
For example, BarterQuest, an online platform that supports the cashless exchange of goods, services and real estate, is using Twitter to put out alerts pertaining to new updates and completed trades.

“Because of its viral characteristics, it can be an effective way to get your name out,” says CEO Michael Satz. “We are in the early stage of utilization. Nevertheless, we believe that if you can target your audience, Twitter can be a branding device for consumer-oriented businesses.”

CoffeeGroundz in Houston, Texas, uses Twitter to take to-go orders from its coffee shop clientele and to promote in-store events. The Twitter page is less about coffee beans or latte concoctions and more about the community, such as news about local bands and sports.

Lev Ekster is hoping Twitter will help him get his startup business, CupcakeStop, off the ground. He’s soliciting employment applications for his New York City mobile bakery. He plans to post its locations so followers know where they can purchase his goodies. Ekster says he’ll also be announcing menu specials and new offerings, and soliciting reviews and suggestions from customers.

BlueCotton in Bowling Green, Ky., produces customized T-shirts. When the shirts are ready, staffers take pictures of the final product and post photo tweets before shipping. This customer service reassures buyers about their orders and generates new fans for the company.

There are no hard and fast rules regarding the best way to use Twitter, says author Rumford. If you’re looking for immediate sales, it’s typically not the place to be. However, if you’re willing to invest some time and energy into nurturing relationships that could potentially generate sales, then it can be worth your time.

“Twitter is simply a communication tool. The true value is in how you use it.” 

Mollie Neal uses Twitter to listen to conversations among writers and micro-business owners.


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