Twitter has over 500 million users. But for those small firms that are still quite new to the world of tweets, Kate Horstead finds out how Twitter can deliver low-cost marketing and open up new networking opportunities
Twitter is a social networking phenomenon. Similar to texting but with far greater reach, Twitter enables users to send and receive punchy 140-character messages (tweets) from anyone who has signed up to follow them.
Now the majority of businesses are on Twitter too - using it as a marketing and networking tool. Twitter has become the de facto way of sending instant news about a fresh offer to hundreds or even thousands of potential customers. And businesses are finding that they can pick up a business contact or receive customer feedback within minutes because of a simple tweet.
"With Twitter, you should plan what you want to get from it and how," says social media consultant Nikki Pilkington. "You can only decide if Twitter works for you by trying it."
Although Twitter's potential uses may seem obvious at first glance, less clear-cut is the type of business that can realistically use it from day-to-day. It is arguably more useful to firms with a website to drive traffic to. But Pilkington believes that businesses from any sector can benefit from the niche marketing it offers - especially as mobile technology enables people to send and receive tweets from their phones.
"A restaurant might use it to give its followers exclusive offers or an estate agent could post details of properties," she points out.
Travel agents are posting last-minute availabilities and gardening firms are offering nuggets of advice along with links to their websites. There is even potential for users such as plumbers or car mechanics to pick up business from Twitter as people use it to ask for recommendations for local services.
If you feel Twitter is worth experimenting with, it is easy to register with the site and start picking up followers. Many of your existing contacts may already be on Twitter, so start by sending them an email asking them to follow you. Then start tweeting.
"Use keywords in your tweets so potential customers looking for an offer like yours can find you through searches on Twitter," advises Pilkington. "The key thing is to interact and post updates. You can work out quickly whether you're doing the right thing by seeing how many people start and stop following you."
As with all online social networking tools, it pays to have a policy about Twitter's use in your business. You may have authorised staff to use it, but consider imposing time limits on them, because it can be very distracting - a handful of tweets a day should be enough.
You will also need to be careful about the image your employees present of your firm. "If your employees represent you, give them a list of guidelines - it will reflect badly if they Tweet 'I've got a hangover'," warns Pilkington. "Setting up separate profiles for personal and business use can also be a good idea."
Vine is the mobile app that enables users to create short videos and share them on social networking sites. Created by Twitter, the Vine app allows users to make six-second looping videos that they can share with their social network via Twitter and Facebook. For businesses, the micro video app opens up new ways to engage with online audiences. The shortness of the clips can inspire creativity. Get it right and they will be widely shared. Find out more in our guide - Six reasons why you should be using Vine.