People go to Twitter to share what they know, and also to learn in return. Twitter users are hungry for new ideas, opportunities, information, services, and products. If your business is not part of this exchange, you're leaving two huge opportunities untouched – growing your business and improving it.
Businesses of all sizes use Twitter for a variety of reasons, from marketing to customer service, but for the small to medium-sized business that's still finding its footing on the microblogging site, we’re offering up these five tips.
1. Define your purpose and goals
Why is your business on Twitter? If the primary (or only) reason is to drive traffic to your website, you need to rethink your strategy. The Twitter community values interaction with real people. If the only thing you're adding to the conversation is a push to visit your website, you aren't going to have a strong and valuable reputation on Twitter. Some people will still follow you and click your links, but you'll be leaving several unique opportunities on the table, untouched.
Setting Twitter aside for the moment, consider what your business or organisation needs to do. Some misguided business owners think they need to be on Twitter because "that's where our customers are," and don't see that Twitter is a tool that can help a business achieve its real goals. Is the business growing rapidly, and you need to find new employees or contractors? Is one of your business' problem points that it doesn't listen to its customers or clients? Do you need to improve internal communication between employees? Twitter can help you address those issues and many more – read on to learn how.
2. Assign the right tweeters
You've just hired a young, bright intern who's active on plenty of online social networks, which is why her first assignment will be to set up a Twitter account for your business. Bad idea! If you want to really leverage Twitter for your business, you need dedicated employees involved. The intern can certainly help you monitor the account and maybe teach your staff basic Twitter etiquette, but she should not be the sole person behind it.
Knowledgeable. Depending on what goals you've set, you need someone who knows the issues related to those goals inside and out. Let's say your business is growing and you need to hire six Java programmers in the next three months. The person you want tweeting in that case would be someone who codes in Java, not the human resources person. If your goal is to better address customer comments – and these will include complaints, questions, and praise – you need someone on Twitter who handles customer service, which in a small business might be the CEO.
A good listener. The person or people you assign to manage the Twitter account should be as good at listening as they are at speaking and writing. It's very important on Twitter to respond to people who post messages at you (using the @ symbol next to your Twitter account name, and through direct messages that are more like email). I've interacted with several professional businesses on Twitter who have never once answered my messages. I no longer follow them. You don't need to say much to acknowledge another person's existence on Twitter. A simple "@TwitterName It's a known issue. We're working on it," or "@TwitterName Thanks!" is all that's needed.
Trustworthy. Most important of all, put people you trust behind Twitter. It's a powerful platform that spreads information to millions of people very quickly, and one misguided employee can cause disastrous effects. You need to trust the people who represent your company on Twitter completely. Larger businesses may want to have their employees agree to a few basic guidelines for social media, although I personally feel that a contract-style social media policy is usually unnecessary. One of the problems caused by using a contract is that they don't convey trust. The employees representing your business on Twitter need to feel trusted in order to cultivate their voices and write like a human being. Twitter is not an advertising platform or slogan soap box – it's a real person talking with a community of other people. Find people you trust completely, and give them a reasonable level of autonomy.
3. Cultivate a voice
Real names. People on Twitter want to know the name of the person they’re dealing with. Here's how some of the strongest businesses on Twitter handle this: They use the company name as the Twitter handle, and in the profile information, they list the employees who manage the account by their real names. The employees then identify themselves when they tweet by including a carrot and their initials (like this: ^JD).
Identity. If it's important for a brand to have a "voice" or identity, it's even more important for a real human with a name to have one. Photos help, but with Twitter, you can only upload one photo per profile. How do you get real faces on your Twitter page if more than one person is using the account? General Motors, often cited as one of the best businesses on Twitter, came up with an elegant solution. The company designed a background image that contains the names and photos of the four employees who tweet for the company. That's a great idea.
Guidelines, not rules. Getting an individual's voice to blend with the organisation's can be tricky if the employee is not a PR or marketing professional, but with some general business guidelines and good common sense, it should happen quickly enough.
Personally, I don't think most companies need to burden their employees with a full-force "social media policy" because the rules usually focus too much on what not to do, and that runs counter to community values such as honesty, openness, and sharing. If you trust the people tweeting for your business, let them do what's natural and comfortable for them – their voices will come through, which will improve their reputation on the site.
The one guideline they need is this: "If another person on Twitter asks you anything you're not sure about, tweet, 'I'm not sure. I'm going to ask the right person and will get back to you by the end of the day.'" Encourage your tweeting employees to be honest and upfront. Push home the point that tweeting is an integral part of the business and that other employees should be involved, too, if only as a resource for the designated Tweeters.
4. Follow the right people
I'm a firm believer that on Twitter, quality outweighs quantity. It's best to follow and be followed by interesting, influential, and useful people. Remember that your profile is open to the public (only in the rarest of circumstances would a business make its Twitter account private). Anyone can see whom you follow and who follows you, and those people can affect your credibility.
Clean lists. Block, report, or delete all the spammers and people pushing adult content (unless that's your line of business, of course) who follow you.
Find connectors. Keep the list of people you're following chock full of relevant users who will be interested in your content and will feed you interesting ideas that are worth re-tweeting. Look for active Twitter users who post frequently (at least a few times per week) about your field of business. Try to develop a relationship with these people, and be as valuable to them as they are to you.
Use search. Twitter's search bar is one of its greatest assets. Search for your business name and terms related to your field of work often, and when you see the same names and faces turn up in the results day after day, follow them. You can create saved searches for terms you look up frequently, letting you perform this action in just a few mouse clicks. Get into the habit of doing this.
5. Have a sense of humour
Related to point number three on this list, having a sense of humour helps immensely on Twitter. No one likes a drone. When people are free to cultivate their own voice and speak freely in 140 character messages, a pleasant sense of humour is going to come through, and your customers will appreciate it.
Business-appropriate. Keep your business Twitter account business-appropriate when it comes to humour. You don't have to be funny and crack jokes; just maintain a positive and light-hearted attitude. For example, I tweeted at Starbucks: "I keep reading that you are one of the best biz tweeters! Care to share a tip or two for how it's done?" The reply was: "Smile a lot. And drink coffee, lots of it." It's not ha-ha funny, but it's not a straight and dry answer either.