By Xanthe Vaughan Williams, Co-founder and Director of Fourth Day.

One of the most common reasons why small business owners avoid social media is time. When you are busy trying to manage customers, staff and cash flow, an hour spent on Facebook, Twitter or even LinkedIn can seem like an hour wasted. But ignore these tools at your peril. There is a common perception that Twitter in particular is a time-consuming source of idle gossip, celebrity chitchat and revelations about what was for lunch. This perception is not entirely groundless – there is a lot of fluff out there and you do need to devote some time to it daily - but Twitter can also be a rich source of information and business leads. We have successfully used it for recruitment, media relations and competitor research for our clients; we even used it to find our new office space in Manchester. Below are a few tips that can help the novice Twitter user to get started with the medium.

1. When you set up your Twitter ID, make it clear who you are.

Whether you are tweeting as a company or an individual, use your Twitter biography to explain who you are and why you are there. Try and let some personality shine through, even if you are tweeting corporately – it can help to name the individuals managing the account.

2. Find the conversations that interest you.

When deciding who to follow, start by seeing who is talking about the subjects that matter to you. If you are an expert in HR legislation, for example, search on Twitter, (or Tweetdeck, or Hootsuite or whichever Twitter application you prefer) for words relating to your subject. You will soon find a mixture of businesses and individuals discussing these topics.

3. Select the most interesting people to follow.

See who’s talking sense. If journalists are in the conversation, see who they are following. Look at a Tweeter’s most recent tweets and see if they often talk about your subject.

4. Join the conversation.

Don’t just make pronouncements; if you spot a tweet that interests you, respond to it. Re-tweeting is a good idea, but don’t depend on this alone; if you want to attract followers who are genuinely interested in what you say, you’ll have to express your own opinions! Use the hashtag to highlight key words to ensure you appear in relevant conversations – but don’t over-do it.

5. Plan ahead.

In order to maintain your presence, it’s a good idea to schedule a few tweets in advance. You should aim to be tweeting useful and interesting information at least once or twice a day if not more, so if time is limited, set some up for the next couple of days.

6. You don’t need to have 5,000 followers

It is more important to attract followers with whom you can have genuine interaction than to have sheer numbers. Think of twitter as a big networking event, or even a party. A few well chosen conversations are far more valuable than a lot of shouting in a crowd.

Xanthe Vaughan Williams is co-founder and director of Fourth Day, a PR agency specialising in B2B technology, professional services and the voluntary sector.