By Gareth Atkinson, digital planning at engagement marketing agency TDA

A recent survey of over 200 social media leaders indicated their belief that Twitter is the most effective social media tool for businesses, both large and small. The justification for this; it's the quickest way to spread information virally to a mass of consumers.

OK, but what exactly is Twitter? Is it a microblogging service, a new generation of chat and instant messaging, a mobile blogging platform? In reality it is all of these things- a conversation and content discovery and consumption network.

So, Twitter provides a unique opportunity for organisations. However, just as with more established networks such as Facebook and YouTube, jumping into it blind is unlikely to achieve the desired result.

The following best-practise tips will help kick-start your Twitter activity and ensure your time on the network is effective.

Do your research before engaging customers

People already talk. So before you start your own community it takes only a minute to search Twitter and find out if there are any conversations already happening about your brand, product, service or industry.

Don’t know? Ask…

If your search brings back no results and you’re not sure where your customers are on the social web, just ask. Most of the time, this simple question will lead to an interesting conversation and great insight on how you can take part and add value to the interaction.

Listen and observe before engaging

Once you have established where the existing conversation is taking place, don’t just jump in and start tweeting, assuming that the community is going to fully embrace your input immediately.

It’s important that you spend some time just listening and observing the behaviour of those who are talking about you or your industry.

Avoid self-promotion

When you do start to participate in the conversation, don’t spend all your time tweeting about your company news and products. The Twittersphere wants to see the person behind the company.

So don’t keep pushing out one way marketing or sales messages. Instead, be personal; ask questions, contribute to other conversations and engage people on Twitter as you would in a face-to-face environment. A good rule is to follow the 80/20 principle: spend 80 percent of your time being conversational and personal and 20 percent talking about your company.

Value is essential

The majority of Twitter users are not on Twitter to connect with companies, therefore your communications must provide some sort of value to the audience in order to build trust and credibility and see long-term dividends

Ensure that your activity is always working to add something the conversation, not take something away. B2B companies can give away white papers, share articles or do free webinars. B2C companies could give away products or deep-discounts, hold contests and share entertaining content.

Followers don’t equal effectiveness

Whilst it may be exciting once you start collecting followers you shouldn’t get caught up in the numbers game or try to keep up with the big brands. Increasing the size of your community is important, of course, but your focus should be on who’s engaging with you and at what levels. In the long run it’s more important to have a devoted, enthusiastic community than a host of passive associates.

Social Media Isn’t Necessarily Free

Whilst you can set up a Twitter account without paying a single penny, social media is far from free. It requires time, effort and unwavering focus. It must be an indefinite commitment to create interesting content, listen to conversations and respond in real-time.

In order to maintain an effective presence, you should determine your key goals and define who will be responsible for managing the activity from day one.

Never Stop Listening

Finally, whatever stage you are at in your social media activity, and whatever success you are experiencing, never stop listening. The ability to listen to the conversation surrounding your brand, product and industry in real-time is the single most valuable mechanic of Twitter.