By Kursha Woodgate

Social media is the buzzword of the day in marketing speak. Celebrities love it, businesses are scared of it, anyone over 40 derides it. And yet Twitter became the primary source of information on the Iranian election, was the first to report the Hudson plane crash and many other monumental events. Twitter, with its immediacy, global reach and simplicity has frequently overtaken many long-established news sources with its speed to market, whether celebrity gossip or world politics.

So what is it? And why should we as small business owners care? Twitter is an online community that can be used as a free marketing tool to raise your profile, increase traffic to your website or improve communication with your customers and prospects. Businesses big and small have already implemented effective marketing strategies, with Dell famously claiming to have generated $3m in revenue through Twitter alone.

Twitter is officially described as a micro-blogging site. What this means is that you have a limited word count per message, or ‘tweet’ as they are called. You can send tweets from the main Twitter website, or using a whole host of applications to help. It even lets you send via your mobile phone. Below are a few top tips to get you started:

1. Register your Twitter ID — it is important that you get registered as Twitter IDs are a bit like web domains, if someone else has it, you will have to come up with an alternative. Simply go to www.twitter.com and follow the instructions for setting up an account. You need to decide whether you want to build a company ID or a personal one. It may even be worth setting up different accounts according to which campaigns you want to implement. You can add a short biography or information about your company and a photo or logo so that people can recognise you easily.

2. Develop your Twitter communications campaign — like any good campaign, your Twitter activity needs to be planned and integrated with other marketing activity. Decide how you are going to use it — are you planning to create a reputation for providing useful information in a given sector? Do you want to use it mainly for special offers? Would you like to understand your customers better and improve feedback and communications? Once you have decided your approach, you will have a better idea what sort of tweets would be most appropriate to your campaign.

3. Build your following — once you are set up, the next step is to build your following. Make sure that you communicate to your current customers and prospects that they can now follow you on Twitter (via newsletters, email signatures and on your website) and encourage them to sign up if they are not on already. You can then search for people to follow using the ‘find people’ button and also some other tools, such as the ‘we follow’ directory and ‘search and follow’ using a different application called Tweetscoop. Another good idea is to look up a person or organisation in your sector and see who they are following. The general etiquette is that once you follow someone, they usually return the favour and follow you back.

4. Provide a call to action — there are many software applications you can use (lots of them are free) to help manage Twitter and get the most from it. One of these is TweetDeck(www.tweetdeck.com) which enables you to ‘shrink’ any url web links to fit easily in your message without using too many of your limited characters in the tweet. Use the url to provide a call to action and send your followers to your website or blog. You can then monitor click through rates to get a good idea of how people are responding to your tweets.

5. Add personality to your tweets – even if you are using Twitter for business, it has an informal feel to it and is very social. Whilst it is important to tweet relevant information in line with your campaign, your followers will want to get to know you and so tweeting about cakes in the office on a Friday afternoon, as well as the latest offer, might go a long way to building a rapport, which is exactly what Twitter is all about.

In short, Twitter and other social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook (more on those next time) are ways of building a customer community, without big marketing spend. If you want to use these tools but need little more help, why not opt for some training or get someone in to help? One thing is for sure, social media is now a key element of how we communicate, whether for business or pleasure, so jump in and start tweeting!

Kursha Woodgate is a former journalist and now Managing Director of Mexia Communications, a no-nonsense PR and marketing agency based in Henley-on-Thames. For more information visit: www.mexiacommunications.com

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