If you've spent any time at all online lately, you've probably found it almost impossible to ignore Twitter. The social media site has become hugely popular with everyone from celebrities to major corporations. For small businesses, Twitter can be a valuable tool - if you know how to use it effectively. Here are some tips on how to make Twitter work for you.

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Know What You Want to Say - and What You Don't
"Create a plan of action," says Cole Imperi, owner and creative director at Doth Brands, a marketing firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, whose client base is mainly small businesses. "We have our clients prepare a list of things they can tweet about - things like resources, facts about the company and what discounts or promotions are okay to offer. We also have them make a list of things that are not okay to tweet about."

Add Some Personality
Small businesses can be more informal and friendly than large corporations, so use this to your advantage.

"The thing that sets us apart is the ability to be more approachable, and opinionated, than a mega corporation," says Matthew Griffin, president and CEO of Baker's Edge, a baking products company in Carmel, Indiana. "There is no backlash if we state we don't like a particular food or if we endorse a local team. These little nuggets go a long way to humanize us, and that personality is reflected in our products." (To learn more, read In Small Business, Success Is Spelled With 5 "C"s.)

Know Who's Talking About You - And Reply
Keep a close watch on your "mentions" - meaning, the posts that mention your name. You do this by clicking on the @username link in the right-hand column of your Twitter home page. When your name is mentioned, seize the opportunity to make a connection.

"If someone mentions you or retweets your post, thank them publicly using the reply function," says Nick LaBran of Helenick Consulting, which offers social media training and campaign management.

Respond to both Positive and Negative Tweets
As any business owner knows, ignoring criticism doesn't make it go away. Invest the energy to try and satisfy a disgruntled Twitter user - or at least hear them out.

"If somebody tweets something negative about a company, the company should attempt to resolve the issue via Twitter," says David Neuman, social media supervisor for Prime Visibility of Long Island, New York. "The person who sent the tweet will appreciate the effort, and others following the conversation will see the company turning a negative into a positive."

Offer (Helpful) Information, Not Just Ads
"If you reach out to people and say 'buy my product' you will always fail," says Neuman. Instead, look for a way to help someone solve a problem, or share your expertise in the form of helpful advice. "If you run a gym, for example, provide frequent diet and exercise tips." (For more great tips, check out Make Money With Social Networking Sites.)

Figure out the Perfect Frequency
There's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the frequency of posts. It depends on what you say, and who your followers are.

"Tweet often, but don't go overboard," says LaBran. "Once or twice a day is good. Anything more can be almost annoying to some people. On the other hand, if you are continuously delivering relevant and useful content, more can sometimes be better. See how your audience reacts to your frequency."

Find Your Clients
Don't expect people to find you. "We run basic searches on Twitter for specific keywords that will likely lead us to users that might be potential customers," says Imperi. "For example, an advertising agency might search for key phrases like, 'I need a logo.' Then we follow and engage with them through the @ feature."

Spruce up Your Profile
"Your page is valuable (and free!) real estate," says Imperi. "Make sure you have a well-written profile, a URL linking to your business' website or Facebook page, and a custom background. In our backgrounds, we always embed the company logo, a photo and info about the person behind the tweets. It makes a difference." (For more, see Tweet Your Way To A Sweet Job.)

Use Tools to Your Advantage
There are several handy tools that can help you manage your posts and see what others are saying about you in theirs.

"Businesses need to set up monitoring tools such as Google alerts or Netvibes," says Michael Carnell of Palmettobug Digital of Charleston, South Carolina. "The Twitter business user also needs to learn how to use tools like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to manage updates, responses and the full spectrum of interaction."

Offer VIP Incentives for Your Followers
This makes your followers feel special, and encourages others to start following you.

"A lot of companies are having success with limited-time, Twitter-only offers," says Rick Mathieson, author of The On-Demand Brand, who cites the results of a local pizza parlor that discovered 40% of its business came from Twitter specials. (To learn more, see Cheap Tweets: Followorthy Deals On Twitter.)

Don't Forget to Use Hashtags
"Relevant hashtags should be incorporated into each tweet," says Neuman. Enter a hashtag by inserting the "#" symbol before important keywords. This makes the term a clickable link. "These hashtags are used by millions of people to find relevant tweets and accounts that cater to their needs."

Experts agree that Twitter is an essential tool for today's small business owner. By spending a little time on your tweets every day and adding a personal touch to your interactions with followers, you can use Twitter to give your business a big boost - for free.

Feeling uninformed? Read this week's financial news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Armed and Greece Keeps Falling.

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