Looking to tweet your way into the hearts and minds of consumers? Consider taking them to dinner first.

Around 22 percent of Twitter users have purchased a product or service after tweeting, retweeting, or favoriting it on Twitter, according to a recent study by Vision Critical, an international online market research firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia. So naturally, you're thinking: More followers breed more sales, right? Not exactly.

Simply collecting followers doesn’t guarantee financial gains. To use the network to drive traffic to your website and generate sales, you must first build a relationship with your followers. “On Twitter, the relationships, conversations and engagements you make are what determine your success,” says Jure Klepic, a business-marketing consultant who specializes in social media based in New York City.

While familiarity with social networks gives young entrepreneurs an advantage, there’s an art to using Twitter for business. Here are six pointers on how to build your company’s image on Twitter, cull valuable followers and engage prospective customers:

1. Promote products or services lightly.

Don’t just use Twitter as an online billboard. Eric Spellman, owner and president of the web design and online marketing firm Spellmann and Associates in Amarillo, Texas, says green entrepreneurs often mistakenly think they can sell through social. “If all you’re going to do is use Twitter as a megaphone to announce your products, you will fail,” he says.

A general rule of thumb is to follow the 80-20 ratio -- that is, 80 percent of tweets should be conversational and 20 percent promotional. To stir discussion, compliment tweets on industry news with actionable advice to consumers. Rather than directly send followers to purchase a product, consider posting a link for them to sign up for your business’s mailing list, recommends Michael Neuendorff, owner of Speak Well and Sell, a Burlingame, Calif.-based online resource and consulting firm for social media marketing.

Related: How to Use Social Media to Find Customers (Infographic)

2. Inject your personality.

Humanizing your startup’s Twitter feed is key to distinguishing your business from competitors. Adam Gilbert, the 30-year-old founder and owner of the diet and exercise program MyBodyTutor.com, tweets regularly about light-hearted YouTube videos and health-related stories.

He also responds to tweets from followers with personalized messages. “People do business with who you are as a person when you’re an entrepreneur,” says Gilbert, who uses a photo of himself on his profile page. “My goal is to show there’s a person behind our tweets.”

3. Connect with industry leaders.

Take advantage of the social network’s unique opportunity to reach out to well-known influencers in your field. It may take time to elicit a response, but Neuendorff suggests engaging experts personally, such as by complimenting their work. “I’ve never met an author who doesn’t like to talk about their book,” he says.

When the person replies or retweets your comment, thank him or her. "When you send that private message as a thank you, it establishes a one-on-one connection with that person and it may open the door to future conversations,” Spellman says.

Related: 5 Ways to Use Twitter Beyond the Basics

4. Think carefully about handing off the job.

Startup owners who delegate the responsibility of running the company’s profile to an employee must make sure the person is trained to manage the account. “Twitter is a public forum," says Angeline Close, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Online Consumer Behavior: Theory and Research in Social Media, Advertising and E-tail. "The person in charge should be someone extremely familiar with the brand and knowledgeable of that company’s culture."

5. Provide followers timely customer service.

Neuendorff calls Twitter “the new 1-800 number,” citing the trend toward shoppers taking to social media to express concern or ask a question about a product or service. As such, it's your job to be there when an issue crops up.

Tracy Foster, the 32-year-old founder of the camera bags and accessories retailer ONAbags.com, hired a social media and marketing manager to monitor Twitter for the online store. This person typically responds to customers within two hours, including on the weekends.

6. Tweet at the right time.

While many social-media experts say there’s no magic number for how many tweets to make per day, it can be advantageous to tweet within a particular time frame depending on the industry. A startup selling financial products, for example, may get more engagement by tweeting from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., whereas for a restaurant it may make sense to tweet around lunch and dinnertime.

Rather than operate the account manually, you can schedule tweets to automatically run at specific times using a management tool like TweetDeck.com.

What’s your Twitter strategy? Let us know with a comment.