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Take Advantage of Twitter How to leverage the latest social media craze to benefit your business

By Rachel Meranus

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Twitter has rapidly become the hot tool for marketing and communications, but many individuals and organizations are jumping into Twitter without a clear strategy in mind. Poor planning can prevent an organization from productively engaging with audiences or gaining influence on Twitter and, in some situations, can even lead to backlash against the organization.

I spoke with Vicky Harres Akers, the voice behind PR Newswire's corporate Twitter account @prnewswire, about steps that companies can take to most effectively build their brand on Twitter and avoid embarrassing missteps.

Rachel Meranus: What is the best way to get involved in the Twitter conversation?

Vicky Harres Akers: The key is to understand your audience and to give them content they want. The most important thing you will do using Twitter is to listen. Know what your audience is talking about. Know what they're saying about you and about the industry you function in.

Twitter happens in real time, so this is something you have to constantly be on top of. Make a mental note of what people react to and how they react. If you get "retweeted" (quoted by another user), it's a great honor. It is a validation of your contribution to the conversation. Someone thought what you said was of value, and now more people are getting to see your post via the feeds of those who retweet you.

Don't underestimate the value of promoting others in Twitter as well. If someone says something you find value in, consider retweeting it. If someone posts a link to an article you find interesting, pass it on to your followers and make sure you include the author's @twittername to promote him or her. It's part of being a good citizen in the "Twitterverse" (Twitter universe).

What do you do if someone says something negative about your brand on Twitter? It's not always wise to react or respond to negative tweets. Just as you would use good judgment in deciding to respond to any negative blog post, or bad press in general, you have to think carefully before choosing to confront a negative tweet about you or your brand. If you see a negative post about your brand, pause. Look into the issue. Are they right? Could your company have made a mistake? If you find out this is so, then by all means reach out to the negative twitterer and offer a solution or even an apology, if it is warranted. If the person's negative posting is a matter of opinion, it is highly doubtful that you're going to change anyone's mind. If it is a matter of misinformation being stated, it might be better to just post the correct information without directing it to anyone in particular.

How can a company or brand benefit from Twitter? The No. 1 use for Twitter is and always shall be a means to listen to your customers, clients, colleagues, industry leaders and anyone else who might comment on your product or business. Twitter is about networking and knowledge sharing. If you approach Twitter as just another medium for broadcasting your company's communications, you will have missed the point completely, and it's doubtful that you'll build any following.

The uses for Twitter are without limit. You just have to find your niche. You have to ask, "What can I (my company) offer by being on Twitter?" Some will share knowledge, and others will just use Twitter as a way of being available to customers. Either way, as long as you are actually listening and staying engaged, you will benefit.

One of the best things Twitter can do for a company is simply to humanize it. Allowing a real person to put a voice to an otherwise impersonal entity can give a dimension to your relationships with clients that is otherwise not possible. Some of the more successful brands on Twitter allow and encourage a multitude of voices from within the corporate walls to twitter, not only engaging clients, but also each other as well.

How do you find out what other people are saying? There are several tools you can use to monitor what is being said, and new applications are popping up all the time. The most basic and easy to use is the one now owned by Twitter itself--the Twitter search engine . Simply type a search term in the window, and the results will be displayed. It also will give you current popular searches on the right, which gives you an idea of what the hot topics are at that moment. I also like to use , which gives you the opportunity to search multiple terms at the same time.

How do you build an audience on Twitter? Before you actively try to build an audience, post a few tweets to familiarize yourself with the process, and spend some time reading what others in your industry are talking about on Twitter. Use the "Find People" search function at the top of your Twitter page to look for people you know will want to follow you back: people within your company, current clients and colleagues. Send a few @ replies out to people who are following you. Respond to things they are talking about. When they in turn respond to you with an @ reply, the people following them will take notice of you and may choose to follow as well.

It's also a good idea to look at whom the people you know are following. That can give you ideas about whom you want to search for. Use the Twitter search function to find subjects relative to your industry and see who's talking about them. Remember that conversation is very important. If all you do is post your thoughts and ideas without engaging anyone in conversation, you're just a broadcaster. Eventually, if you are a well-known brand and if you do things right on Twitter, new people will start following you every day.

What are things that brands should avoid on Twitter?

Don't be a robot. Too many companies represent themselves on Twitter by spewing automated and static information, or authorized quotes from the PR department. These only serve to keep the brand parked neatly in dry dock, gathering dust. Most people who twitter do it for the human connection.

Don't bring up politics and religion. Your mother told you this a long time ago, and it's still good advice; unless, of course, your business is politics or religion. In that case, go for it. Otherwise you are just going to alienate half your followers, maybe more. People are passionate about their political and religious beliefs; if you are representing a brand you will do it a great disservice by taking a position on either subject.

Don't rant about other brands or people. Think of Twitter as a ship we are all traveling on. You have to play nice with others or you'll be shoved aside and ignored--or, worse, made to walk the plank. Besides, you never know when you might end up doing business with someone you now consider a competitor.

Don't be a pessimist. No one wants to listen to someone who keeps whining or pointing out all the things that are going wrong in the industry or the world. If you want people to follow you and listen, look for the positive. Sure, there will be times when you have to talk about things that aren't encouraging or upbeat; some situations demand a solemn tone. But don't make this a theme. Don't make it what you are about. Remember, anyone can whine and complain; a leader offers solutions.

Rachel Meranus is vice president of communications at PR Newswire, an online press release distribution network based in New York. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.

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