Tweeting is a great way to reach new customers, retain current ones, and gather informative research about them. You can use the give-and-take interactions that take place between you and your followers on Twitter to spot trends as they begin, learn about your customers’ wants, needs, and interests as well as stimulate viral marketing. Best of all, by carefully crafting your Tweets, you can do all of this simultaneously.

Indeed, the structural informality of Twitter makes this social network a powerful and cost-effective tool for relationship building between you and your clients.

Here are five suggestions for using Twitter both as a data source and talking tool.

 1. Keep the "social" in "social network."

It's important that you use Twitter for its highest and best use: two-way communication. Show your customers that you are listening to them. When a product receives a compliment, send a quick thanks to the Tweeter. Should a customer tweet a criticism or complaint, respond constructively and publicly. Let your followers know that you take their comments seriously, and are prepared to act on their suggestions.

2. Harvest #hashtags for hot leads.

Recent research confirms that hashtags used by a self-selected group--your customers--can help you spot trends as they form. Look for repetition and patterns in these markers to see if a product is being used in a new way or if customers are searching for a way to meet an unfilled need.

3. Then follow where #hashtags lead.

What engages your customers and their friends? Do research to see what topics inspire them to tweet about your product as well as your competitors’. You will learn what subjects will drive traffic to your blogs because you have keyed in to what holds your customers’ current interest.

4. Use special promotions to engage your followers.

Encourage your followers to spread the good word about your products. Use follower-only "secret sales" codes and announce the sale in advance of tweeting the discount code so that your followers remain alert to your tweets.

Or hold a contest in which followers post pictures of themselves engaging with your product. This is not about "hold product and send picture" but about real ideas of how they use the product. This inspires other consumers and is much more reality-based than just a product photo. The prize need not be lavish.

5. Follow the rules.

Many times I counsel my clients to break the rules or make their own. After all, it's hard to be innovative when you are constrained by convention. But this advice is not one-size-fits-all, and it does not apply in the Twitterverse. If you are new to Twitter, or even if you fancy yourself an old hand, take the time to review Twitter's rules of engagement. Internalize them.

If you are interested in learning more about using Twitter effectively in your business, check out Hashtags.org. You'll find incredibly valuable advice and information written in a way that even the least tech-savvy of us can understand.