“Wow. It's not even 9 a.m. and I got all my required things done for the day. Maybe I'll go back to bed.“ Rich Brooks, president of Flyte New Media, a Web design and Internet marketing firm in Portland, Maine, “tweeted” that note in mid August. One of his 300 or so “followers” on Twitter, a social networking service, messaged him back, asking what made him so productive. “My secret is Pleasant Morning Buzz coffee from Whole Foods. Damn, now I have to kill you,” Brooks wrote.

Later that day, Slaton Carter, a social media coordinator for Whole Foods Market, the natural foods retailer based in Austin, messaged Brooks. His unsolicited missive, chosen as “Tweet of the Day,” had earned him a $25 gift card.

“Who says Twittering doesn’t pay?” Brooks jokes.

Welcome to microblogging, a new form of Internet communication that has interesting business possibilities. Twitter started as a personal service, where members answered the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. While many tweets, as the messages are called, broadcast mundane inanities about snacking or napping, increasingly proponents are using Twitter to broadcast news, to promote their companies, and to establish closer relationships with clients and customers.

How Twitter works

Twitter, as well as other microblogging tools such as Jaiku and Plurk, use the simple message service (SMS) protocol to send updates of up to 140 characters to the public and private groups. Twitter has raised $20 million from venture capitalists and while it doesn’t make money, it has become somewhat of a Web 2.0 phenomenon that many are trying to figure out how to monetize. In July, there were more than 2.2 million registered accounts, about four times the number a year earlier.

Though Twitter was not developed as a business tool, its founders started seeing business cases emerging, says Biz Stone, founder. “We’re trying to take note of how businesses are using it, and see if there are more ways we can deliver more value.”

Companies like Whole Foods, Jet Blue, H&R Block, and Zappos are experimenting with Twitter. WholeFoods started tweeting in July, an outgrowth of Carter and two other online marketers’ own personal experience with the service. “We started seeing other brands popping up and thought, why don’t we try it for Whole Foods?” he says. Now, more than 3,000 people follow Whole Foods, which tweets about promotions, new items, and even product recalls. It also awards a Tweet of the Day four times a week, and weekly does an in-store gift card giveaway to the first five people to say the correct password at that week’s chosen store.

Business uses for Twitter

Twitter use is growing rapidly, and online marketers should experiment with it to see how they can better communicate using this new medium. New uses are still being discovered, but for now, experts advise using it to:

  • Distill your message. Microblogging helps marketers to think by forcing them to distill their messages into haiku-like brevity. “Microblogging forces you to be interesting in 140 characters or less,” says Brooks, who is experimenting with Twitter for his business and to advise clients.
  • Share information. Companies can post links to press releases, can advertise promotions, or even send out product recall information. Whole Foods used Twitter to broadcast information about a recent beef recall. While its tweets did not reach all Whole Foods customers by any stretch of the imagination -- it only has about 3,000 followers -- the practice showed that Whole Foods is connected and quick, at least to those who follow it.
  • Listen to customers. Just as you could go to Summize or Search Twitter to find out the latest news about New Orleans levee breaches during hurricane Gustav, you can enter your company name in those search engines to see what the twitterverse is saying about your company. Whole Foods’ Carter searches daily to see what is being said and even interact with people. If someone is calling Whole Foods “whole paycheck,” for example (a common slam), Carter can engage in conversation with them and see what their concerns are. It’s also wise to see what people are saying about your competitors and industry.
  • Talk back. Twitter is a two-way street. “The savvy Twitter user realizes that the effective communications aren’t just ‘pushing’ content to readers, but they will also dialogue and converse with others by replying to them,” says Jeremiah Owyang, Forrester analyst.
  • Improve customer relations. You can receive and respond to customer queries, says Robin Bloor, of HaveMacWillBlog, a technology analyst with Hurwitz & Associates in Austin. “Doing so provides a complete audit trail of questions and answers.”
  • Track trends. Establish an affinity group and listen in, Bloor recommends. As you can follow anyone (except those who deliberately opt for select privacy), "it’s reasonably easy to set up any kind of group and follow it,” he says. While Bloor originally used Twitter to see what other analysts were saying, it could just as easily be used to follow a product or trend.
  • Drive traffic. Twitter allows you to enter links, which are abbreviated into tinyurl entries if the link is longer than 30 characters. These links can direct traffic to your company blog or web site.
  • Claim your identity. If your business has a brand, it should create an account on Twitter, plus Pownce and Jaiku, says Peter Lim, Forrester analyst.  Some squatters have already created accounts like twitter.com/ipod, but many brand handles are still available.

What not to do with Twitter

There are also rules of the road to help you avoid alienating your real and potential customers. Here's what you need to watch out for:

  • Don’t spam. Users who are following thousands but don’t have many followers are likely spammers, using Twitter like a direct mailing list. “That’s definitely the fastest way to turn me off,” Brooks says. They sign up to follow thousands, and rely on twitter etiquette of following those who follow you in order to quickly gain their own followers.
  • Don’t be mundane. Owyang recommends adding value. “I rarely talk about waking up, eating lunch, or starting my car,” he says. Add something to the conversation.
  • Don’t upset your followers. Sending out too many updates and filling up their stream can annoy followers. And even though Twitter is more personal, it’s possible to be too casual with followers, especially when you’re representing your brand. In late August, a Whole Foods Tweet of the day contained the word phrase, “oh my f’ing gawd” and caused a small backlash among some followers. “To your followers, you are the brand,” wrote one tweeter.  Brooks disagreed. “It shows that there are people behind that, rather than lawyers looking at every tweet,” he said.

The best online marketing establishes real connections with customers. “People are looking for transparency first and foremost,” Carter says, “and a way to directly connect with real people behind a brand. That’s certainly what we’re doing -- engaging with people.”