Twitter is open for business.

The social network isn’t charging anybody for anything yet, and isn’t making any money -- apart from the $100 million in venture financing it recently raised. But the San Francisco, Calif., start up is headed in that direction, with plans to offer paid commercial accounts later this year.

Skeptics question whether paid accounts will catch on, or simply damage Twitter’s reputation and momentum, which has seen the company’s traffic jump to 23.5 million monthly visitors in August from 2.6 million in August 2008, according to, the Web analytics firm.

Regardless of how things shakes out, over the past few months the little company with the big social network has been making itself over to be more business friendly.

The changes come at a time when many small businesses are figuring out what Twitter can do for them. One example is iContact, a Durham, N.C., e-mail marketing software maker with 180 employees and 50,000 customers that started using Twitter for customer service about a year ago. “When our site is down, we tweet out updates every 20 minutes to keep the community informed,” says Chuck Hester, iContact’s communications director. “We answer questions for customers, and then take them off line to complete the customer-service process.” Currently five iContact marketing and communications department staff members and the company’s CEO have Twitter accounts, “to help with consistency of our message,” Hester says.

Twitter’s business initiatives

To reach more businesses such as iContact, Twitter’s unveiled a formal outreach program that starts at the company’s virtual front door. The site’s home page has been redesigned to display a search window and a list of trending topics -- all the better to show potential users how the network can be used to do real-time searches on what people are talking about.

Other business-friendly additions:

The business channel -- Look at any Twitter page and you’ll see a set of links across the bottom -- including one marked “Business.” Clicking on it brings up a special section called Twitter 101 created to explain the network’s business benefits. The section includes a how-to guide co-written by Sarah Milstein, a consultant, speaker and co-author of The Twitter Book. It also includes case studies, tips on etiquette and other best practices, and links to additional resources.

Verified accounts -- After impersonators set up fake accounts for everyone from Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld to the Dalai Lama, Twitter in June began offering verified accounts so fellow networkers can be assured tweets from celebrities, politicians, or other public figures are the real deal. Authenticated accounts sport a small blue badge with a white check mark and the words “Verified Account” on the top right portion of the user’s profile page. Though they’re most popular with TV and movie stars, business, and social media heavy hitters such as former GE Chairman Jack Welch and tech blogger extraordinaire Robert Scoble have verified accounts. Verified business accounts aren’t widely available yet, but the company is beta testing the service and asking interested companies to fill out a verified business account form if they want to be considered in the future.

Modified terms of service -- In early September, Twitter strengthened the terms of service (TOS) governing what people can and can’t do when they’re logged on, in part to clean up spammers, pornography, and other Wild West elements that were making the service not ready for business prime time. At the time the new TOS were announced, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said they “more appropriately reflect the nature of Twitter and convey key issues.” In addition to barring spam and porn, the new TOS reaffirms that users own their tweets and that Twitter has the right to share content with developers of add-on programs. They also keep the door open for advertising at some point in the future. While Twitter officials haven’t publicly discussed where or when advertising might appear, a new study by Los Angeles Internet researcher Interpret LLC found that Twitter users are twice as likely to click on ads or sponsors as users of Facebook or MySpace.

Twitter’s business-focused upgrades can’t come soon enough for Joel Don, owner of Comm Strategies, a boutique technology public relations and marketing agency in Irvine, Calif. Don has been gradually nudging clients onto Twitter, in one case opening an account for a computer manufacturer before he even told them. “That was about two weeks ago,” says Don, who’s since received his client’s blessing. “It's still way too early to demonstrate ROI.  But I really want to see how such an account can evolve or be evolved by a company into an alternative means of doing business.  Not the only way, but an alternative.”