Until last year, NAP, Inc.'s best known product line was its Sleepy Wrap baby carrier. But when the company launched the Boba Baby Carrier last year, it focused its efforts on social media, especially Twitter. "Prior to that, we were just using traditional online and print advertising," says Ashley Jewell, director of social media marketing for NAP. "We went from having one follower to selling out our whole inventory in a matter of weeks."

NAP's experience shows what some marketing experts already know: Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for creating buzz and an ideal way to get customers' attention for a new product, service, company, or location.  "Twitter today has 100 million active users, and 100,000 new users per day. That's an astonishing shift from something that used to be a niche outpost," notes Dallas Lawrence, managing director for Burson-Marsteller's Proof Integrated Communications agency.

And, he says, Twitter continues to evolve. "In the last six months, we've witnessed dramatic maturation for Twitter. It's grown from a platform driven by press releases to a true social platform that values information sharing and transparent corporate leadership."

So how do you make the best use of Twitter's astounding power to reach your customers?

Use your peacetime wisely

This motto comes from Lawrence's expertise in crisis communications, but it applies just as well to product launches and other big announcements. The point is that the launch of your new product or service should not be the first time your Twitter followers hear from you. Instead, use the quiet time before the product launch to begin tweeting regularly and develop an identity. "Before asking anything of users online, companies need to build credibility that they are committed to a sustained dialogue," Lawrence says.

How do you do that? "Listen before speaking. That's probably more important in the Twittersphere than any other social media platform," Lawrence says. This means re-tweeting useful or interesting information, paying attention to anything being said about your company or brand, and immediately responding to any problems, complaints, or questions anyone has about it.

You should also seek to provide interesting information that relates to your product or industry -- or your community. "Your dialogue has to provide value," Lawrence says. "Even if you're a pizza shop, you can use your Twitter account to highlight good things local charities are doing or even a local Boy Scout Troop.

Make Twitter your testing ground

"I really don't think I would have an online magazine if it weren't for Twitter," says Alexis Wolfer, founder and editor-in-chief of TheBeautyBean.com, an online beauty and health magazine for women that gets about 20,000 unique visitors per month. "I was working in an editorial job part-time and finishing graduate school and I wrote my thesis on women's magazines and their influence on body image," she explains. "And I started posting health, beauty, and nutrition tips on Twitter. They were much like what women's magazines would provide, except I took out all the focus on weight loss. It was all about healthy living, and in one month I had 1,000 followers."

Wolfer had already thought about starting an online magazine offering health and beauty tips without weight loss advice. "Had I not received the Twitter response that I did, it would have been much slower to develop. But the response I got from Twitter in particular made me feel there were other women out there looking for healthy living information."

Wolfer, who launched TheBeautyBean.com this past January, more recently used Twitter to try out a new idea, Makeup Free Mondays, which started as a tradition around TheBeautyBean's office. "It was in line with our online message to promote inner beauty while still being glamorous and a place for women to get their beauty and fashion fix," Wolfer says. "We started tweeting about it, and we had a ton of people retweet about it." Responses came in from around the globe. And when TheBeautyBean officially launched Makeup Free Mondays as an online movement in May, it drew a lot of attention from celebrities and the media. "We asked people to send pictures of themselves without makeup, and our inbox was flooded," Wolfer says.

Connect with influencers who can help you

For every product, industry or topic, there are influential Twitter users whose tweeting about your new product can make a big difference, either because they have a large number of followers, or highly influential followers, represent your biggest customers (such as a retail chain that might carry your product) or write an influential blog. "Start with the top 200 people you want to engage with," Lawrence advises. "If you follow them, by and large you will follow you back, which says they are willing to be engaged in a dialogue."

This is not the time to start a "one-way marketing push," he cautions. Instead, begin a dialogue, and offer something of value, such as a free sample of your product for the influencers to try out or an exclusive discount they can share with their followers or blog readers. You can also use invite these influencers to judge contests and host "tweetups" or other events. "We're doing a Twitter party for Sleepy Wrap, and we have a mom blogger who's posted about it on her blog and invited people to RSVP. When they do, they're given the details on the time and hashtag for the party," Jewell says. The blogger will also select party attendees to receive some giveaway items that NAP is providing.

Think beyond Twitter

Twitter, though very powerful, is very limiting, with no opportunity to advertise (at least for the moment), no way to directly incorporate photos or videos and, of course, a draconian 140-character limit. So Lawrence recommends a multi-pronged approach that gives you several possible points of contact with customers. He particular likes directing them to Facebook, where you can have tie-in advertising, images and video integrated right into the platform, and can write longer posts.

Jewell, on the other hand, likes using Twitter as a central place from which to leak new designs or new product news, and otherwise connect with customers. But customers are also encouraged to "like" NAP's product lines on Facebook, and, like Lawrence, she recommends a multi-pronged approach that also includes both Facebook and Twitter.

Either way, Wolfer says, using Twitter to connect with customers is so easy it doesn't make sense not to do it. "Most small business owners I've met have smartphones that have Twitter capabilities. It doesn't take much time to write 140 characters. If you've got a few minutes to kill before a meeting, why not? It can only help."