There are few things more daunting than a 140-character prompt (now 280). I can write a 7,000-word blog post no problem, but trying to squeeze something hilarious or thoughtful into one line? No thank you. I'll stick to long form. 

You can imagine how disoriented I was, then, when my first article went "viral" on Twitter. I had 200+ people tweeting at me and an endless stream of notifications. My embarrassingly low follower count jumped up a few hundred followers, but I still had no idea how to use the platform. Everyone said it was this powerful tool for growing your business, I wasn't convinced.

So, I did what any good reporter does. I tweeted for help:

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Instantly, a corner of the internet opened up and I was connected with dozens of Twitter experts in a matter of minutes. What follows is what I learned after speaking with four business owners who've successfully used Twitter to grow their networks, their brands, and their business. Get ready to have your mind blown. Mine was. 

It's about relationships, not followers.

"Without a doubt, follower numbers is the worst metric to judge success by," says
social-media consultant Pippa Akram. While that's a huge relief to my low follower count, it begs the question: How do you measure success?

"It sounds fluffy," says Pippa, but Twitter is about relationship building. 

Turns out Twitter is a networking amplification tool (a phrase I stole from Steve, who I'll tell you about in a moment). It's a place to connect with fans, customers, and influencers in your industry. That's why they call it the "cocktail party of the internet."

You're supposed to be jumping in and out of conversations, just as you would at a cocktail party. Even more surprising: A lot of the best engagement isn't even public. It's hidden behind your "Tweets & replies" tab or in Direct Messages, so your followers can't even see it. 

Digital illustrator and storyteller Mars Dorian says, "Focusing on follower counts is deceptive, as you can buy fake followers to boost your social proof. What matters is engagement."

Takeaway: Don't waste your money buying followers. Use Twitter to get to know your customers, connect with influencers, and grow your network. 

Twitter is not a distribution channel.

When the founder of A Boundless World, Bud Hennekes, told me, "You should have nine @'s for every one link you share," I nearly plotzed. Nine?! I was lucky if I tweeted out an article once every few days. Wasn't the point of Twitter to "get the word out?" 

Twitter is "not another promotion channel," says Bud. "If you want the value out of these social networks, you have to add value. People struggle because they view social media as a place to push their piece," and that doesn't work (I can attest to that, since this is precisely what I've been doing for years). 

In fact, engaging with strangers and adding value was the technique Bud used to land a job at Vayner Media in 2013. 

"Gary [Vaynerchuck] was looking to barter some Super Nintendo games...So I tweeted back [at him] and said, 'I'll send you five video games if you give me five minutes of your time.'" Gary said yes via Twitter and Bud flew out to NYC for the meeting. Gary gave Bud literally five minutes of his time and Gary hired him on the spot. 

Takeaway: Focus on reaching out 1:1, rather than broadcasting content. Talk with people instead of "at" them.

Use Twitter to listen, not talk.

"Everyone's using Twitter to talk, no one is using Twitter to listen," says Steve Campbell, another Vayner alum who used to manage the Jets and NHL's social-media presence and is now CEO of The Ascent. He says the hidden power of the platform is in listening. 

If you want to position yourself as a leader in your space or influencer in your field, Twitter can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your industry if you use it more like a search engine.

Follow relevant hashtags and pay attention to how people are talking about the topics you're interested in. Use it as a tool to learn about your market. That information then serves to drive your content strategy. 

Takeaway: Learn how to use lists, hashtags, and the search functions to find out what people in your niche are talking about. Market research is one of the underleveraged powers of Twitter. 

Whatever you do, do not automate. 

Bud conceded that while he's not against using automation tools, "you can't use one of these tools and expect to get results. You have to amplify. Say something interesting about the article [you're sharing]. Ask a question...use that interaction as a way to push the connection."

If you're going to automate your tweets, provide some context as to why anyone should care. "Do your audience a service [and explain] why you are sharing this. Why do you find it interesting?" Add your own thoughts to the piece. If you can't fit your thoughts into a 140 (now 280) character tweet, then make it a thread. 

Takeaway: Automation can hinder your ability to connect with others on the platform. If you're going to automate Tweets, do it in addition to being active on the platform. Do not simply "push" out content. If you want to automate sharing articles, make sure you add context and then jump into the discussion after the automated Tweet is sent.

Don't be on Twitter if your audience isn't there.

This one seems obvious, but many brands trying to succeed on Twitter are there because they think they're "supposed to be." 

Steve is resolute on this point: "find out where your audience actually is." And go there.  

For Mars, they're on Twitter. He's been able to build personal brand awareness precisely because he stays in contact with fans who want to know more about his works-in-progress and upcoming releases. "This works especially well if you want to get reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, as fans who interact with you are more likely to post about your work." 

Keeping in constant contact with people takes time and effort. That's the part people don't want to do, but where the biggest payoffs are found. When Bud launched his podcast in 2014, 14 of his 30 episodes featured contacts (including big industry names) he'd met or connected with through Twitter.

Not bad. 

Takeaway: Twitter doesn't work if your audience isn't on Twitter.

Twitter is an investment.

The professional value of Twitter is in those relationships you can't purchase or scale. Bud says you "might not have ROI until two years in the future." It's like any relationship, "You're planting the seeds."

So far, the investment is paying off for Bud, Steven, Pippa, and Mars. At the very least,  they're all now in Inc.