10 Ways Twitter Can Help (or Hurt) Your Business

The value of using social media for business has long puzzled marketers and entrepreneurs alike. Most companies now agree that engaging with customers on social media helps boost brands and may result in higher sales. But it remains tough to definitively prove return on investment through usage and measurement.

Twitter has been a particularly difficult sell in the ROI department. Twitter itself blogged that small and medium-sized businesses ask the social media site daily for "proof that their efforts on Twitter can lead to real business results." As a result, Twitter and Market Probe International fielded a study of 500 adults who follow small and medium-sized businesses on Twitter. Here's what they discovered:

-- 72 percent of followers are more likely to buy something from a business they follow.

-- 86 percent of followers are more likely to visit a business if a friend recommends it.

-- 85 percent of followers feel more connected with businesses after following them.

With Twitter tools steadily gaining traction in sales, marketing and prospecting for businesses of all sizes, it's important to understand how to get the most value out of your tweets -- and how to avoid social faux pas. As Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia has said it: "There is no ROI in anything if you don't know how to use it."

Here are 10 ways Twitter can support or sink your enterprise:

1. Position yourself as a thought leader. Regardless of the market, businesses can use Twitter's platform to position themselves as industry experts. Alfred Poor, owner of The Center for Small Business says: "Share information that will be interesting and useful to your target market. Engage others in discussion about their tweets that are relevant to your topics."

2. Create a clear and consistent brand. Technologies like Twitter can distract businesses from creating a clear brand proposition, according to Tom Doctoroff, Asia Pacific CEO for J. Walter Thompson and author of the upcoming book, "Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing." Doctoroff emphasizes that new forms of technological engagement like Twitter are not, in and of themselves, creative ideas. "Twitter will fail to inspire purchases and brand loyalty unless coupled with the craft of brand building," he says.

3. Remember the 80/20 rule. You may have joined Twitter because you have content to share that promotes your business. Unfortunately, if you use the tool only for that purpose, you're likely to be tweeting in a vacuum. April Wilson, president of Digital Analytics 101, suggests remembering that it's about relationship-building -- not selling: "Eighty percent of your content should be about things that your target audience is interested in or wants, likes or needs to know. Twenty percent should be about sending them to or promoting your products and services."

4. Follow before engaging. It can be tempting to jump right in and attempt to strike up a connection with a business prospect on Twitter. But Eric Fischgrund, founder of marketing and PR firm FischTank, suggests becoming that person's follower first. He says: "This way, you have a better perspective of how they use Twitter to accomplish their own goals, which can help you learn more about possible synergies between your business and their own."

5. Add value to others. Social media creates an attention economy, so you need to stand out among the endless streams of content flowing past. The best way to make an impression with your professional network is to add value, says Lisa Colton, chief learning officer of See3 Communications. She says: "Respond when other people ask questions, retweet posts from people with whom you want to develop relationships and post content that's going to be valuable to others. Once you have attention by adding value, you can activate the network -- whether that's answering a question for you, retweeting your content or promoting your brand."

6. Share your personality (with discretion). Many social media experts believe blending professional and personal insights results in the best use of Twitter. "People will follow you for business purposes based on the value you provide them as a source of professional information and insight, but when it comes to doing business with you, they want to know what kind of person you are as well," says David Erickson, vice president of online marketing for Karwoski & Courage. " Sharing your personality and what you're like outside of your professional persona helps engender that trust."

However, Erickson and others recommend being smart about personal sharing. "Bring the personality without being personal," says Carin Warner, founder and president of Warner Communications. "If you are the owner of your company, for instance, avoid posting personal tweets that are irrelevant to your business, its goals or its mission."

7. Understand what's best to retweet. Any content you retweet should be relevant to the audience you're trying to connect with on Twitter. Aliza Sherman, co-author of "Social Media Engagement for Dummies," suggests retweeting with care. She says: "Make sure the tweets are in line with your own brand, since they show up publicly and can be perceived as endorsements."

8. Be careful what you "favorite." In addition to posting your own tweets or retweeting someone else's, you can use Twitter's "favorites" tool to help gain the attention of professionals with whom you want to connect. However, social media strategist Constance Aguilar suggests that businesses steer clear of favoriting political or controversial tweets, since favorites can be viewed by the public. She says: "Favorite tweets from journalists, publications and organizations that are positively associated with your industry."

9. Use direct messages sparingly. Direct messages have fallen out of favor with many who use Twitter for business. "Direct messages, while seemingly a shortcut to making a connection, tend to be a black hole of communication," says digital lifestyle expert David Ryan Polgar. Elizabeth Horodnyk, marketing communications coordinator at Eclipse Automation, agrees that DMs are usually frowned upon as they can be considered spam if the receiver is not very familiar with you. She says: "They should only be used if you already have a good relationship established or are asked to DM them."

10. Take the conversation offline. Twitter is the medium for connection, but once you have a forum to deliver a message that's more than 140 characters, it's time to connect outside social media. "Make the connection on Twitter, but take it to email or phone -- or better yet, in-person -- to really forge a strong relationship," says Jenna Saper, account executive at Affect Inc. According to Jennifer Ridgley, PR supervisor at Planit, once you and an influencer have made a meaningful connection, a DM can then come in handy: "Use public tweets to start the connection and DMs to follow up on that initial connection to discuss any opportunities."

Robin Madell has spent more than two decades as a corporate writer, journalist and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology and public-interest issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. Madell has interviewed more than 200 thought leaders around the globe, winning 20 awards for editorial excellence. She served on the board of directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in New York and San Francisco. Madell is the author of "Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30" and co-author of "The Strong Principles: Career Success." You can reach her at robin.madell@gmail.com.