Twitter can be a valuable tool for finding out what customers are saying about your company and products and, used well, it builds a two-way communication channel where customers are publicly answered and appreciated.

If you've only dipped your toes into Twitter, odds are it seemed like a foreign place full of strange customs. You wouldn't be blamed if you ran away screaming or slinked off not feeling too comfortable in this odd little world populated entirely by 140 character or less text strings.

Let's demystify Twitter by deconstructing those things that are confusing to newcomers:

  • The @ symbol. This is used to highlight your post to the people you want to see it. Think of it as an addressing mechanism (at so-and-so) except that you can easily address multiple people in a single post. @ replies, as they are called, appear to the recipient in their @ reply stream and can be seen by anyone who searches on that person's @ replies. I'm @ProductivityHub if you ever want to address a tweet to me. It's worth noting that only people following both parties see them if the @ is the first character in the post. To get around this and share your reply with all of your followers (which is how Twitter used to work!), add any other character to be the first in the tweet (I use "r" as the common shorthand for reply, but some use a period or other symbol).
  • The # symbol. These are called hashtags and are used as an aid in search - basically, people can search on any hashtags they want to follow. For instance, if you're attending an event, you should find out what hashtag people are using and then you can add your own voice to the virtual proceedings. Other people at the event or those who are following remotely can query the hashtag to see your comments.
  • Short URLs. Since 140 characters isn't much space, you don't want your entire post eaten up by a lengthy Web link. Most Twitter clients support URL shortening services such as tinyurl.com and bit.ly. There are also services like Twitpic.com and YFrog.com that host images attached to tweets, replacing them with a short URL. If your Twitter client doesn't support automatic link and picture conversion (most good ones do), you can use these services manually to create a shorter URL, leaving more space for your post.
  • RT. This is an abbreviation for Re-Tweet and represents a message that someone found valuable enough to share with their followers. One service you can provide to your Twitter audience is aggregating and sharing the most useful or interesting tweets that you pick up from the people you follow.
  • DM. This means Direct Message, and it's an alternative to the @ reply. However, you can only DM someone who follows you and you should be wary of what you share via DM versus, say, e-mail. Some DMs have slipped out on rare occasion via search engines that found a way to index what should have been private. More often, I've seen users mistype the 'D' used to tag a DM and they send their message out to everyone who follows them. Also, be aware that some people don't check their DMs very often, so you might have to wait days before they notice your message. If you expect a customer to reply to you via DM, be sure you are following them – at least for as long as it takes to complete your interaction (e.g., a product support issue). Likewise, if you need to send a customer a DM, they will need to be following you.

Twitter is only as valuable as the people that you follow. Follow too few, and you'll wonder what all of the fuss is about. Follow too many or the wrong sort (those who distract you from your purpose or send you spam messages), and you'll be overwhelmed. Follow only those who mesh with your goal for your Twitter identity. You can always create more than one - say, a personal Twitter account for friends and family and another for your work persona.

Don't forget, if you want to tweet from Outlook, there's a plug-in that will quickly integrate it. That way, tweets are saved as messages where they can be easily filtered and searched.

Suzanne