The secrets of mixing business with Twitter

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If you're under the age of 30, you've heard of Twitter, and if you're in the business world and under the age of 100, I'll bet you've come across the name. Still, some people "get it" more and a lot faster than others. It's taken me awhile, but I think I'm starting to get it.

I joined Twitter a year ago, posted an update or two... and that was about it. Meanwhile, as the year has passed, I've read everything from Time magazine praising Twitter to MSNBC, which just wrote about the Twitter phenomenon the other day. I've interviewed a number of people who sing its praises. And throughout the last year, I've watched in awe because clearly some entrepreneurs and enterprises are using it to their great advantage.

For instance, Zappos, the shoes, clothing and accessories retail site, has used Twitter as something of a way to focus test its products, and communicate with its patrons. Businesses and nonprofits ask their loyal customers or enthusiasts to follow them on Twitter. Politicians use it to spread their message or let followers know that a rally is coming up.For those who don't know, Twitter works like this: You have 140 characters (that's letters and spaces, just 140 of them) to send an update on your life to anyone who is following your life's progress on Twitter. Ever since I signed up a year ago or so, and then promptly stopped Twittering, I've been getting emails saying that So-and-So is "now following you on Twitter."

And since I haven't been updating, I keep thinking how bored that must all be.

So a few days ago, I finally decided to try Twitter again and started writing some updates, and after updating the several people following me, I also quickly remembered why I stopped using Twitter in the first place.

Using Twitter is something of an art. You can't just tell people what you're really doing, and that's my problem. Do people really care that I'm going to have a ham sandwich for lunch? Or that I'm watching a rerun of CSI? I pity them, if anyone does care.

I may, on the other hand, let my handful of Twitter followers know that I've written a post about Twitter that they can find on WalletPop. But even then you have to be careful -- if you're always posting self-serving information, that's a big turn-off.

The secret of using Twitter is twofold. You need to send out updates fairly regularly. Maybe not every hour, but certainly every day. You also need to send updates that are actually sort of interesting and fun to read. You'd think this would be easy for a guy who writes for a living, but um, not so much.

Either your updates should be often business-related, like telling the world that you really need a good marketing expert's advice and hoping somebody steps up to offer their services.

Or you have to live an extremely dynamic life and put forward updates that are so infectiously compelling that everyone yearns for your life and seek to live vicariously through you and your exciting business.

I'm mostly going to choose the second option, but since my life often isn't all that interesting, I'm going to have to out-and-out lie. And what if I do suddenly starting embellishing my Twitter updates, anyway? Maybe I really am in a courtroom right now, texting this post from an iPhone while prosecuting an international ring of jewel thieves. Who would really know?

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist who uses Twitter--but only sometimes. He's also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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