Brian Solis is the author of the new book, The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. AT&T has sponsored the following blog post.

This is the first in a series of posts that show how Twitter can be a powerful tool for small businesses.

For years the question, “What is Twitter,” was among the top searches in Google. While the answer is varied depending on who’s answering, what’s consistent across the board is that people find value in the network for very personal reasons.

That means that people are weaving emotional connections in the network based on the people they follow and those who follow them back. This includes friends of course, but also organizations, athletes, celebrities, musicians, as well as their favorite businesses.

So as a small business owner, entrepreneur, or service provider, why is this, or Twitter for that matter, important to you?  More specifically, how could Twitter’s indefinable characteristics improve your business?

Let’s start with a quick overview of what Twitter is and is not.

Twitter is not a social network, and that’s part of its splendor. Twitter is an information network where people consume and share information and experiences. It is part entertainment, part catharsis, part self-expression, with a large measure of conversation, people share, discovery and influence others simply by publishing what’s they’re doing in that moment.

And, it’s 100 million active users, with an average of 140 followers each, publishing over 250 million Tweets every day. Twitter is quite literally a human-powered media network that is rapidly becoming part of the cultural fabric in how connected consumer, also known as digital natives, communicate, connect, and learn.

Twitter, along with disruptive social networks such as Facebook, Youtube, Yelp, Foursquare, et al, are indeed introducing new channels for communication, not only between people, but also people and relevant businesses.  What’s important to note here is that these networks become disruptive when consumer behavior or decision-making begins to change.

Connected customers…digital natives…find information differently than their more traditional counterparts.  They discover, share, and take action using Twitter as a hub. So, how businesses connect with this emergent breed of connected customer has everything to do with how much they learn about their activities, what they say, what they ask, to which businesses they connect and why, and what they value.

The good news is, this is where Twitter shines. Twitter is a public information exchange where information is searchable through services such as Social Mention, Hootsuite, Trackur, among dozens of other free or low-cost solutions.

Using these tools to search for mentions of your business, competitors and also other businesses in the area (locale) or industry, reveals insight into relevant conversations and experiences. Other related keywords such as market, product-type, aspirations, or general questions and answers also reveal perceptions, resources, and ideas. Basically, you can start to get an understanding of what you’re working toward simply by listening – without saying anything or investing in a formidable presence yet.

I borrow from the school of journalism when attempting to make sense of all of this seemingly incoherent information out there. By looking at the 5W’s + H.E., we can organize relevant information into useful categories:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. How
  7. To what Extent

It’s one thing to gather information. It’s another thing altogether to make sense of it. But from there, we can start to learn better how to integrate Twitter into Social Media and your overall marketing mix.  The benefits of using Twitter for your small business go beyond listening and intelligence.  This is about driving commerce, creating an engaged community, and earning a competitive advantage.

Over the course of the series, we’ll review the best practices of some of the most successful small businesses using Twitter and how they effectively:

  1. Drive website traffic
  2. Offer promotions, deals, and trials
  3. Generate leads
  4. Lure onsite visitors
  5. Host events
  6. Provide Customer service
  7. Generate Customer loyalty

In the meantime, open a Twitter account with a pseudonym to start exploring the Twitterverse. If you already have a Twitter account for your business and you have specific questions or ideas, please share them here and I will make sure I either reply directly or use it as inspiration in future installments.