Cheryl Burgess (@ckburgess) is a digital and social brand consultant, blogger, and speaker. Her knowledge of business strategy, passion for creative expression, and marketing technology helps businesses achieve the remarkable. AT&T has sponsored the following blog post.

Everyone seems to have a Twitter handle these days:  News reporters, celebrities, restaurants, friends, and your business contacts.  Twitter usage has skyrocketed to over 100 million active accounts.  Moreover, this dynamic social medium can be the X factor for your business. A game-changer, Twitter offers you the ability to strategically build and leverage your business brand.

Yet, while Twitter’s audience continues to grow in popularity, many businesses have not harnessed its power. One possible reason many companies are not adopting or mastering the tool: Twitter is not intuitive.  Few of us are immune from inertia and resisting new ways; but oftentimes once we have concrete steps to follow, we feel we can do almost anything.  So before you add Twitter to your things to do “whenever” list, ask yourself this question, “Can I afford not to give it a try?”

Here’s your first step – download HubSpot’s free eBook: “How to Use Twitter for Business – An Introductory Guide” for 2011.  This guide is a great resource for getting started, Twitter etiquette and lead generation ideas.

Engaging Your Customers

Depending on the nature of the business and goals, companies use Twitter effectively in different ways.  Although, fundamentally, the common denominator is that they are actively “engaging” with customers and building communities.  By not engaging, businesses risk squandering great opportunities to build desired brand awareness and perceptions, and shape their marketing messages. Yet, one of the biggest mistakes many enterprises make is that they start using Twitter without first assessing their situation and identifying aims.  Before you start tweeting, you should carefully think through and determine the specific goals that work best for your business.  See list below:

15 Key goals and objectives for businesses using Twitter:

  1. Generating awareness and leads
  2. Servicing customers
  3. Expanding reach and creating buzz
  4. Sharing thought-leadership & participating in industry conversation
  5. Gaining competitive intelligence
  6. Monitoring your brand’s reputation in real time
  7. Building relationships with community
  8. Distributing rich, SEO content
  9. Offering special discounts, white papers, eBooks
  10. Crowdsourcing ideas, products, etc.
  11. Finding, cultivating influencers and brand advocates
  12. Obtaining customer feedback on potential or new offerings
  13. Developing relationships with bloggers and journalists for PR
  14. Recruiting for freelancers or permanent hires
  15. Establishing brand leadership position by communicating, reinforcing vision, purpose, differentiation, relevance, etc.

Requiring no more than 140 characters (in a tweet) for interaction, Twitter can be used on PCs and mobile devices. It has become one of the largest platforms in the world for sharing real-time data.  According to a recent report by Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than half (54%) of Twitter users access their service on a cell phone.  Small business owners can use a Twitter app to communicate, engage, network, share and drive their business forward.

Leveraging Smart Phones and Smart Apps

A new survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF) tells us that more than half of smart phone owners say they will use their device to “research products, redeem coupons and use apps to purchase holiday gifts”. Consumers have learned to rely on their phones to help them do more. By researching products and comparing prices via their smart phone, busy consumers realize another benefit:  saving time.

Money certainly talks and there isn’t a better way to reach cell phone users than by helping them find cheaper gas prices.  Now users can simply turn on their cell phone to find the nearest and lowest gas prices by using the AT&T YPSM app. It doesn’t end there.  You can also find nearby businesses and deals including discounts, coupons, and specials.  This isn’t just easy, it’s fun! What’s even more exciting is that the YPSM app lets you share with family and friends via Facebook, Twitter, email and SMS.

Building communities is important for any business relationship.  Once you understand the magic of a powerful social media community you become addicted, and ideally, more enlightened and productive.  Here’s an example.  I posed a question on the topic of “engagement” via a Twitter DM (Direct Message) by tapping into the community (using #7 and #10 Key Goals & Objectives) and here’s what these thought-leaders emailed to me:

“How do you use Twitter for business to engage your audience?”

Tom Pick (@TomPick) – Online Marketing Executive at KC Associates.

“Just as many of your customers are probably on Twitter, so are your prospects. They care far less about your advertising than about what your customers are saying about you, and how you respond. An active Twitter presence enables you to demonstrate strong customer service, rather than just claiming you offer it (after all, who advertises poor customer service?).”

Ted Rubin (@TedRubin) Chief Social Marketing Officer -Collective Bias and Social Marketing Strategist – MARS Advertising

“Tweet to keep your brand on your followers’ radar, to answer questions, to provide value… to build relationships! Remember… trust is built upon interaction, when you’re true to your word, authentic, and genuine. To build relationships, you (as a brand or individual) have to engage, interact and be responsive.”

Marjorie Clayman (@MargieClayman) -Director of Client Development – Clayman Advertising

“It has to be about helping others, not promoting yourself. Self-promotion is okay, don’t get me wrong. But if you are here to grow your business, ultimately you need to establish yourself as someone representing a company that is all about the customers and prospects.”

Jamie Crager (@JamieCrager) – Founder of CROWDSHIFTER Media

“It can be as simple as retweeting someone, asking questions and mentioning them in a positive way. You can gain valuable insights that will lead you to ‘knowing’ your audience so you can provide the best content that adds value to their business and lives. Not only will this create wonderful friendships and a loyal fan base, but opens opportunities in a wide variety of ways for you to grow your business & income.”

Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich) – Chief Executive Officer – Arment Dietrich, Inc.

“We use Twitter to network, build relationships, and stay top-of-mind, both with prospects and current clients. It has allowed us to become further integrated into our client’s businesses instead of being seen just as that firm that helps us execute some things that aren’t always tangible. It has contributed to more than half of our new business this year. As well, it’s our number three driver of traffic to Spin Sucks. We’re big Twitter advocates!”

Kevin Randall (@kevinbrandall) –  Director, Brand Strategy & Research – Moveo Integrated Branding “Some brands support their brand positioning by using the MEDIUM in an on-brand way while others tweet CONTENT that articulates their brand purpose and personality.  Of course the ideal for any brand is to coherently marry how you say it (channel & actions) with what you say (content and words). We all know brands that do this well, that have built high social currency:  Zappos, JetBlue, Whole Foods, to name a few. Not long ago these were small businesses. “

Michael Brenner (@BrennerMichael) – Sr. Director, SAP Global Integrated Marketing

“I believe we owe it to our companies to be brand ambassadors and that we also owe it to ourselves as marketers and business professionals to have a voice in the market. The objective of personal branding is to showcase your unique skills, experience and perspective on the world. The ultimate goal is to achieve professional success.”

Brian Rice (@BrianSRice)  – Sr. Marketing Manager, SAP Global Social Media Marketing

“The value of Twitter for businesses is the ability to listen to and engage in real-time conversations with prospects and customers.  In order to be successful, you must focus on adding value to the conversations and humanizing the brand through one-to-one interactions that help to establish thought leadership.”

Steve Farnsworth (@Steveology) – Chief Digital Strategist at Jolt Social Media

“Where companies and senior executives usually go off the rails in developing a strategy for social media is seeing the shiny objects and getting distracted. Instead they need to stop and look at the process they want to influence, and decide where they want to take that conversation.”

Wendy Marx (@WendyMarx) -  President, – Marx Communications, Inc.

“Most of my tweets are used to build credibility and relationships. I do this by providing industry-related news/tips as well as engaging with biz experts and prospects. Then, when I finally ask people to view something off Twitter, like a new blog post, they respond.”

Watch Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) Laura Fitton Inbound Marketing Evangelist, @HubSpot – Founder @oneforty . Laura recommends great Twitter tools for businesses in her video and suggest you check out oneforty.com for a listing of Twitter tools for business, including reviews and ratings.

Laura Fitton Interview from Michael A. Stelzner on Vimeo.