Whilst most people have heard of Twitter by now, many business owners still find it difficult to understand it and don’t see how it can add value to their business. Recent research in the US showed that whilst nearly one in five small- to medium-sized business owners are integrating social media into their marketing plans, the majority use Facebook and LinkedIn rather than Twitter on a regular basis.

Why should that be? I think it’s mainly down to a lack of understanding of the benefits Twitter can bring to businesses. It’s still seen by many as a good source of gossip and celebrity trivia. LinkedIn is perceived as having more professional gravitas. Facebook is a very accessible and user-friendly way to disseminate information but to my mind, generally works better for personal networking than it does for business. Twitter takes a bit more getting used to but the potential upside for a business is huge, from customer engagement and retention to lead generation to brand building.

Essentially Twitter is a way to “micro-blog”, which means to post very short updates, remarks, observations and thoughts. Your update is limited to 140 characters. Through Twitter you can follow other people (including competitors), share information that you find interesting (either your own observations or those of others), communicate with your followers and those whom you follow and develop a community where you can engage with a whole range of external audiences.

Twitter is not simply a means of getting information out about your business. It creates a dialogue with your followers and potential followers. It’s not about talking at them but about listening, responding and engaging. Its beauty is that it’s a very interactive and immediate way of accessing an audience – an open conversation.

So how can that benefit you as a business? Firstly it enables you to demonstrate expertise and knowledge about your sector. Whether you’re discussing a new product you’ve developed or drawing attention to an article you’ve written on industry trends, tweet about it. You can show how “in the flow” you are by “retweeting” the comments of others that you find interesting or thought-provoking, perhaps with a comment of your own to enhance it or frame it.

Similarly you can post links to external websites, so if you see something on the Internet that you think might be useful to your followers then simply copy the link and tweet it with an additional comment from you. You can position yourself as an expert in your field very quickly through Twitter. If you start getting retweeted, it means you’re adding something of value to the whole Twitter community.

A good principle here is that of Pareto – 80:20. To make Twitter really useful as a marketing tool, try to post about 80% useful and informative content that your followers will find instructive versus 20% promotion of yourself, your people, the business, your products etc. People don’t go to Twitter to be talked at. They go to learn and to develop a relationship with your company. The 80:20 rule is a good benchmark to keep an eye on that balance.

Also be mindful of the quantity of your Tweets. As a professional business, you want to be perceived as professional. It’s perfectly fine to include some lighter content, such as news about people in your firm, charity events you may be involved in – in fact that helps build your brand, demonstrates your values as a company and makes people feel part of your community. But too many Tweets on trivial subjects for the sake of Tweeting can put followers off. If you’ve got something of value to say – then say it!

As well as positioning yourself as an industry expert, Twitter can generate brand awareness and customer loyalty, helping identify new customers and retain your current ones. Unlike Facebook, it seems that the demographic of Twitter users tends to lean towards an older user group (30 plus), so if this is your target market Twitter is definitely something you should consider.

You can engage with your customers directly through Twitter – and whilst you may be concerned it allows them a public way to comment negatively, believe me they’ll find a way of doing that anyway. At least through Twitter you can identify problems, nip them in the bud and most importantly have a forum where you both respond and can be seen to be responding.

So why not give it a try? Set up a page, start following some people you find interesting – from your industry, similar industries, from the news, the business world – and start getting your thoughts and views out there. Add your twitter feed to your company website. Finally, remember it’s better to have 100 quality followers than 10,000 who have no relevance to your business – so start small and slowly. Be yourself, reflect your company and your values, focus on building relationships with the right people – and the right followers will come.

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. http://www.nabcommunications.co.uk