Right now, Twitter is the talk of the Web among marketers. Use of the elegantly simple social-media site has rocketed unlike anything in recent memory—and it's businesses that are leaping onto the Twitter bandwagon.

The New York Times calls Twitter "one of the fastest growing phenomena on the Internet." A recent study (pdf) determined that at least five million people are using the service and new members are signing up at a clip of 10,000 per day. And unlike other "here today, gone tomorrow" services, Twitter seems to have staying power.

As companies tighten their ad spending, inexpensive social media is clearly the next marketing frontier. As with any new craze, there are enormous opportunities—and large pitfalls that must be avoided.

For this article, I spoke to some marketing professionals who've been exploring the Twitter terrain for a while. My quest was to identify the Twitter landmines so you can fast-track your adventure into this vast new frontier.

But, first, a short story to convey the power of Twitter.

The Shot Seen Around the World

Remember the downed plane floating on the Hudson river? How could anyone forget the picture of people crowded on the wing as the plane gently floated in the frigid January waters.

Janis Krums was nearby as US Air flight 1549 fell from the sky that day. Just moments after the crash, while onboard an approaching ferry, Janis snapped a picture with his iPhone and posted the following on Twitter:

There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.

The few hundred people following Janis began spreading the word to their Twitter followers. Janis couldn't have imagined what was about to happen.

Within 30 minutes he was live on MSNBC and CNN. Good Morning America invited him into its studio. Then the BBC, 20/20, ABC and Inside Edition followed. The morning after the crash, his picture was on the front page of major newspapers across the planet and his email inbox had more than 4,000 emails.

A few days after the shot, he posted this comment on his blog, "To say that the last couple of days have been crazy/intense or what ever adjective you want to use is an understatement. It was sheer madness for a while."

Clearly Twitter can be a rapid catalyst for good news.

And now for the dark side of Twitter...

Be Careful What You Say: The FedEx Story

"Everything you tweet is searchable on the web. This can be good and bad. Good if you're strategically using key words for which you want to be found; and bad if you aren't mindful that if you're not nice, it can come back to bite you!" said blogging expert Denise Wakeman. And that bite came back hard recently for PR agency Ketchum.

An employee working for the firm landed in Memphis to deliver a presentation to more than 150 people at FedEx. On arrival, he wrote the following on Twitter, "True confession, but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, 'I would die if I had to live here!'"

It just so happened that a FedEx staffer saw the message and forwarded it to numerous company executives. FedEx drafted a response to the Ketchum employee. The last line of the letter says it all, "True confession: many of my peers and I don't see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do." The story rapidly quickly spread across Twitter and the Internet.

This hard lesson is also a wake-up call for many businesses. Twitter is a public communication medium. Everything said is permanently etched in Twitter's digital fabric.

"While Twitter can be effective as a marketing tool, if you are not careful, it can become a viral tool for negative press. Anything typed in Twitter is 'ON THE RECORD,'" said Steven Talbott, Sr., vice-president of business development at Caveo Learning & Performance.

"Treat all your conversations like your grandmother was listening," social-media consultant Josh Peters suggests,

"Your company should be clear in its expectations on your employees' Twitter communication," added Kim Kobza, president of Neighborhood America.

Twitter Crack: Yes, It's Addictive

With the slowing economy, people with a little time on their hands are finding Twitter a great discovery tool—and a great big addiction.

Marketing consultant Rickey Gold explained: "I spent way too much time exploring and tweeting. I was becoming addicted to Twitter and not focusing on what I needed to do. I got behind on client projects; something I never do and something no business owner should ever do!"

"One of the big hurdles when using Twitter is not to let it invade your life," said international marketing expert Cindy King.

Ann Handley of MarketingProfs said, "It is a time-sink. It's easy to get sucked into spending too much time on it, because it definitely has an addictive quality."

Here are some tips to ensure that Twitter does not consume you:

  • Don't read it all: "You do not have to read every single tweet. Twitter is a stream you dip into for a while, wade around, and then get back on the banks," suggested social-media consultant Connie Reece.
  • Invest regular daily chunks of time: Many people allocate preplanned blocks of time to tweet and use tools like TweetLater.com to schedule broadcasts that can post automatically throughout the day.
  • Use Twitter during your non-productive time: Ann Handley explained: "I am often on Twitter while reading news, surfing blog posts, answering quick emails or doing other 'short attention' work. I'm also on Twitter in waiting rooms, in traffic, waiting for a lunch date, or when I'm someplace with nothing but my iPhone and time on my hands."
  • Filter your Twitter traffic: TweetDeck allows you to set up groups and filter conversations. For example, if you're following hundreds or thousands of people, you can set up filter groups for people such as analysts, publishers, and influencers—and choose to look at their tweets at your leisure.

Trolls and Squatters

There are bad apples in every bunch. Twitter is no exception. Listen to the nightmare faced by Facebook guru Mari Smith.

"I've had a troll stalking me for a while—wacky guy who 'brandjacked' me with several fake Twitter accounts last summer. He used my avatar and shadowed my every tweet, twisting the words with malicious intent," said Mari.

"At the time this first began, I was horrified. And I tweeted out to everyone that this was some creep attempting to rile me and that they should block him. But then, I quickly realized this only added fuel to the fire—I was giving him the attention he wanted."

Another challenge is folks' claiming your name. Believe it or not, there's a rush to reserve major brand names on Twitter. Buzz-marketing expert Paul Dunay has identified a list of brands that have been snatched up by squatters looking to sell them to the highest bidder.

If you're not already on Twitter, it might be wise to reserve your name or brand.

Some Tips for Twitter Newbies

For businesses seeking to grow using Twitter, here are a few tips...

"One of the first things you'll notice is that no-one on Twitter wants to be 'sold to' or 'marketed to.' They are there to build relationships and you don't build a relationship by being overly aggressive with your marketing efforts," said Pam O'Neil, VP of marketing at BreakingPoint.

Cindy King suggests thinking of Twitter like a great big cocktail party. "Twitter friendships are just as limited as acquaintances you meet at a cocktail party. You need to take the conversation to the next level."

"Twitter is about engaging, connecting and building real relationships. The businesses it works best for are the ones that have a deep understanding of the people they serve," said Internet-marketing adviser Jenn Givler.

Are you still not clear on how Twitter could help your business? Read this article to understand how other businesses are succeeding using Twitter.

Have you got some tips to share or pitfalls to avoid? Share your story in the comments section below. 

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image of Michael Stelzner

Michael A. Stelzner is the author of Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them EngagedFollow Michael on Twitter.