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Toronto's Bar Volo takes a daily cellphone picture of its chalkboard and, with one touch, posts the picture to Twitter.

Every night at Bar Volo, a cozy Toronto pub for beer connoisseurs, the staff chalks up the list of 15 to 20 brews on tap. With a rotating assortment from microbreweries across Canada, it's a list thirsty locals have learned to watch.

Eager to get the word out, Volo's owners put the list up on a website, but nearly nobody showed up to see it. Then they typed it up every day and sent it out to blogs through RSS, which was time-consuming and felt just as futile.

Then, earlier this year, Julian Morana - the 20-year old who handles sales and marketing for the family business - had a simple idea: Take a cellphone picture of the chalkboard and, with one touch, post the picture to Twitter every day.

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"In three months, we've got 500 followers," Mr. Morana says. That's 500 people who now receive a message whenever Volo taps a new keg, announces an evening of discount pricing, or posts its daily list of brews.

And in a downtown market of connected customers who, as often as not, make their evening plans based on what's popped up on their phones, it can put customers in seats with the smallest of outlays.

"Sometimes I'll see Twitter conversations like "Volo tapped red dragon, I'll be there after work," Mr. Morana says. "I've witnessed friends tweeting amongst themselves to meet here."

Twitter - a service where users post short, public messages of no more than 140 characters each - gets a lot of attention for its role in big business, where it can be a useful outlet for public relations. But it can also be an effective tool for small business owners looking to build local relationships and drive sales - if it's used the right way.

There are more than 100 million Twitter users worldwide. They tend to be slightly older than Facebook users (most studies say average Twitter users are in their 30s). They are mostly found in urban markets where people are likely to pack smartphones, but its reach grows every day.

Is Twitter a good fit for your business?

From a business perspective, Twitter is especially useful for three tasks: Listening and learning about your market, promoting wares, and reaching out to customers.

The service is well-suited to businesses that bring in regular customers with new offerings. Restaurants and bars can use it as a kind of news bulletin to publicize specials. For instance, many small bakeries are using Twitter to announce what's come out of the oven, and the Albion Cafe in London alerts more than 2,000 followers with every batch it bakes and every soup special it serves.

Alternately, a used-car trader, with a constantly-shifting inventory, might direct customers visiting its website to its Twitter feed to keep them abreast of new offers.

A business looking at social networking will want to ask whether to use Twitter, Facebook, or both. The two sites are very different creatures, each geared toward a different purpose. Facebook is an involved and immersive site, a place to post photos, host discussions, issue longer notes. It's a better tool for promoting a brand than transmitting specific news items, while Twitter is stronger at publishing news.

"Facebook allows our customers to get to know what Volo is all about. Twitter is mostly for getting the word out," Mr. Morana says.

Getting started

1. Like most social networks, Twitter is free. (Don't ask how it's making money. The company doesn't know.) Go to the website, enter your e-mail address, and pick a username by which you'll be identified. On Twitter, these begin with the @ symbol (like @barvolo). It's a good idea to upload a picture as well: individuals usually post mug shots, while businesses might post a logo. If you're posting under a business name, consider adding your name to the biography, so readers know there's a human behind the account.

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2. Don't get discouraged. Twitter can be a lonely place at first, but it rewards the persistent. The first order of business is to attract followers. Start by seeking out friends, colleagues, suppliers - even competitors - and follow them. Ignore the celebrities Twitter will suggest you follow, and look for Twitter users in your own community instead. Follow them, and many will follow you back.

A note of caution: Some Twitter users - especially businesses - will follow people in bulk, often by the thousands, in the hopes that many will blindly return the favour. But subscribers gained this way are of questionable value, and taking this approach can undermine your credibility with the customers who are actually paying attention.

3. There's nothing wrong with just listening. In many cases, Twitter is more valuable for what you hear than what you say. Unlike Facebook, Twitter messages are public, and - most importantly - searchable. Use a free Twitter application such as TweetDeck to keep a running search going for mentions of your business or product. You can bank the pats on the back, and reach out if a customer reports a bad experience.

4. Tweet judiciously, but predictably. Post news when news happens. If your account promises routine updates, deliver them. At the same time, remember that a bit of personality goes a long way, and a sense of humour can make dry updates a lot more palatable. Find ways to vary your postings: for instance, you could make note of local community events related to your business. But be careful not to spam your readers with repetitive updates, or to suddenly increase the amount you publish. Irritate your followers, and they'll unsubscribe from your updates.

5. Learn to link. When you're limited to 140 characters and you'd like to link to a web page, it can be tough to squeeze in a long web address. To save space, visit a free URL-shortening service such as bit.ly or is.gd. It works like this: Copy and paste in the address you'd like to link to, and you'll be given a shortened (albeit slightly funny-looking) link that works just the same. For instance, thanks to bit.ly, a long web address such as "http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business" can be shortened to "http://bit.ly/9ytEQR" - and it sends users to the same place.

6. A retweet is a good tweet. Users who really like something they see on Twitter might repeat, or "retweet" it - the Twitter equivalent of forwarding an e-mail to all their friends. This is a good thing. It's usually a token of approval, and it spreads your name and message. If you see a message prefaced by the letters "RT," it's a retweet. (Depending on how people send them, retweets sometimes also appear directly in your stream, without the RT prefix. Twitter changed the system for retweets earlier this year, which is why there's two ways of doing it.)

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7. Have a conversation. Twitter is a powerful tool for making professional connections as well as relating to customers. On Twitter, you can send replies to individual users by starting the message with the recipient's username (say @globeandmail). These messages are visible to the public, but they aren't sent to users who aren't named. (This way, you won't annoy a 2,000-name subscriber list by responding to one person.)

These casual back-and-forths can yield unexpected results - and it's part of the reason many users love the service.

When Bar Volo joined Twitter, for instance, it became part of a growing knit-work of Twittering brew pubs and distributors. When it held a launch party for a Calfornian beer, it tweeted about the festivities. The brewery's owner happened to see the message, and happily repeated it to his clients worldwide. That's the serendipity of Twitter: online social networks have a habit of becoming very real ones.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Earlier stories from this series can be found on the Web Strategy section of Your Business.

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