So you’ve decided your company simply must be on Twitter. You’ve created your account and started following other Twitter users (tweeps, in the lingo) but you really haven’t a clue about where to go next. Well, before you do anything else, get this in your head: from here on in, it’s not about you serving your customers — it’s about you helping your customers in a way that builds social, personal connections with your business (and, of course, fattens your bottom line).

Logo for Twitter's birdLots of business owners make a big show of saying the customer is king, but they’re not moving their customers into castles. They want those castles for themselves, and all their customers know it. But savvy companies are using services like Twitter to do something altogether different: nurture an audience of fans who share a rooting interest in their success. The trick is to get people talking about you on Twitter and other social media sites, and to guide their conversations in ways that keep them in a buying mood.

I’ve been on Twitter for years but only really ramped up my tweets in the past six months. Since I write about hiking and the outdoors, I get a lot of followers who are into adventures and the gear we haul along. This morning I picked up a new Twitter follower who motivated me to write this post. Here’s the story:

A gear shop in the Rocky Mountains launched a new website, started a Twitter feed and asked, in one of its first tweets, how to find more followers on Twitter.
First thing I noticed is that the feed was following more than 100 people, and had a a scant number of followers. What this tells me is the store “followed” all those people yesterday in the hope that they’d return the courtesy. I’ve done the same thing and here’s what always happens: Follow 50, and five follow me back. This reveals two non-obvious, totally counterintuitive truths about Twitter:

1) It doesn’t matter how many people you follow, or how many people follow you.

Sounds ludicrous in our winner-take-all, bigger-is-better business culture, but get this: The only reason for your small business to be on Twitter is to get into conversations with your customers that will encourage them to stop in and buy stuff today, and keep on buying stuff down the road. Everything else is a waste of both parties’ time.

Theoretically, more followers is better than less, but the key for small businesses is to attract followers who’ll buy their wares. Say the Durango area has 10,000 current and potential buyers of hiking boots. A gear shop there needs to focus its scant resources on getting those boot buyers to follow its feed. The rest is gravy.

2) Following people indiscriminately in the hope they’ll follow you back is pointless

Twitter has a social convention that when somebody follows your feed, you should return the favor and follow them back. I admit I’ve been doing this to be nice, but here’s the thing: It causes people to follow you only to goose their follower count, not to read your tweets.

Example: I have just about as many people following me as I follow. Certain software packages have noticed this, which says “Tom’ll follow anybody back; get right over there and follow him now.” This invites all kinds of people to follow me only because of my tendency to return a courtesy. These people won’t read my tweets, much less retweet them to a broader audience. See what I mean? Pointless.

Clicking the “follow” button does not motivate people to follow you back. At best it motivates them to demonstrate they are polite. Well, social grace is fine but it won’t move any backpacks out the door.

So, to get back to the gear shop’s quandary: how to meet more people on Twitter. A few tips:

1) Search for relevant tweeps

People with personal Twitter feeds usually start out by scanning the feeds of their friends, neighbors and co-workers.

To attract followers to a business feed, you really need to dig deeper with Twitter’s search function: scan for a keyword that’s relevant to your business and save the search. Then look for tweeps who’ve been tweeting on issues dear to your business.

For example, our gear shop might simply scan on the town where it’s located, or the town followed by the word “hiking,” or the names of popular trails nearby. Stands to reason people tweeting about those topics might be potential gear buyers.

Then there are several choices of what to next. All of these are more effective than simply clicking the “follow” button.

2) Make friends with the “Mention” button

When you “Mention” somebody in a tweet (using their @ handle), your tweet shows up in their “mention” list — which everybody checks religiously to see what people are saying about them. Saying nice things about people encourages them to click the “follow” button for the right reason: because you’re tweeting on issues they care about. (Just don’t forget that that flatterers are annoying.)

3) Retweet other people’s cool tweets

Because a retweet counts as a mention, it tends to flatter people and encourage them to follow back. But simply handing out attaboys by retweeting doesn’t get as much traction as a simple mention. I often say “this guy has a pretty cool feed” and it’s enough to get people to follow me back if they’re into what I’m tweeting.

4) Post cool links

Posting original content is the best way to attract followers, but it’s also the most expensive (whether it’s time or money, if it’s original, it ain’t free). The next-best option is to post links to other people’s original content.

The trick here is that it must help your business. It doesn’t have to drive customers across the threshold today, but it must motivate them to stop in eventually. So if you want to post links that demonstrate your opposition to black bear poaching or starting coal mines in Yosemite, go right ahead. It’ll validate your customers’ environmental ideals and maybe even do some good in the world.

Remember, you want fans online — people who’ll take up your cause just as they do for their favorite sports teams.

5) Create lists of your favorite tweeps

Thousands of tweets flow through your Twitter feed every day; to pluck the best ones from that ocean of content, you use Twitter’s list function to separate the best from the rest. You’ll hardly ever read your main feed — it’s way too much work — but a list of your favorite tweeps is very readable.

And Twitter’s List has another great function: Paying compliments to your customers — once they’re on a list you’ve created, they count themselves among your favorites. People love that.

6) Talk to people on Twitter

If somebody asks a question you know the answer to, just hit the “reply” button and put it out there. Beware, though, that conversing on Twitter can become an incredible time-sink because chatting there is every bit as addictive as it is anywhere else. You can lose an hour so fast it’ll make your head spin.

If you play your cards right, though, soon customers will start posting questions in your feed, so those have to be answered as soon as possible, before unanswered questions morph into gripes (and the Internet is a griper’s medium if there ever was one). Typically you can just put your geekiest employee in charge of monitoring your feed and making sure customers get replies.

Reality check

So you’ve just read over 1,000 words about how to attract followers on Twitter. Congratulations, now you’re ready for the real challenge: Using Twitter day in and day out to talk with customers, burnish your online reputation and make more money.

Whole books are being written about those issues, which should give you an idea of the challenge. Just “being on Twitter” and having some followers is like hiking the first mile of a trail that goes around the world, shifting the route every few months just to keep it interesting. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Related: A hiker’s guide to Twitter.