The name of the game in using Twitter is sharing not selling. The challenge is to connect with lots of people who are interested in seeing what you have to share. For businesses, the ultimate goal is for their Twitter followers to click on links in their Tweets to the content that’s on their website. Every follower who spends time on your site reading content and linking from one post to another is giving you search engine equity, which translates into greater search visibility–it’s what I call Google gold.

AIM’s Twitter Guide for Business

There’s no big secret to getting followed on Twitter, but there are some things you need to do and some expectations and etiquette, as well. For businesses hoping to increase their visibility, it pays to play nice with Twitter (the company and its policies) and their following community.

Follow people with shared interests.

If you sell organic pet food, you should follow people who tweet about dogs, cats, organic foods, pets, nutrition, green lifestyles, etc… And it doesn’t matter if they live in your market area or on the far side of the globe. (Remember, you’re not selling–you’re sharing.) Twitter’s search tool provides an easy way to look for recent tweets regarding your main topics, and that will lead you to the people you should follow. Check their profiles and tweets to confirm that they’re into your topic. Then, once you’ve found people with shared interests, see who they’re following. Chances are that many of their followers will also share your interest in pets. This is the best and safest way to build your community. When you tweet about “the nutritional needs of a Corgi”, a certain percentage of your pet-owning followers will be engaged, possibly even one from Buckingham Palace.

People who are followed usually follow back.

The basic etiquette of Twitter is that if someone follows you, you should follow them back. Many Twitter users will even state their follow-back policy in their profile or in a direct message that they send to you. Of course, not everyone follows back, and you may wish to discontinue following someone if they don’t reciprocate by following you or if it’s obvious that they don’t share your primary interests.

When to stop following someone.

If you’re following someone and they aren’t following you back, cut them loose unless you just can’t live without their tweets. (Just because Steven Colbert doesn’t follow you doesn’t mean you have to dump him.) Here’s why: the Twitter company’s spam-catching detectives are always searching for spam abuse; if they see someone  following a lot more people than are following them back, Twitter assumes it’s a spammer and they may axe the account. Your goal should be to have an even balance between the number of your followers and the people you’re following. If you have more followers, that’s great, but if you’re following 1,000 people and being followed by 10 you may incur the wrath of the Twitter Gods…not good.

Post valuable tweets.

If you just tweet about the ham sandwich you had for lunch it will be of interest to very few people…that is unless you’re a noted food critic. Tweet about your area of expertise: it’s why you have a following in the first place. If you are a great chef, don’t waste time tweeting about your favorite video game. Share a recipe. Tell people where to shop for the freshest scrod (or maybe not). Much of your tweeting activity should be sharing links to valuable content on your own website, where you don’t have to spell everything out in 140 characters. But it’s also good to share some quality re-tweets that you think your followers will find interesting and to just make an observation or share something of value without a link. Many Twitter users also develop a response strategy whereby their followers respond to posted questions.

What should I include in a tweet?

What to include in your 140 characters depends on what content you are sharing. If you’re linking to a post on your blog, you need to include the link and some brief overview of what the content is and/or why it is valuable. Avoid using obscure abbreviations. Although some people treat tweets like texting, it’s not the same thing. You text people you know will get it. You tweet to the world. Being clever or direct with your messages is the best approach, and be personable.

Use shortened URLs for tweet links.

With such a premium on character space, it’s important to use shortened URLs when you include a link. WordPress has a built-in short URL generator–just click the Get Shortlink button. For others, there are numerous Twitter services and clients that offer shortened URLs, such as HootSuite. HootSuite offers the added benefit of being able to schedule tweets, follow multiple accounts at one time, and create statistical reports of your tweet activity…and it’s free. (A word of advice on Twitter clients–look for reviews before uploading them. Some are great while others may be worthless or even compromise the performance of your computer.)

Create a Twitter strategy.

Your strategy should be based on knowing what type of content you will provide. That will help you decide who to follow, which impacts who will follow you back. You should also think about creating a mix of linked content tweets, observational tweets, re-tweets and perhaps tweets that are intended to get a response. If you have several areas of interest, create separate Twitter accounts so you can focus your content on your followers. There’s no limit on how many accounts you have; in fact, multiple smaller communities can be more effective than a single, large community.

How often should you tweet?

Deciding on a frequency of tweets should be another part of your strategy. It depends on how much valuable content you have to share. You should definitely post a tweet every time you publish a new blog post or article, and you might want to send out several tweets at different times of the day regarding the same newly published content since it’s easy for followers to miss a single tweet, particularly if they are following lots of people.

See what’s popular on Twitter.

Twitter includes several valuable tools that can help you gain visibility within the Twittersphere. The current “Trending” topics are great to tap into if your content happens to coincide with one of them. Using hashtags (placing the “#” symbol before a topic, such as #twitter) is a popular way for users to search for the latest tweets regarding a particular topic.

Followers are not customers, so don’t treat them as such.

We said this at the outset, but it bears repeating: understanding this relationship is probably the hardest part of using Twitter for many people who think in terms of old-school marketing. The value of your Followers is that they have a shared interest with you and that will lead them to visit your website, spend time there, click on internal links and recommend your content to others in their online communities or even link to your site from their own websites. It’s all about getting found online. It begins with sharing what you know.

I hope these 10 steps help you build a valuable Twitter following.

Happy Tweeting!