Twitter is spreading like wildfire and companies are using it to boost sales. By Michael Doan, Senior Associate Editor April 15, 2009 You know Twitter--the social networking and microblogging service that allows people to keep in touch through "tweets"--short snippets of text sent to cell phones, BlackBerrys and PCs. Businesses are making use of the Web format for marketing, research and customer services. Computer maker Dell sends coupons to its Twitter users. Whole Foods Market offers $25 gift cards as prizes for people who submit the catchiest messages promoting Whole Foods. Other companies send messages to foster community and build loyalty to stores and products. Uncle Sam is a player, too. The Food and Drug Administration uses Twitter to help get out the word about product recalls. Because most Twitter messages are searchable on the Web, businesses can also use it to track customer comments and answer complaints--even offer immediate help or advice. Among firms closely tuned in to what customers are saying are Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Comcast and Boingo, which provides Wi-Fi service at airports. Advertisement Jeremy Pepper, public relations manager of Boingo, receives and tracks all Twitter messages, blogs and other Web comments that mention the company. If, for example, someone complains to a friend about a weak Wi-Fi signal at Washington Dulles International Airport, he may get an immediate message from Pepper. In such a case, Pepper says he'll ask: " 'Where you are sitting…have you thought of moving? Which terminal are you in? Let me check to see if there are problems at the airport,' "he says. Once a problem is resolved, he'll send a tweet saying he was happy to help and "have a safe flight." Quick, helpful responses via Twitter can go a long way to changing customers' opinions about a firm, even turning detractors into company promoters. Keep messages informal and conversational. "Being boring is the worst thing you can do," says Jeffrey Mann, vice president of research at Gartner Group, an information technology research firm. Business tweets should be personalized; you may want to designate one or more employees to twitter on behalf of the company. Keep in mind that Twitter messages--limited to 140 characters each--are seen by people who choose to become "followers" of a business or an individual. Advertisement Twitter is a good tool to use at trade shows, helping to draw attendees to exhibitors' booths as well as press conferences and receptions hosted by a company or trade group. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, for example, puts out messages about its Schmooza Palooza networking party and trade show before, during and after the event in hopes of spreading buzz about it. Results are good; attendance has grown dramatically. Twitter is great for small businesses, too, because it's easy and doesn't add any expense. The only cost is the employee time it takes to write and follow others' messages. Consider registering your company's name with Twitter, even if you don't expect to use it. It'll help prevent misuse by someone else. Go to www.twitter.com. For weekly updates on topics to improve your business decisionmaking, click here.