Before you can reap the business benefits of Twitter, you need to understand a few of the basics. Jason Hiner shares 10 essential concepts to help you get started.

For a service that’s remarkably simple, Twitter is often difficult for new users to understand. In fact, the simplicity of Twitter can actually be a barrier in the beginning because there’s not much to help a new user get started.

To assist business users and IT professionals in getting up to speed on Twitter, I’ve put together this quick collection of 10 core Twitter concepts you need to understand so you can turn Twitter into a powerful 140-character communications tool.

Note: This article is based on an entry in our Tech Sanity Check blog. It’s also available as part of the PDF download A quick Twitter guide for business users, which lists 10 useful Twitter utilities and 100 tech experts worth following. You can also follow Jason Hiner on Twitter at: @JasonHiner.

1: Who to follow

The first thing you need to figure out is who to follow. This, more than anything else, will determine how useful Twitter becomes for you. For business users, I’d recommend following many of the colleagues you work with on a regular basis. While some of them may post useless ramblings, you’re also likely to pick up project updates, inside perspectives, and subtle red flags you would not have seen otherwise.

Of course, what makes Twitter most powerful for business users is following experts and thought leaders in your field and industry. For tech workers, I’ve put together a list of 100 tech experts who are active on Twitter. I’d also recommend finding thought leaders in your specific industry. Directories like Twellow can help. But the best method is to find a few industry experts, then look at their profile pages to see who they follow. You’re very likely to find other industry experts.

Never be afraid to follow new people. Give them a try. If they post useless stuff, simply unfollow them. You should regularly unfollow people who don’t provide much value. This is part of the regular rhythm of Twitter because Twitter makes it easy to follow and unfollow new people. In fact, after a couple years on Twitter, I’ve now got a few people whom I’ve followed and unfollowed several times.

2: What’s a tweet?

The word “tweet” is a Twitter term used as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it used to talk about a user posting something on Twitter. For example, “She tweeted that she was flying to a business meeting in Seattle with Microsoft.” When used as a noun, it refers to an individual Twitter post. For example, “He posted a tweet last week that included a link to screenshots of Mac OS X Snow Leopard.”

3: What’s a retweet (RT)?

The “retweet” (often shortened to “RT”) was not originally designed by the Twitter team. Twitter users invented it so they can re-post something really interesting from another Twitter user. For example, if another tech journalist (e.g., Harry McCracken) posted breaking tech news on Twitter, I might quickly take Harry’s post and re-post it like this: “RT @harrymccracken Google announces it is launching its own private space program.”

I would post something like this because not all of the people who follow me follow Harry, and I found it important and interesting enough to share with as many people as possible. It’s the social networking version of word-of-mouth.

By the way, Twitter recently announced that it is officially adopting retweeting, with plans to streamline the process for users, integrate retweeting into, and build the new retweeting functionality into its API.

4: Replies and mentions

A “reply” on Twitter is a direct response to a post from another user. For example, Sascha Seagan (a PC Magazine editor) recently tweeted, “I’m back from vacation. What I learned: Yes, AT&T coverage is much better outside NYC.” I replied, “@saschasegan In Midwest, AT&T network is infinitely better than NY or SF, but still not as reliable or widespread as Verizon.”

As you can see, you start a reply with the @ symbol and then add the person’s Twitter username. The home page makes it easy to reply to a tweet by simply mousing over it and then clicking the reply arrow. It automatically populates @username in the posting field and then you fill in the rest. Twitter client software (see below) also makes it easy to reply to a tweet.

Similar to a reply is a “mention,” where you identify someone you mention by using his or her @username. For example, I might tweet something like, “While I was in New York today I had lunch with @ldignan to discuss our coverage plans for Windows 7 on ZDNet and TechRepublic.”

Every instance of an @username is turned into a clickable link that will take you to that user’s Twitter profile, where you can choose to start following the person. Plus, on the Twitter home page you’ll see your @username in the right column. When you click on it, you’ll see all of the replies to your tweets and mentions of your username. This is useful because there may be times when people you don’t follow mention or reply to you and this allows you to catch it.

5: Direct messages

There may also be times when you want to reply to someone on Twitter, but you don’t want everyone else to see the message — or you just don’t think it would be useful for everyone else to see. In that case, you can send a “direct message.”

To do this from, go to the person’s Twitter profile page. Then, in the right column under Actions, click the Message link. Note that you can send direct messages only to people who follow you. This prevents the direct message feature from being used by spammers.

I’ve also found that the direct message feature can work almost like an instant message to get someone’s attention, if the person is a regular Twitter user. It’s often a quicker way to contact someone than email but less intrusive than a text message or instant message.

6: #Hashtags

Another Twitter convention users developed without the input of the Twitter staff is the hashtag. Hashtags are essentially keywords. For example, #techrepublic is a hashtag. When people post links to TechRepublic articles, they often identify them by adding the #techrepublic hashtag at the end of the tweet. Other popular tech hashtags include #windows7 and #iphone.

Doing a Twitter search on a hashtag allows you to see all of the Twitter conservations that are happening around a specific topic. It can also be a good way to find people who regularly talk about a specific topic and then follow them.

Hashtags are not case sensitive. So #techrepublic is the same as #TechRepublic or #TECHREPUBLIC.

7: Posting links

Some of the most popular things to post on Twitter are links to articles, blog posts, video clips, etc. Many of the most valuable people to follow are the ones who post the best links, and that means not just the big stories that everyone is tweeting but also the really good stories that are under the radar.

The problem is that Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters, and most article URLs are 50 characters or more. That doesn’t leave much space to post the title of the article or any brief thoughts about it. As a result, most people use URL shorteners, such as TinyURL, when posting links on Twitter. My favorite URL shortener is because it allows you to shorten URLs to about 20 characters and it gives you some basic analytics on all of your Twitter links.

8: Desktop clients

Most habitual Twitter users don’t spend much time on Instead, they migrate most of their Twitter use to desktop clients while they are working from their desk and smartphone clients when they’re on the go.

The most widely used desktop Twitter client is Tweetdeck, although Seesmic and Twhirl are also popular. Tweetdeck is an Adobe Air application that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It provides a columnized view of Twitter with columns for your main feed, your mentions, your direct messages, any #hashtag searches, and more.

One of the best parts of Tweetdeck is its ability to create groups. For example, I have groups for “Tech Journalists” and “CBS Interactive” (my work colleagues) so that I can view them in separate columns. Another nice feature of Tweetdeck is that it automatically refreshes, so you can just leave it open and let it do its thing in real-time.

For those who prefer to stick with Twitter in the Web browser, is still not your only means of accessing the service. Tweetvisor is a powerful browser-based Twitter client that puts a lot more Twitter functionality at your fingertips than the standard Twitter homepage. There are also a variety of Firefox plug-ins that can ramp up the experience of Twitter in the browser, including PowerTwitter, TwitterFox, and TwitBin.

9: Mobile clients

You know you’re getting addicted to Twitter when you start looking into how to use it from your smartphone. I know plenty of techies who use their smartphone as their primary method of accessing Twitter, and the desktop is really secondary.

While you can use Twitter via SMS, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have an unlimited SMS plan. Plus, the Twitter mobile apps typically provide a much better experience by making it easier to reply, retweet, send a direct message, etc. Here’s a breakdown of some of the top Twitter clients on each of the big smartphone platforms:

10: Posting photos

Another interesting (and occasionally even useful) thing to post on Twitter are photos taken from your smartphone. This can be especially useful when you’re at trade conferences and industry events and you want to report on items of interest.

The most popular tool for posting photos on Twitter is Twitpic because you can use it from any cellphone with a camera. You simply take the photo with your phone and then email it to your customized Twitpic email address, typing your Twitter message in the subject line of the email. The challenge with this is that there’s no character count in the subject line of an email so you have to be careful to not make your message too long. If it’s over 140 characters, it will simply get truncated.

Flickr has also come up with a similar service, called Flickr2Twitter. If you already have an active Flickr account, it makes sense to use Flickr (because all your mobile photos get added to your album), rather than creating a separate album on Twitpic.

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