Ask an expert: How to make the best use of Twitter

Twitter can help you boost your business significantly if you use it the right way.

Twitter is either a colossal waste of time or a key tool for business and professional development; it all depends on how you use it.

For those unfamiliar with Twitter, it is the river of 140-character status updates and conversational snippets, otherwise known as tweets. You can follow other users to receive their tweets, retweet others' relevant messages to your followers, and search the Twitterverse for content that may be relevant.

Here are five reasons why Twitter may be important — and one reason never to use it:

An additional communications channel for clients and prospects. Most firms invest in newsletters, seminars, blogs and other outreach activities. Some people may also wish to "consume" your content via Twitter. And since much of the tweeting can be automated, the time investment need not be high.

Business development. Before every critical meeting, search for the names of the people you are meeting and the name of their company, then answer two questions: are people tweeting about them and what are they themselves tweeting about? This intelligence helps you understand their environment — and their pressures.

Professional development. Using a tool such as HootSuite, set up an ongoing Twitter search for topics that are important to you. For example, if you are concerned about IFRS or the newest tax treaty, a quick scan of all tweets on these topics can lead you to some of the newest thinking in the area.

To participate in conversations. Twitter is more about having a conversation than a broadcast. Search with #hashtags to find ongoing conversations, or send one-to-one direct messages.

Influence building. As you use Twitter and attract followers, the number of your followers is a direct reflection of your influence.

Finally, never use Twitter for client communications. It is insecure, not confidential — and with only 140 characters, it is impossible to include any disclaimers.