Twitter is really the stupidest thing in the world,” Chris Brogan, blogger and social media expert, said in his Blogging and Social Media panel at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishers conference in February. But he didn’t mean it. At first blush, Twitter does seem like a dumb idea. It describes itself as “a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent messages. People write short updates, often called ‘tweets,’ of 140 characters or fewer. These messages are posted to your profile or your blog, sent to your followers, and are searchable on Twitter search.” Your followers are the people who sign up to receive your tweets, and you are following anyone whose tweets you sign up to receive.

A February 2009 Compete.com study found that Twitter is the third largest social-networking site, after Facebook and MySpace. Many people and companies have ventured their ways on in the past year; it was ranked #22 in 2008. It has nearly six million users and 55 million monthly visits. Meanwhile, people are spending less time on MySpace and visiting it less often, as Twitter use surges. It’s easy to imagine it climbing to #2 in 2010. A February Pew Internet & American Life study reported that 11% of online American adults use a service like Twitter, an increase of nearly 50% since May 2008. Anyone who’s read their friends’ mundane Facebook status updates may question the value of a social network devoted solely to status updates.

But Twitter has proven that status updates can go beyond writing about what you had for breakfast. Think of it as digital word of mouth. “I think of Twitter as the new phone,” said Brogan. “I use it to talk to people and get business. I don’t use it to talk about my cat.” Yet in a February Abrams Research Social Media Survey of “over 200 social media leaders” from the U.S. and Canada,” 40% of respondents chose Twitter as the #1 social media service for businesses, with LinkedIn at a distant second. One survey respondent described Twitter as “the quickest way I’ve seen to spread information virally to a wide scope of people attached in a lot of random ways,” while another said it’s the “best way to bridge the personal-professional gap. Once people care about YOU the person, they care about YOU the brand.”

“I pay a lot of attention to what is going on in social media, since publishing as an industry will grow ever more reliant on the tools it develops,” says Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull and Counterpoint. “And in order to understand, you must use.” Here’s how and why according to the pros, book publishers should be using Twitter now.

DEVELOPING YOUR TWITTER PRESENCE

The number-one tip from people we talked to: Publishers shouldn’t be afraid to get personal on Twitter, and their tweets shouldn’t sound like marketing. “The best people using Twitter are the ones who talk back to people, not just the people who are talking about their dumb stuff,” says Brogan. He recommends looking at companies whose Twitter presence you like and emulating them. Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com and a producer of writers’ workshops and conferences, agrees: “The publishers that use Twitter best are the ones who let the person running the account put a personal spin on their posts, not just announcing every press clipping or YouTube clip that comes down the pike.” In fact, rather than having one company Twitter account with the company’s name, it may be better for employees to have individual accounts. “Publishers should empower and encourage ALL of their employees to Twitter, and to talk about what makes them truly jazzed to work with books. There are huge transparency issues publishers have to work through to become comfortable with this, but I believe it would be worth it.”

“I do not have a separate personal account,” says Heather Adams, Director of Publicity at Thomas Nelson. “I don’t distinguish between my personal and professional tweets. My career is a significant part of my life and intertwining it with my life as a mother, wife, community volunteer, etc. is important. It’s a part of my total makeup. I also believe this allows my followers to learn more about the person behind the updates.”

“I like the [publishers on Twitter] that aren’t sales-y—it’s not just every tweet on ‘what a fab book we just released.’ There’s a transparency online that publishers, if they are going to use social media, need to adhere to,” says Penny Sansevieri of Author Marketing Experts. “I like to see posts on stuff they’re working on, industry news, new things going on in their offices. This gives their operation a ‘voice.’ Best of all, it gives me the inside scoop on new titles.”

“We’re still experimenting, but at the moment we’re just using it to connect with readers,” says Anna Rafferty, Digital Marketing Director at Penguin UK. “We want to hear from them, ask them questions, let them know what we’re up to, and generally keep in touch. I hope it will be a tool for inspiration and will prompt unexpected reading, but more than anything it’s about Penguin being a friendly, interesting brand.”

USING TWITTER TO CONNECT WITH YOUR AUDIENCE AND GAIN RECOGNITION

The Pew social media survey found that Twitter users as a group are much more likely than the general population to use wireless devices like cell phones, laptops, and handhelds for Internet access. They use those devices to get their news. “For many Twitter users, learning about and sharing relevant and recent nuggets of information is a primary utility of the service,” says the report. “While Twitter users are just as likely as others to consume media on any given day, they are more likely to consume it on mobile devices and less likely to engage with news via more traditional outlets.” In addition, publishers trying to spread the word about their books via blogs should take heart in the fact that many of the people using Twitter are the same people reading and writing blogs. Pew found that 21% of Twitter users had read someone else’s blog “yesterday,” 57% had ever read a blog (as compared to 29% of the population who is online but not on Twitter), and 29% had their own blogs.

Making a connection with a Twitter user has an impact far beyond the initial conversation if she goes on to blog about you, or if her followers on Twitter see her interactions with you. If you already have a blog, posting your Twitter handle on it and letting your Twitter followers know when interesting new posts go up increases the ripple effect. Last fall, Thomas Nelson launched Book Review Bloggers, which allows bloggers to receive free copies of Nelson books in exchange for 200-word book reviews (positive or negative) posted on their blogs and on any consumer retail website (like Amazon). “It is amazing how much overlap we find between bloggers and Twitterers,” says Lindsay Nobles, Nelson’s Director of Corporate Communications. “When we share information about new books available, we find a major surge in interest.”

Twitter is also a free research tool for publishers. “Publishers should set up Twitter searches on keywords within the topics or subject areas in which they publish,” says Chris Webb, Associate Publisher of Wiley’s Professional and Trade division and head of its European Technology Publishing Group. “We absolutely should be listening for people talking about our brands, our book series, and our products. Listening provides opportunities for publishers to engage people in conversations where we can provide value—a solution to a problem, a new resource for a reader, or a new book to a new customer.”

And these conversations are a great way to influence the influencers. “At this stage, Twitter’s still small enough that it’s useful for seeding news to influential people, whatever your industry,” says Ryan Chapman, Internet Marketing Coordinator at Macmillan. “I’ve used it informally to give Macmillan books away, as other publishers have, and any conduit between customers and publishers can only help us.”

OH, YEAH—IT LEADS TO INCREASED SALES

“Publishers should not think about Twitter initially as a way to drive book sales. Instead, it’s a way for them to connect and communicate with readers in a way that is foreign at first,” says Webb. “If we [are part of the community], the opportunities to introduce people to the books we publish will present themselves naturally. But we have to listen for them as part of the ongoing conversation….Having said that, Twitter can drive sales. It has been widely reported that Dell [computers] drove an additional $1 million in revenues in 18 months via its Twitter account.”

“I’ve gotten a lot of business from Twitter. People follow my tweets, love what I have to say and book a consultation,” says Sansevieri. “It’s a permission-based way to get and stay in front of folks, and if you use it right, it can really be a revenue generator. The key is to offer help first and ask for help (or business) later. Don’t lead with your wallet.”

Nash agrees, saying that people who follow publishers “are likely themselves to be folks who influence others on if and which books to buy. So I do actually see it as part of a customer service paradigm. You’re servicing a community to try to build.”

And remember to keep an eye out for new authors to sign. “I’m counting down the days,” says Chapman, “until someone’s offered a book deal off of his or her Twitter stream.”