Chris Lyons is the manager of technical and educational communications at Shure Incorporated in Niles, IL and a Greenough client. In response to all the questions we’ve been getting about how to make Twitter work for B2B and consumer brands, we spoke briefly with Chris about how he’s using the micro-blogging tool, the benefits he’s experienced and the opportunities for your brand to get involved. You can find Chris at: @chris_at_shure.

“Twitter is all about discovery and about people finding and sharing information that’s worth discussing. For marketers, that means finding useful information for your customers and feeding it to them in a genuine, non-intrusive manner.” – Chris Lyons

Why did you start using Twitter?
Twitter originally came up in a PR call and we wanted to check it out to see what all the hype was about. I quickly realized that it could be a portal to an infinite number of consumer conversations.

How did you feel about diving in and getting started?
At first, I was confused. Like most early Twitter users, it wasn’t clear how people would find me or why they’d want to listen to what I had to say. You feel very small when you start using Twitter – a lot like no one knows you’re there. I changed my tune once I identified the real opportunity – Twitter Search (formerly Summize). That helped me fill in the gaps with Twitter and also to prioritize things I might otherwise miss. All of sudden, Twitter was relevant, useful and valuable.

How do you feel about Twitter now?
I feel much more confident now for 2 reasons: 1) I’ve found that Twitter is a great way to monitor what people are saying about your company/products, and 2) I’ve learned how to connect with people proactively – customers that never would’ve reached out to Shure before.

How exactly are you using Twitter?
For Shure, Twitter is really a tool that combines competitive intelligence and customer support. On the competitive intelligence side, I look at what people say about the product category, and about our company. That means I’m monitoring what people are saying about competitive products (and what competitors are saying to their customers); we’ve used that intelligence to learn about two new competitive products recently – they wouldn’t have been on the radar until much later without Twitter.

When it comes to customer support, I do what I can within the allotted 140 characters. Twitter is a great tool for directing customers to the best resources to meet their needs. So, I give out a lot of phone numbers and Web addresses so everyone can reach a real person to handle their support issue in a timely manner. Most people are surprised and delighted to know that we’re listening.

What advice would you give other companies that aren’t sure where to start?
First, recognize that Twitter can be valuable if used correctly. Twitter is in some ways a club, and many people naturally feel defensive about their space on the site. The community won’t always welcome corporate participation, so you have to be careful about how you respond. While you should be prepared for backlash, I think you’ll find that the acceptance outweighs the negative perception if you’re honest and transparent.

Second, start small. Set up a monitoring tool that just reads and alerts you to tweets about your company. Slowly add keywords that are relevant to your brand. If you go “all in” at the beginning, you can quickly become overwhelmed and the information won’t be useful.  Finally, build a Twitter image that mirrors your corporate personality. If you’re a cool and hip brand offline, by all means, mimic that in online channels like Twitter. If your company is more conservative and fact-based, consider how that can translate without eroding the brand. 

Lots of brands think Twitter is a time-suck. How do you avoid spending your entire day Tweeting?
It’s tempting to constantly check in on Twitter, but if you set a schedule – say checking in every few hours – it’s manageable. I haven’t created a customer service hotline monster; sometimes I only participate in one conversation per day. Also, since there are only 140 characters available, you’re not going to get into a long discussion in most cases – you can direct your customers to other resources on your Web site and customer service hotlines, etc.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for brands on Twitter?
Twitter adds legitimacy to conversations with your customers. It’s an entirely new communications channel that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and Twitter users are an extremely tech-savvy demographic. Twitter allows you to communicate instantaneously, but the real conversations don’t happen overnight. Just like building a good mailing list, it takes patience and practice.

In the long term, there’s potential for more applications and Twitter add-ons. As with the iPhone, we’re likely to see a lot of new plug-ins that make the tool more useful. Marketers are sorting that out as we speak. Soon we’ll be able to extract more demographic information and segment customers in meaningful ways.

How does Twitter integrate with the other social media channels Shure uses?
We’re also on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. We’re actively working to integrate all those communications channels but we also recognize that each outlet has a unique audience. That said, Twitter does drive a fair amount of traffic to our YouTube page. The customers we’re reaching on Twitter are interested in the types of videos we’ve created. Check one out here

You’re a marketer, but also a consumer. What should brands do to reach you on Twitter?
I’m really interested in discovering new things. Starbucks is great at this – they’ve been tweeting about the rollout of their new instant coffee for weeks and all the chatter has piqued my interest. I’m already a Starbucks fan and I’m intrigued by the stream of “tiny text-based commercials for the new product” – gradually I was interested, now I’m a buyer.

Finally, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned on Twitter?
Two things: 1) it’s not all teenagers. Twitter is full of people we classify as grown-ups. 2) You can say a lot in 140 characters. More than you think.

– Contributed by Gretchen Bender.  Follow her @gbender26.