You’ve registered a business account on Twitter. You’ve even started using Twitter to communicate with your existing customers. But you’re still not quite sure how you’re supposed to be using Twitter to attract new customers.

Here are a few tips on how to use Twitter to attract potential customers. (Note: This covers the “free” things you can do with Twitter. A future item explores how to advertise on Twitter.)

Do any of these terms sound foreign? If any of these Twitter terms are unfamiliar to you (and some should be, as they’re unfamiliar to most users), refer to the Glossary of Twitter Terms.

Use #hashtags related to your business

As you’ve likely learned, a #hashtag is simply the symbol that everyone used to call “the pound key.” Computer programmers, however, have always called it the hashtag. Using hashtags helps categorize a tweet by clearly marking it as pertaining to a topic. For example, you might end a tweet about the recent World Cup games with “#worldcup” to make it easy for other soccer fans to find your tweet.

Because there are people who use Twitter to follow topics rather than individuals, by using hashtags, you can reach an audience that is looking specifically for topics related to your business. It is sometimes worth doing a little research into specific hashtags, as many industries will evolve their own, special hashtags that are used to maintain an ongoing conversation about business topics.

Use #hashtags related to your market area or niche

As the famous former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local.” When it comes to your business, local can mean your hometown or local can mean the market you serve. Whatever local means to you is what your Twitter efforts should be all about. Come up with a list of words that define your target geographic and demographic, and let that guide your vocabulary of hashtags.

Never, ever buy followers

Don’t fall victim to the false belief that the more followers you have the more effective you’ll be on Twitter. As in many other things in life, quality wins over quantity — don’t worry about how many followers you gain, but rather how many customers you can build long and loyal relationships with. Twitter shouldn’t be thought of as a popularity contest, but as a means to serve your customers.

Follow and interact with influencers

Don’t think of Twitter as a massive social network. Think of it as a small group of people who have something in common enough to listen and share information with one another. What is that group for you and your business? Every group has voices that people turn to to help them stay on top of things. In a slow way, reach out to those folks. Don’t be pushy or act as if they owe you something. Be polite

Curate the good stuff

Chances are, your customers turn to you for insight into your specialty. One service you can provide to them, and to potential customers, is to give them a heads up on important trends, clever ideas or whatever is appropriate for your field. Retweet or favorite items you run across that you know will be of interest to your customers, but don’t flood them with too much.

Reply with a helpful suggestion

When you see someone ask a question for which you have the answer, feel free to “Reply” (make sure your tweet starts with an @username). We know of major business relationships that started out with just such an exchange.

Take part in Twitter Chats

If you see a Twitter Chat (see glossary to learn what a Twitter Chat is) being planned that may draw participants that fit the profile of your typical customer, be sure to participate. Unless the chat is being conducted by your direct competitor — in that case, it might be better to just hang back and take notes.