When  the microblogging service Twitter was launched five years ago this month, critics quickly wrote it off as being an ego-driven time suck without any redeeming purpose for business.  Boy, were they ever wrong, said one expert.

Its impact on business may be just beginning, said Sharon Cannon, director of the Olin Management Communication Lab at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis.  And it’s all because Twitter gets people talking.

“It’s all about word of mouth ,” said Cannon. “And re-tweeting creates that activity. If you use Twitter like you use Facebook, you probably aren’t getting much value out of it.”

But if you use Twitter to provide followers with useful information, it can pay rich dividends. It’s all about connecting with people in a more intimate way, she said.

It’s like a new kind of elevator pitch or a pickup line, Cannon said. Authenticity is mandatory.

“You want to use Twitter to get a real conversation going,” Cannon said. “Use it to build a relationship. A pickup line will turn someone off if it seems insincere.”

“Though Twitter certainly can be used for providing coupons to customers, it’s not really about traditional advertising , she said. “I believe the value is in establishing a connection that people seem to crave and want.

One of the problems, she said, is that many businesses don’t understand their audience and the value their products have for it.

“You want to know why people are on it,” Cannon said. “How can I be part of that? People have a hard time thinking about how Twitter might be different.”

In an increasingly mobile world, Cannon said, Twitter allows businesses to reach people where they are to get their messages out.

“If you want to find a food truck for lunch, you just click the Twitter mobile app and find one near your location,” she said. “Those types of companies have done beautiful things for their business by tweeting.”

And Twitter is not just a playing field for large companies, Cannon said. It can be an invaluable tool for customer service and monitoring your company’s online reputation. An example of one company that does an exceptional job in this area is Southwest Airlines, she said, which employs a dedicated staff that listens and responds to what customers are saying across the social media sphere.

Although it’s harder for small businesses to constantly monitor Twitter, she said, “it’s worthwhile for a small business owner to occasionally search their company name and see what people are saying.”

Cannon thinks Twitter’s popularity with businesses will continue, particularly because of how easy it is to link to videos.

“As long as we continue to be attracted to concise messages, businesses will find value in Twitter,” she said. “As we increasingly move away from the printed work toward more multimedia forms of communication, Twitter’s ability to provide video links will continue to make it attractive to business and to advertisers.”

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.