If Facebook is akin to a quiet conversation with a group of friends, Twitter is like using a microphone to talk to everyone in the room. That makes Twitter a different kind of social media, one more suited to reaching large numbers of people with very succinct messages.

“Twitter tends to be very public. It tends to broadcast,” Celent analyst Craig Beattie says. “You can get into a conversation, but it tends to be short.”

While its messages are short, there’s no denying Twitter’s mass appeal. In the five years since Twitter was founded, the 140-character bursts known as tweets have gone totally viral and managed to upend the traditional flow of information.

Twitter has about 100 million active users, about half of whom sign in once a day. Not all of those people are actively tweeting. Many are just following other people’s tweets. And there are plenty to read with about 230 million tweets per day.

As it turns out, lots of people want to share their brief thoughts with anyone who cares to read them. Many, many more people want to know what’s on the minds of the rich and famous.

The top two tweeters are pop diva Lady Gaga with 13.5 million followers and teen heartthrob Justin Bieber with 12.6 million, according to Twitaholic. Among the pop stars at the top of the tweets, Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign is No. 3 with 10 million followers, but Barack Obama, the 44th president, has just 31,000 followers.

Entertainers use Twitter to keep in touch with their fans, just as politicians use it to stay connected with their constituents, trade barbs with their opponents or make career-ending mistakes.

Twitter has more serious uses. In Afghanistan, NATO forces went on a Tweet offensive against the Taliban after a series of attacks in Kabul.

All this from an idea that wasn’t envisaged as anything particularly useful at the start but, rather, a means to send text messages. As it turns out, though, Twitter can be a handy tool for businesses.

Twitter is a very good way to stay connected to your customer base and to drive them to content on your website or Facebook page.

“What Twitter is really good for is using it to say, ‘Here’s the link to my original content on my Web page,’” says Steven Johnson, director of social media programs and research at Temple University Fox School of Business.

Businesses also use Twitter to keep clients updated with industry developments.

Brokerage Risk Strategies Co., for instance, sends tweets on news involving property-casualty, employee benefits, financial services and cyber risks.

“We look for relevant articles and messages, and those go out as tweets. They’re synchronized with Facebook and LinkedIn,” says CEO Mike Christian, whose company has several thousand followers.

Besides helping to keep customers up to date, Twitter can be good for business people seeking to establish themselves as experts on a particular topic.

“Twitter for the average broker is a much bigger investment in terms of making a name for yourself,” Johnson says. “The more niche your product is, the more Twitter would be helpful. Then you could be known as the go-to information source.”

That, of course, requires a daily or weekly commitment. And it helps if your followers repeat your tweets to others, which is known, naturally, as re-tweeting.

The process itself is easy enough. You sign up for a Twitter account, choose a username, and begin either tweeting or looking for people to follow. You can, for instance, follow the Council, which tweets as TheCIAB.

Some of the tweeting basics include using hashtags to create searchable topics, such as #insurance. You can mention another user by using the @ sign, such as @TheCIAB. If you want to include links in your post, you’ll need to use a link shortener such as bitly.com or Twitter will shorten them automatically.

On your own website, you can add Twitter “follow” and “tweet” buttons as well as “widgets” that can do things such as display your latest updates on your website or Facebook page.

In addition, you may want to consider a social media dashboard program to help manage and monitor your Twitter feed and other social media. Those applications include Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Twitterrific and Seesmic.

Before you tweet, however, remember that, once you post, it’s out there for all the twittering masses to see.

“Whatever you put out there is out there permanently,” Beattie says.

Follow The Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers on Twitter.