Twitter is actually a great prospecting tool, and these are people you should absolutely be engaging with as a brand. The key is to engage without coming off as spammy. Instead of "Buy our product now to solve your issue", try something friendly like, "Hey XYZ! We'd love to help you [solve problem]. Let us know how we can help!" or "We'd be happy to put you in touch with one of our experts on this topic. Let us know if you'd be interested in chatting."
In other words, as long as you're focused on providing value over pitching your products, your responses won't come off as spammy, and you'll not only be able to get more qualified prospects from Twitter, but you'll also grow a stronger and more lovable brand presence.
To expand on Sarah's answer, think of Twitter as a big networking event. Overhear a problem, gracefully nose into the conversation if you have a solution. If the challenge is something related to your product, such as the prospect tweeting "I am so sick of using SalesForce for my CRM!", you could reply with "@person, Overheard your SalesForce comment - I used it myself in the past. What do you wish SalesForce had or did differently?" If you want to get into advanced techniques to identify these trigger events and respond to them in a way that gets people into a purchase, let me know. If you're going after prospects who have not expressed a frustration with their current solution or a desire for a product like yours, then Twitter is the wrong platform for outreach, and we could come up with a strategy for leveraging a different place to get better results.
I suggest that the question should be if Twitter is the right first step. One common position is that one should start using Twitter to build on an existing audience platform or brand that is well defined and already marketed. I suggest you look in at LinkedIN first, join groups in your expertise/product/solution area and build your brand as the go-to-person or company for that subject. Then begin to crosspollinate by tweeting your blog posts or group answers with the hashtags that matter to your community.
When I started on Twitter I slowly built up a brand and as I found that my interests were split in a variety of areas, I created a few twitter accounts as my followers would drop depending on my subject focus. This allowed my various brands to continue to build as I answered questions on innovation, cloud computing or entrepreneurship by tweeting from conferences, retweeting blog posts/interviews, and engaging in twitter chats from big research firms, subject matter experts or media outlets.
My advice is to focus your time as Twitter does take time to build credibility in your field and you may be better served by joining portals or groups in your subject area and as previous experts have noted, get engaged in the discussion and offer support.
Not sure if I agree that a responding on Twitter would be SPAM!! It's not an opt-in service. The general expectation is that if you are posting on Twitter, there are ALOT of people who can see your posts and who may respond. So, as others have said, you can politely enter the conversation without barging in and saying BUY MY STUFF!! Ask questions. Find out why they are experiencing the pain they are. Find out what solutions they have tried. Find out what they thought of those solutions. Share things that you have tried and then finally share the solution that you have or are currently using that works for you. Maybe they will respond by starting to ask YOU a question or two. It takes time but its about relationship marketing.
I do not agree replies would automatically be spam.
I suggest you provide links to useful information. If you have a blog or web site that provides useful information that can also share that your services may be of value.
Certainly responding could be done in a spamming way. And that should not be done. But you can respond by being helpful. And rely on some of those seeing that you provide useful information wanting to learn more.
A measure of if you are providing useful replies see how often it is retweeted. I am very surprised how often mine are. I would guess it is over 50% of the time that I suggest a link would be useful they retweet it.
When I just send a reply without a link they are retweeted rarely. Also when I just post links to useful stuff I find those are retweeted much less often than my direct replies (I imagine if you have tens of thousands of active readers, not just "followers," this data would be less useful because everything you tweet someone retweets...
Another measure would be if people reply by saying you are sending them spam or wasting their time, etc. I have had 0 of these.
The combination of these results has led me to offer suggested links more often. I was nervous at first about people seeing it as spam. 90% of them are links to my blogs because those blog posts are what I know well enough to link so often (I also suggest other articles, blogs or products but less often).
I would suggest that your reply may indeed be "Spammy."
Or, it could in fact be a "God send."
Same platform, same tweet. I'll explain...
First we should agree there are various interpretations of "immediate needs" that completely, and utterly change the dynamic of the reply.
For example, if you're a web designer and someone tweets that they need to redesign their website, well your reply will need to be much more relationship building in order to build a "know, like and trust" experience.
If you're a local plumber and someone locally tweets out a "stress-tweet" that they just spent the last hour plunging their toilet and there's no hope, well, your service offer would be far from spam... if service is your offer. :)
Consider the situation, then a reply to the effect of:
@xyz, so sorry for to hear. Saw your tweet & can be there in 30 mins to solve. Call me (Will) 555-555-5555. We'd be honored to serve.
Include a picture in the above of your business, or logo for credibility, and wait for the phone to ring.
Same would apply for a locksmith. Would you not consider that to be a God send to get a tweet offering to solve your immediate need in real time?
It can't be about sales, it needs to be about service, and solving problems or meeting the need in the moment.
Put the customer hat on, and ask what you would only WISH might show up if you tweeted something revealing a need for your service.
Now were cooking. Happy tweeting!
PS - excellent article recently I thought you'd be interested in where this very service was proven real time with a locksmith. Check it out: http://goo.gl/2TeSnv
Use article marketing. You have to give your audience something in order to satisfy the "WIIFM" What's in it for me thinking pattern of potential prospects.
Don't stop taking massive action.
Best of Luck,
Michael T. Irvin
My books are available exclusively through Amazon Books. Check out my book "Copywriting Blackbook of Secrets"
Copywriting, Startups, Internet Entrepreneur, Online Marketing, Making Money