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Social media experts predict Twitter users will grow to over 227 million by the end of 2014 and forecast double-digit growth to continue through 2018 when the number of users will be nearly 400 million.

With numbers like that, it’s vital that all journalists or anyone involved in the news media industry get connected and take advantage of all the site has to offer.

For those just tiptoeing into Twitter, understand it’s not Facebook. It’s in real time, it’s public and it’s fast. When you go on Twitter, you look to see what’s happened in the last 10 minutes, unlike Facebook where you look at more what’s happened in the last day or two.

At one time, Twitter was just a place to offer a quick update about one’s life or make a quick joke or funny observation, but these days Twitter is used to alert people about everything from weather, events to notable deaths to the latest laws discussed in Washington. Think about it, when news happens today, where are you finding out about it? Many times, even before the news outlets have it, someone is tweeting about it on Twitter.

All journalists should take a Twitter name that’s as close to their real name as possible. Still, there’s more to Twitter than just having a handle and tweeting. Anyone involved in the news media should look professional by adding a strong photo, filling out the bio to include your journalism skills and branding it with a personal background of something like an old typewriter or news reel. You should also add all your contacts from your address book.

One of the best ways a journalist can use Twitter is to find sources they are working on. You can follow a hashtag about a particular subject or search for people talking about a specific topic. Even if you know who you want to interview, sometimes trying to contact a potential source is difficult, especially if you need a quote or information fast, as phone messages and emails aren’t always heard or seen right away. Many people are just minutes away from their Twitter feed and if you send them a quick tweet that you are looking to talk with them, you may get an answer in lighting quick time.

Using the search feature on the site can be one of the most invaluable uses of Twitter to a journalist. By using Twitter’s advanced search option, one can search by questions, positive or negative tweets, location, hashtag, and more, and pull up the latest information about a variety of subjects.

If you write about one particular subject or beat, you can increase Twitter engagement with regular tweets about the subject. Live-tweeting or posting updates about a news event related to your beat is also a great way to grow followers and increase interaction. All journalists should use hashtags to organize conversations, gather feedback, and to identify and engage with Twitter users discussing a particular topic.

Utilizing Twitter is also a great way for a journalist to pick up a larger following and drive more traffic to the articles you are writing for papers, magazines and websites. By tweeting links to your stories, you will expand the traffic going to these sites and show your editors that your content is being read.

A feature that not enough journalists take advantage of is Twitter’s News List, which lets you create a personal list of all the tweets from a list you create and organize it into one easy-to-read list that can be scanned daily. You can use this to follow noteworthy people in the news or catch the headlines from a list of papers or other journalists whose opinions you value.

A journalist can also learn which of his or her tweets is resonating with followers by using a program like Hootsuite, which helps engage users and measure results. It can be used to track hashtags, analyze social media traffic and will monitor all mentions, direct messages, sent tweets, favorited tweets, and more in dedicated streams. This can help a writer determine what subjects people most want to read about.

Just remember, Twitter is a two-way street. If someone asks you a question, don’t ignore them. It’s important to be respectful and responsive and you should answer any questions from followers in a timely and courteous way.

By using Twitter and interacting with its millions of users, a journalist will increase their source list, get new story ideas and most importantly, find new people interested in reading what they have to say.

For more social tips, follow NAREE panelist, Erica Campbell Byrum, Director of Social Media for Homes.com and ForRent.com on Twitter at @ericacampbell.