Twitter is often derided as a vehicle for the self-absorbed who think the world really cares what they're having for dinner. But L.A. entrepreneurs such as Babette Pepaj know there's gold in letting followers know what's baking in the oven.

Pepaj, founder of the social networking site, is among a growing number of area business people leveraging the popular free electronic messaging service to reach new customers, provide support, and promote products and services.

A former TV show producer, Pepaj credits strategic networking via Twitter as a key factor in her three-year-old business' evolution from an online site for swapping recipes to a legitimate company attracting corporate sponsorships from the likes of Kitchen-Aid.

"You can build a genuine connection with people and that just grows," said Pepaj, who's been known to launch spur-of-the-moment contests for followers while sitting in a restaurant using her cell phone? camera and a Twitter application.

While businesses and professionals in a variety of industries now have a Twitter presence, food and fitness businesses seem to be especially popular for the service, which allows businesses to send out short text messages to a network of customers' cell phones and computers -- while also allowing them to reply.

West L.A. fitness trainer Valerie Waters has leveraged her success in preparing actresses such as Jennifer Garner for acting roles into a line of training programs, exercise equipment and online personalized coaching.

Waters met her Internet business partner Ryan Orrico via Twitter and has developed new professional contacts within her industry. But most important to her has been the relationships she's developed worldwide with the customers she calls "my girls" who buy her products and help promote them to their friends via Twitter.

"I'm really shy by nature, so it really took some encouragement from others to really let people get to know me on Twitter," said Waters, who now freely taps out personal and business-related Twitter messages, or "tweets," on her feed. "Those are the type of feeds I continue to follow. As Ryan would tell me, You've got to give some Twitter love to get some back."

Canoga Park-based Eggology Inc. promotes its packaged egg-white products on Facebook, Blogger and a more traditional Web site. But President Brad Halpern personally updates his company's Twitter feed rather than delegating to an employee.

Halpern, whose tweets can range from links to new recipes to his opinions on food safety issues and bodybuilding, said it took him about a month to get the hang of effectively conveying information within Twitter's 140-character message limit.

While Pepaj, Waters and Halpern have gained global audiences via Twitter, other businesses have found it useful to cement relationships with local regulars.

At least two mobile food services, Green Truck To Go and Kogi Korean BBQ, use Twitter to let customers know when and where their food trucks will be in their neighborhoods.

In less than a year, Kogi has developed a cult following among tech-savvy L.A. clubgoers and other night owls, and was used as a case study by Houston market research firm MarketingProfs. The study, which surveyed 200 business users, said Twitter ranks behind only blogs as the social media tool delivering the most value.

Has its limits

Green Truck, a Culver City catering company offering healthy fast food at film shoots, workplaces and special events, initially put GPS trackers on its vehicles so customers could track the trucks on its Web site, said General Manager Bobby Allen.

But the trackers often malfunctioned and it switched to Twitter feeds. Being able to inform customers exactly where a truck is parked has been a boon, but Allen admits that Twitter has its limits in expanding his customer base given that Green Truck's typical clients are older than Kogi's.

"When you see both us and Kogi at the same location, most of their customers are reading tweets on their cell phones while waiting in line; ours less so," he said. "We've considering some Twitter-only promotions just to measure how much businesses we actually get from it."

San Francisco-based Twitter last month announced it would release analytical tools to help businesses more precisely measure the service's effectiveness by the end of the year.

The venture-backed company, which turned down a $500 million bid from Facebook last year, is struggling to devise a revenue stream that won't turn off its growing user base.

So far, executives are promising to keep Twitter updates free, and ban advertising and usage charges, but most likely will charge for the add-on business tools.

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