We all know that in order to use Twitter as an effective branding tool for yourself or your company, you must“engage the community” and “join the conversation.” But when you’re learning how to use a new technology platform, it’s probably not clear how exactly to go about “engaging” people.

Here’s a 5-step guide that walks you through exactly what you need to do – spending 30 minutes or less per day branding yourself on Twitter.

Tweet useful information (time spent per day: 5 minutes)

By far, the best way to engage your Twitter audience is by sharing fun, useful, or witty advice that will help them solve their problems. It’s fast to come up with these – use quotes, facts from your industry, etc. I would also take advice from my blog posts. (You do have a blog, right?) In this post alone, I could probably draw out 10 bite-sized 140 character tips about how to build a brand on Twitter. If you can write 3-5 per day (that’s giving you a minute or more per tweet), you are way ahead of the curve.

To keep the process simple, batch your tips and advice. I use TweetLater to schedule my timeless tweets, and space them out evenly throughout the day. HINT: The most active Twitter days are Monday through Wednesday and the peak Twitter times are early afternoon (noon, specifically). You could spend 25-35 minutes a week writing advice or 5 minutes a day to take advantage of this form of engagement.

Answer questions (time spent per day: 5 minutes)

I use Twitter’s search engine to find questions in my area of expertise. Let’s say I wanted to brand myself as an MBA Application Consultant. I would use the search term “GMAT ?” (that’s GMAT space question mark) to find people who are about to enter the MBA application process and are asking a question related to applications. I purposely picked the term “GMAT” because anyone tweeting about the GMAT is at the beginning of the application process, which gives me time to establish a relationship with them before they actually need what I’m selling.

When you answer the person’s question with your expertise, they will go to your profile and see that you’re an MBA Application Consultant and you are tweeting useful advice for them, and most likely follow you.

You can subscribe to any search terms you want via RSS by using “Feed for this Query” on the right sidebar. Since you only want to spend five minutes in this area, it’s really important to choose your queries wisely. The trick is to a) pick a search term that is very specific and b) include the question mark – this particular query only produces two to three items per day. Subscribe to a couple of these searches, and you’ve still got a manageable workload of questions to answer.

Share relevant links (time spent per day: 10 minutes)

The process I use is so simple I’m amazed how few people have discovered it. If you use Google Reader, the reader comes with a “blog” of items you’ve shared. To find your “blog,” click on “Shared Items” in the left sidebar. A message in your main window says “Your shared items are available publicly at this web page.” Click on the link to find the blog, and then click on “Atom Feed” on the right sidebar to get the feed for your “blog.”

Now, use Twitterfeed to automatically post this feed to your Twitter account. I set mine up to check the feed every 30 minutes and to use the Title of the Post with a link.

I have over 200 feeds in my reader, and I can go through them in less than ten minutes per day. How? I scan the titles. In the right-hand corner, you have a choice to view your feeds in “Expanded” or “List” – use the “List” format to scan titles quickly for the most relevant headlines your Twitter audience would care about. When I find something I think might be good, I read it, then hit “Share” at the bottom of the post.

The post shows up in my Twitter stream within the hour. I’ve nearly doubled my number of followers by implementing this strategy, and I receive numerous retweets every day, which gives my personal brand more exposure and reach.

Find people (time spent per day: 5 minutes)

If you are selling a product or service and trying to find your target audience or industry peers, look no further than Twellow and Twubble. Twellow is a directory that groups Twitter users into categories based on their profiles and what they tweet. Use it to find thought leaders in your area of expertise. Twubble is an algorithm that makes suggestions for who you should follow based on who you’re already following.

If you set a goal to follow more people – say 10 people a day – you can easily accomplish it by spending five minutes a day on either of these sites.

Respond to people (time spent per day: 5 minutes)

I probably don’t have to explain why it is essential to respond to the people who are reaching out to you. The best way I’ve found to quickly respond to people on Twitter is using TweetDeck. It’s easy to set up and I get notified almost instantly when someone writes any tweet that has @monicaobrien in it. For those who don’t want the constant notifications, you can configure the client easily in the settings.

I respond to just about everything. People who retweet my posts, people who ask me questions, or people who comment on one of my tweets. By spending five minutes a day interacting with your already engaged audience, you can maintain your current following and grow your brand quickly through word of mouth.