Chris Brogan recently published a book Social Media 101 and in his post about it he linked back to a post he wrote over a year ago called "If I Started Today" and I thought it was an interesting topic to pick up.
I often talk to people who are facing this huge social ecosystem but don't participate in it yet - it looks complex and hard to understand and it can be. When I started experimenting with social tools, they weren't this big thing - and they were mostly used by individuals and very small businesses with a technical proclivity. Back in the 2000-2003 period, no one was using Friendster for business and MySpace was becoming the rage. Blogs and wikis were not entirely new but they definitely did not have mainstream attention. Today that has changed completely with the explosion Facebook, Twitter, Ning, and a lot of proprietary social software applications used by businesses. Blogs are THE mainstream news source in some markets.
In this environment, where do you start? Particularly if you feel that you are late to the party and don't know the rules? Here's my advice:
1) Familiarize yourself with social tools and outlets. Identify a topic you care about to guide your exploration - say shoe supply chains for example. Over on Slideshare it's amazing what you can find. On Twitter that term didn't result in much but 'shoe business' did. Over at The Community Roundtable, we put together a set of resources to help explore this social ecosystem - Getting Your Feet Wet in Social Media. Books like Chris' can definitely help in this regard.
2) Find people to watch. Find a few people that are leaders in your market or industry but then look to some of the leading bloggers and Twitterati as well. A few suggestions include Liz Stauss, Aaron Strout, Jeremiah Owyang, Francine McKenna, Adam Cohen, Laura Fitton - you'll find that they are all remarkably approachable and human and yet also do a great job of talking business. Take some time to just observe how they interact and share information - they are great models.
3) Develop a simple social search plan. What terms, concepts, people, and companies do you care about? Use a RSS reader and search tools to scan that set of terms regularly. You will get a great sense of the volume of information being shared, the most active people in your space, and which tools/channels are used most frequently.
4) Dip your toe in. I started an anonymous blog way back when... just to see what blogging was all about. If you are unsure of what 'voice' you want to have online (and yes, it is a legitimate question despite people who say that personal and work are colliding), there are plenty of ways to make your initial forays in the social space protected. Use Facebook and make sure you turn off search engine indexing and limit your security/permission settings to your friends. Make your Twitter stream private. Put a log-in on your blog. There is nothing wrong with that while you are still figuring it all out.
5) Determine how this social thing adds value for you and/or your business. Once you've done some experimenting, you'll start to get a sense of how you might use it to achieve a goal. When I was doing my first anonymous blog, the goal was to learn and experiment. When I started using a blog internally in our marketing department in 2002, it was to centralize and organize the storage of information for our team. When I started this blog and started out on Twitter it was to do research, drive awareness, and build relationships with people in my market. On our corporate blog, the goal is to drive awareness and educate with the goal of establishing our credibility. Knowing what you want to achieve will help you make the best decisions about how and how much you use social tools but admittedly when I first started out I hadn't articulated those goals as such - I am just an explorer by nature. So experiment until you identify other goals.
6. Get out there. Ultimately, you will only learn if you step out into the fray. Open up your blog or Twitter stream and join the party. You may make some mis-steps but most people are remarkably forgiving and you can only learn how to use social tools well - and what their benefits are - with a little scale. Part of the value of social tools is their serendipity - once you start talking about something that really interests you, you will be amazed at who finds you... and THAT is where you start to get some incredible A HA moments about these tools. Their ability to organically connect people in what seems like slightly mysterious ways is partly what is so remarkable.
7. Give back and promote others. This is the best way I know of to gain respect and with it influence. It doesn't matter how many people follow you - it's about the percentage of those people that follow you who are likely to share what you are doing that matters. Your followers will be more likely to do that if you do the same for them.
8. Have some fun. Don't take this all so seriously - even if you are doing it for business. The best conversation starters often have absolutely nothing to do with business. See my post "It's Not All Mindless Chatter" or Jim Storer's photo series with @redsoxgnome. If you can put a smile on someone's face, they will likely remember you - at that is the first step in building a relationship.