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The gym I belong to has an inspirational message posted that changes weekly. Today there was a quote from Barbara Hall from her book A Summons to New Orleans that ended:

Look. Listen. Choose. Act.

And I thought, "that's the perfect way to explain how to get started with social media."

Social media is a term that covers a lot. Blogs and podcasts certainly fall under that umbrella term. It also includes social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook or MySpace. It covers social bookmarking sites like Delicious, Digg and Reddit. Don't forget photo sharing sites like Flickr, or video sharing sites like YouTube. And my current addiction: the microblogging platform known as Twitter.

In fact, as soon as I'm done with this post I'm going to go over to my Twitter account and annouce that I've started blogging at Fast Company.

Look. There are so many social media sites and more coming every day; it's impossible for any one person or even a business to be active in all of them. As a small business owner, I know how much time it takes to runa business, manage people, bring in sales, balance the books, find good health care coverage, etc., etc. 

The first step is to look at some of the more popular social media sites out there and think about whether they would be a good fit for you, and whether your customers and prospects may be hanging out there.

Listen. Many marketers and small businesses hear about social media and think it's a get rich quick opportunity. They jump in with both feet, pushing their products on Facebook or Twitter, and wonder why no one's buying.

Social media is not about making the sale. It's about building and strengthening relationships. When you find a few social media scenes to check out, listen more and talk less. Interruption marketing doesn't work in the social media arena. By listening you can find out what people think about your company, your products, your competition and your industry.

Choose. Like I mentioned before, you can't be active at every social media site, and you will only get out of these endeavors what you put into them. Better to be active in just one or two, than a tourist in a dozen (or a hundred.) 

Although you may enjoy the "social" aspect of social media, as a business you may want to make sure you concentrate your efforts where your customers are. If it's at Facebook, start there. If it's Twitter, get tweeting. If it's MySpace, God help you. Or, ask your teenager to guide you.

Act. Once you learn the acceptable types of behavior at your social media sites of choice, get involved. Post images, videoes and links. Answer questions. Be helpful. Don't try and sell. If you provide value in your posts, or Tweets, or videos, you will attract people to you.

And that's just where you want to be.

In this blog I plan to explore social media and talk about how small businesses can use social media to understand their customers and prospects, provide service, and ultimately grow their business.

Social media now is like search engines in the late nineties: people who get it and utilize it will have a competitive advantage over their competition. 

If you have any questions about social media: the tools, guidelines, personal experience, please share them here and we'll all learn more together.