If you’ve ever watched a relay race you’ve noticed that runners don’t stand at a dead stop when they grab the baton. They match the pace of their oncoming teammate as they take the hand-off. Just as that makes for a smooth transition, so, too, does matching the pace of the activity in social media before jumping in.

Although there are some basic rules of etiquette for social media engagement, communication norms and styles can vary widely. Before engaging in actual conversations on any of these platforms, here’s a list of things that you can do over the next couple of weeks to get started on the path to social media proficiency:

• Find relevant conversations. You’ve probably heard of people talking in social networks about the fact that they’re having lunch at the moment, or they’re at the dry cleaners. Who cares? Those are not relevant business conversations. So as not to waste our time, we need to find conversations and thought-leaders that can add value. Blogs, forums and other social networks are great sources of information, answers to problems, and the latest trends.

 Begin by reading the articles, watching the videos, looking at the presentations that are contained in the Google alerts you set-up. [If you’ve forgotten about Google alerts, refer to our post on setting a strategy for Social Media Marketing.] Next, search for and join groups and fan pages on LinkedIn and facebook that have key areas of interest for your business and industry. Search for industry thought leaders on facebook and Twitter and begin to follow them.

 Also, use search engines to find conversations and discussions within your industry. The results can provide a wealth of information. Here’s a tip: search Google for your industry. When the results are displayed, click on the “Show Options” link at the top left of the page. Another menu will be displayed, which will allow you to dig deeper into videos, forums, and other media. It’s a quick and easy way to search for relevant conversations, with the added benefit of being able to stay current with your industry.

• Monitor these conversations. Spend some time listening to what is being said in the groups identified above. What’s being said between the lines? Particularly tune into the following:

  1. WHO – Who are the influencers in your area of interest? These are the opinion staters and the opinion makers whose advice is revered by the group. These influencers usually give us great insights, but at some point might also make for good partners (more on that in the future).
  2. WHAT – If the group has prospects for your business, it can give you wonderful insights into what are buyers’ problems, possible solutions, ideas for innovations in your products or industry, and what gaps exist that you might be able to fill. You will also be cued into customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction).
  3. WHEN – How often are people posting? For example, most people post updates to LinkedIn much less frequently than they do to Facebook and Twitter.
  4. HOW – Listen for the general tone of the group. Is it friendly and cordial? Is it business-like? Is it formal or casual? What kind of language do people use? This helps us match the style of the group’s communication.

• Get and stay organized. With the overabundance of information that is available, it’s easy to see how one could get overwhelmed. Start organizing now. I already mentioned Google alerts as a way to get started listening. Bookmark valuable sites. Eventually, you will likely have a variety of blogs and other frequently changing sources that you’d like to track. At that point, you may want to set up an RSS feed from those sites, and use a Reader, such as Google Reader or Feedburner to get your updates in an easy-to-manage format. But more about that in future posts!

 If you haven’t tried this before I know what you’re thinking. This sounds complicated! It’s really not. Just take it one step at a time – and get started today!