We joke about how many ‘social media experts’ are out there these days and that they’re multiplying like rabbits. And, to be honest, the state of social media experts is a joke. It seems like it doesn’t take much more than a Twitter account (actively followed or not) for someone to declare themselves a guru and throw it on their resume. But that kind of ‘expertness’ doesn’t get you too far. So, if you’re a small business owner who really does want to educate themselves on the topic and learn how to reach out to customers, where do you go? How does someone go about learning how to connect with and market to customers using these new social tools?
Here are a few responsible ways I think people are learning the ins and outs of social media. I’d love to hear about some of the ways you’re teaching yourself (or others).
For good or bad, blogs are one of the most common ways that business owners are learning about the field of social media. They’re reading guides, taking in insight from bloggers and learning through the personal examples shared by others. Blogs are a great source of information because there’s always an abundance of new information to take in each day and posts often spark very likely conversations. Of course, the simple fact that anyone can say anything on a blog means that you should take care to investigate someone’s credentials before you take their word at face value.
Some of the more prominent (and trustworthy) blogs on social media include
- Mashable 
- Chris Brogan 
- Brian Solis 
- Techipedia 
- Altitude Branding 
- Social Media Explorer 
Online communities give SMB owners a forum for person-to-person communication that is sometimes hard to replicate on blogs. A SMB owner can enter a forum with a question and others will jump into action to pool their knowledge and help point them in the right direction. Forums also give business owners to talk out ideas, brainstorm strategies and create real relationships that can be taken offline (or at least out of the community). As with blogs, you should always use your own sanity check on the information being shared. Sometimes well-intentioned people are just thatwell intentioned 😉
Some examples of online communities may include Third Tribe , developed by Brian Clark, Darren Rowse, Chris Brogan and Sonia Simone. This community aims to help people with ‘Internet marketing strategies that work without being obnoxious’ and often focus on social strategies. If you’re looking for a more ‘informal’ online community, tweetups, LinkedIn Groups and Facebook Groups all allow wannabe social media experts to find one another and share ideas and information. LinkedIn, especially, has a great number of active groups on social media and SMB issues.
Webinars can be another great way for small business owners to learn and network on the topic of social media. Just because you can’t afford to jet off to South By Southwest  or BlogWorld & New Media Expo , doesn’t mean you have to miss out when some the experts come together for a mind meld. Webinars like the ones offered by the Verizon Small Business Center  can help business owners master the basics, while also letting them explore newer concepts. Webinars like the series recently offered by Yelp can help you get up to speed on a specific platform that may be of interest. You can often set up Google Alerts for terms like “[keyword] + webinar” or “[area of interest] + webinar” to stay up to date on the latest ones happening, or just watch your favorite topic-relevant blogs or Twitterers for announcements.
Taking some time to attend the many real-life conferences that may be happening in your area is another excellent way for small business owners to learn. These seminars give business owners invaluable opportunities to not only learn from people who live and breathe what they teach, but to network with others in their area, as well. And, luckily, they don’t always require such lavish budgets. For example, you may remember the Hands on Small Business seminars that took place last year that aimed to help SMB owners get their hands dirty in social media and GetListed.org has recently started traveling across the country with GetListed.org Local University  to provide education to SMB owners on everything related to marketing their sites on the Web.
At the end of the day, many would argue that the best way to learn about social media is simply to get in and do it. If this is your approach, then I’d recommend jumping in to listen, not get involved. Find the leaders in your area or the social media power users that you look up to. See what they’re doing and how they’re talking and learn from their behaviors.
The key to learning about social media on the Web is to find the sources you trust and to learn from what they do. Much of social media is really about customer service and treating people better than they expect, but the more you can learn about the tools at your disposable and what they’re capable of the better. How have you learned about social media? What has or has not helped you?