Build Your Social Chops: How to Get Smart in 2013

I lived in Germany as a child, and often heard my parents and grandparents say “Zu früh alt und zu spät weise,” which translates as “Vee get too soon oldt und too late schmardt.” OK, so maybe that’s not exactly the translation, but you get the point, and at the rate of change that defines the challenge of social competency, the question remains: “How does one get smart, fast?” The fact is, innovation in social technology isn’t slowing, and no one is getting any younger. That only leaves one option.

So where do you go to build your skills? The days of “view source” are long gone: anyone running a social media marketing or social customer care program today earned her way to that spot by building real skills. If you’re starting out, maybe you were fortunate and attended a college that taught social media marketing: Cal State East Bay, Penn State, MIT|Sloan, St. Edwards’ and Baylor’s MBA programs in Austin, and the University of San Francisco all offer social media tracks. Or maybe you worked your way into it: beginning with an interest in using social channels for business, you’ve attended seminars and followed industry experts and thought-leaders, and over a period of years built a solid skill set. Kudos to you, because no matter how you did, it wasn’t easy.

It’s great to see the variety of educational resources and formal, industry-recognized programs that are now available. Many of these programs offer formal certification, and all offer what I think is the most critically important element of any professional skills program: collaboration with peers. Recognize that I have a bias toward case-method vs. quant-centric learning: my physics professor used to deride the “theoretical piano players and carpenters” that “knew but couldn’t do.” At the root of social is collaboration and so at the root of the strongest learning experiences I’d expect to find collaboration.

I’ve always been a fan of the conferences offered by SES and ad:tech, having presented at my first ad:tech in 2003 on the topic of gaming and advertising. It was that presentation that led me to social media marketing and ultimately to my focus now, social customer care. (Disclosure: ClickZ is affiliated with SES and I am a prior board member of ad:tech.) Take a look at the conferences, webinars, and online learning resources offered by the ClickZ Academy, including this e-Learning webinar on social media marketing. Many of these resources are free, and because they are online, you can fit the travel expenses into any budget!

If you’re looking for a structured approach to learning, take a look at the workshops from the American Marketing Association and Altimeter. (Disclosure: I developed and led social media and social business workshops for the AMA from 2005 to 2011.) The AMA workshops feature a reduced price for members, and span a range of skill levels from Social Media 101 and 201 to Advanced Social Media, led by Dana VanDen Heuvel.

Altimeter’s Jeremiah Owyang leads a two-day “Social Business Strategy Workshop for Social Strategists.” This workshop dives into the strategic considerations and planning best practices for professionals who are developing enterprise-wide social technology programs. Covering the basics – best practices in deployment, planning considerations in establishing and building social channels and brands’ outposts – this program takes the additional step of preparing participants to build an effective social program across an organization through coaching, mentoring, and training of business users. This last point is essential: as anyone who has tried to implement a collaborative program at a business level knows, the biggest battle isn’t the technology; it’s the change management and organizational dynamics that arise when business meets social in a dark alley. Whatever path to learning you take, be sure it includes “how to win internally” as well as covering the actual technology.

If you’re looking for certification, Lithium offers a certification program – led by Lithium Chief Community Officer Joe Cothrel – for community managers and others interested in social technology. (Disclosure: I am an employee of Lithium.) These workshops cover in-depth the issues that are specific to the managers and owners of branded customer care platforms – support forums, idea exchanges, and knowledge bases, for example – that are essential in creating a holistic, owned-media approach to social technology deployment and specifically customer care.

Finally, no matter which path you choose, the social web and the web itself remain an undeniably rich source of information. Check out LinkedIn and its skills groups for social media, and online articles, like this one from Forbes, that offer the newest ideas and help you connect with other professionals. As I said at the outset, collaboration is your best path, so by meeting and connecting with other social media professionals you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Start now and develop your learning program. There is so much happening, so fast, around social technology that any investment you put into your own skills is bound to pay off in 2013 and beyond. Make this your year.

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