Getting an Affordable Social Media Education

Let’s face it: the current state of just about everything feels to most of us like rain on a parade. Being winners, though, we’re not going to let this get us down. Instead, we’re going to find the opportunity and make the most of it, setting ourselves up for success as we move forward. Because that’s just the way we are.

Building and strengthening our professional skills is one way to do that. This is actually a perfect time to do it, too. The industry is changing, as how we take brands, products, and services to market shifts to include social media-based marketing techniques alongside traditional disciplines.

Where can you begin?

Start by interacting with peers. You can do this in several ways, and many are surprisingly easy. Further, by setting out a plan for your own development, you’ll increase the rate at which you develop the skills that separate you from the rest of the pack. Self-development, like the work you do with any other product or service, begins with objectives and the development of a personal learning strategy. After all, why would the underlying task of building your own skills and professional brand be any different from building a brand in business? The tools may not be the same, but the process is.

If you haven’t done so, push yourself into the social Web. Look at how the new social media-based marketing techniques can be used to complement your existing marketing activities.

Beginning at the local level, take advantage of meetups, camps, and workshops. Consider bar camps, an informal gathering of people for the express purpose of learning. These camps are typically single-day events with very modest fees ranging from free (which works very well in a down economy) to $10, $20, $50, or something similar. The BarCamp organization provides references for past and future camps. No camp near you or can’t find one that interests you? The Bar Camp site offers tools and guidance to find one or create your own — which is the whole point with social media: If what you need isn’t available, collaborate with others, create it, then share it. Bar Camps takes this inherently social concept and applies to learning.

Building on these informal gatherings, look around for workshops and meetups related to your industry and profession. Do a quick search on Google for “meetup social media” and you’ll find the upcoming “Social Media Expedition,” set for April 1 in Memphis, TN (cost: $20, or even better, $15 if you bring a friend!) along with Ottawa, Canada’s “Social Media Book Club,” organized by Kelly Rusk. There are hundreds more, in cities and towns that very likely include yours. Check the Meetup.com listings. Social Media Clubs are now a mainstay, along with really smart self-organizing groups like Washington, DC’s SocStardom, led by Marketing Misfit’s Mayra Ruiz. I was part of a recent SocStardom session at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland: 150 people gathered together informally for the evening and talked about social media and the issues it presents to marketers and businesses. Don’t want to head out in the cold? The Society for Word of Mouth (SWOM) is an online organization created by Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell. In addition to workshops, SWOM offers online Webinars, so you don’t even have to leave home!

Are you a member of the American Marketing Association? The AMA national office offers training programs that will get you up the learning curve fast. Local chapters are part of this, too. With walk-up fees of $30 to $50 and member pricing at perhaps half of that, the AMA offers great ways to accomplish your professional learning objectives as well as your professional networking objectives. In the past month or two, I’ve presented at local AMA events in New Orleans, Austin, and Houston, along with such industry professionals as Erica O’Gradyand Giovanni Gallucci. Next month, I’ll be in the audience to hear Rohit Bhargva at the Austin AMA’s Power Lunch Series. At the 2009 Interactive Austin in April, Connie Reece and I will be doing social media workshops. And the beat goes on.

Still not enough? Wait! There’s more! Quite seriously, the local events and professional workshops are only part of the story. On top of this layer are the national marketing and marketing technology shows: ad-tech; OMMA; SES, where I will be participating in the Online Marketing Summit hosted by ClickZ; Web 2.0 Expo, and of course Austin’s own South by Southwest music, interactive, and film festival, going on now. Add to this Innotech‘s upcoming conference in Portland and Forrester’s Marketing Forum 2009, and you’ve got enough options for serious learning to make anyone happy.

I’ll leave you with one big idea: get the most out of the national conferences by attending the local workshops and participating in the development of your own city’s Bar Camp, AMA, or Social Media Club events. Connect to and learn from the professionals around you. That way, when you’re running between power-packed sessions or networking at the functions surrounding the national events, you’ll know what you want to learn more about, and you’ll know who can connect you with the people you want to meet to help you do that.

In the end, it all comes back to having a personal and professional development strategy around the correct use of social media-based marketing that is tied to the business objectives of the firm or clients you work with. Then execute smartly. Come to think of it, it’s also a great way to spend a rainy day: Take advantage of the downturn to build your business and your own skills. When the sun comes out — and it will — you’ll be ready to run.

Meet Dave at Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus more than 150 exhibitors, networking events, parties, and training days.

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