For those of us who want to spend time on our businesses, not online.

For years, clients have sought my help with enhancing their relationship building, leadership and communication skills in the physical world.  Those clients (and now a few more) are asking me to advise them on those same skills in the virtual world. 

There is no better impetus for me than my client demand, so I have taken months worth of data and culled out what I consider to be the most relevant and systematic method for those who want to leverage social media without spending all day on their computers, losing sight of their core businesses, or just plain losing their minds!

Lots of experts have weighed in on the subject, but I wanted to share my thoughts, based on personal experience as a business owner and cautious adopter of social media. 

Here are my recommendations for a “doable,” systematic entry to this medium.  Think of it as a roadmap to keep you on track and help you steer clear of Intimidating and Overwhelming.

Phase I:  Explore, Learn and Listen
First, give yourself permission to simply surf, read, review and listen for as long as it takes you to feel comfortable with the forums, mediums and (most importantly) the content you want to keep up with.

Most applications will require a profile of some sort before you can participate.  Take the time to fill in the profile as best you can, without allowing it to derail you from your mission to observe.  Think of yourself as a wildlife biologist, out in the field, observing from a safe distance.  Khakis and pith hats are optional.

Also prepare yourself for the learning curve.  Learning social media is a front-loaded proposition.  You’ll get sucked in, following trails from this blog to that one, from this comment to that link, and down the rabbit holes that lead to long-lost associates.  But this phase passes and is replaced by a much more manageable stasis.  Go along for the ride, knowing that it won’t always seem so mind-blowing.  Just keep bookmarking, reading and connecting.

Phase 2:  Assimilate and Organize
You can’t be all things to all people.  Nor can you keep up with all the content and news in all industries or niches. 

Be discerning.  Choose which experts, groups and industry niches you most want to follow.  Try to narrow down your options, so you get the maximum benefit (hearing from various sources in each subject matter, versus trying to read from all available sources about too many subjects).  Rather than diluting your knowledge base, you can deepen your understanding in key areas and protect your reputation as a well-informed, well-read expert.

Once you have narrowed down the mass amounts of data to a reasonable number, organize the incoming flow of information in a systematic way that lets you makes sense of it and keep track.

There are dozens –- possibly hundreds -– of applications at your fingertips to help you do this.  Personally, I like Netvibes, but there are plenty of other popular choices, including TweetDeck and SeesmicNetvibes allows me to create my own social media “dashboard” -– an at-a-glance page that not only gives me a one-stop place for all my social media applications (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter), but also a central location for the blogs I follow, all organized by category or author.

Phase 3:  Engage as a Guest/Member
Without too much concern for perfection or quantity, start responding to interesting posts, questions and requests.  Get your feet wet by recommending good reads, sharing a link to an interesting article, or a slide show you saw on Slideshare.  As your confidence grows, engage more deeply, by responding to blog posts or group questions with your own thoughts and knowledge in a given subject area.  Here is your chance to showcase what you know on the topic and build relationships (so that’s why they call it social!) with those who share your passion, expertise or concerns. 

Phase 4:  Engage as an Author/Host
With plenty of conversations and more impetus for meaty conversations, you are now ready to author your own blog, post your own question, or host your own group.  Develop a strategy for things that might be of interest to those in your industry, your clients, colleagues and potential leads. 

Start by asking yourself: What is newsworthy?  Are there new industry trends?  Do you find yourself addressing the same questions over and over again?  These are all great openings for blog entries and online discussions.

Phase 5:  Give Back
It’s no secret: the most effective networking arises from an honest desire to help others.  We’re all human, and few of us are inclined to do much for someone who comes at us with outstretched hands.  We remember that new contact who went out of her way to help us out.  Be that person –- online.

Be generous.  Look out for others.  Share information, your expertise, your connections, your tips.  Answer questions.  Offer to connect people, endorse colleagues or products, websites, blogs, products and services.  You’ll make a mark, and people will find ways to “pay it forward.”  Your online network could prove invaluable, not only as a new marketing and PR tool, but also as a safety net in tough situations.

Keep at It
Like any worthwhile investment, social media requires some time and thoughtful effort.  But it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming proposition.  Take it from me –- a cautious adopter -– if you move slowly and follow your roadmap, you’ll soon reap the rewards.

Continue to reach out, speak up and help others –- just as you’ve always done in person.