I keep writing about “listening” and “talking” in the public spaces of the internet. You’re taking classes and learning from friends about various social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and others.

But if you are getting ready to build a web presence for your business, service, or cause, or simply want to know more about what is happening in your industry, how do you get started listening to social media and the social web if you’re in do-it-yourself, beginner’s mode? It’s pretty simple actually. And for me, it’s fun, like a treasure hunt.

I’ll use my own interest in Chicago entrepreneurship as an example.

As usual, all roads start with a Google search. When I Google the term “Chicago entrepreneurship” and “Chicago start-ups” I get all kinds of hits.

These could include:

  • Analysts
  • Bloggers
  • Celebrities
  • Consumer Watch Groups
  • Media
  • Message Boards
  • Social media postings [Twitter, YouTube, Flickr etc]
  • Trade Journals
  • Wikipedia

Some are blogs by professors and thought leaders, some are conferences, some are Twitter comments and stories. Depending on my time limitation, I’ll go as deep as I can through the Google search, looking at hits until I get an idea of the players and characters in this world in which I am interested. Often a link will be to a conference that will connect me to many other connections. I bookmark those sites and individuals who I find to be most promising sources of information and add their rss feed to Google Reader or sign up for their newsletter. I don’t get too hung up on feeling that I have everything. It’s the Internet — you will never connect with everybody first off. I’ll create a folder in my Google Reader called “Chicago entrepreneurship,” knowing that later I might segment it more closely.

I’ll also set up a Google alert on my search term so that I’ll know about any new conversations that are going on about Chicago entrepreneurs on the social web.

Then armed with a few names of folks who share my passion and whom I’d let to get to know, I’ll head over to Twitter and follow the Tweeters that turn up there. If I see that they are included on any Twitter lists, I’ll subscribe to a few of those.

Of course, I’ll also check Facebook for any pages relevant to my Google search, and monitoring those Facebook pages will also be part of my “listening” campaign.

Now I’m set up to listen to the conversation and start to understand what others are talking about so I can join in and share my ideas. I’ll set up a regular schedule for monitoring — it could take 30 minutes to an hour a day — when I check the rss feeds and the Twitter streams to see what has caught the interest of others. I’ll then chime in as my interest moves me. But don’t be surprised if once you get started, you find the conversation so interesting you spend more than an hour each day.

If you are a place-based business, searching on your type of business and your general geographic area will give you a great idea of who is doing something similar in your area. Although these folks might feel like competition to you, they are also a source of inspiration. Their reviews on Yelp and other services will tell you  what customers value from your type of product or service. If you are a start-up, you’ll have lots of information about what works and what doesn’t according to the customers.

Take extra care to monitor the reporters and blogs in your town who talk about what you do. Here in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune’s 435Digital has a blog network called Chicago Now. Chicago also has a very robust system of independent news bloggers — many of them experienced journalists. Find the place bloggers in your town by using the Google term “your city” and “bloggers.” Find out who’s reporting on your world, add their rss feed and follow them on Twitter.

The news business is reinventing itself all over the United States. Newspapers and other media outlets are setting up robust online sites and many traditional journalists are setting up their own news blogs. A great source of credible local news sites  has been compiled by the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Take a look at Michele McLellan’s list of most promising news sites and see if there are any operating in your town you should get to know.

This might sound like a lot of work and it does take effort to get started, but once you’re set up, it’s fairly simple to monitor the conversation in your area of interest. Once you’ve start listening, other ideas will spring forth. Listen to the tone and timber of the conversation and chime in when you feel comfortable.

Remember, you’re simply saying “I’d like to get to know you.” And enjoy how things grow from there.

Later on, once your website and your social network is set up, and you are beginning to hear from your customers and everyone else in your community, you’ll have to grow a whole new set of ears to listen at that level. But that’s a story for another time.