Constant Contact’s Small Business Week Event in Dublin, Calif.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the social media tools available to you today.

This is especially true when you’re first getting started.

I was attending one of Constant Contact’s Small Business Week events last week, when an attendee posed the following question to our panel:

“Is there something like a school for Twitter – somewhere that I could get an education on how to use it?”

The question is something I’ve heard before at our events and during our webinars. But this time it was during an event in Dublin, Calif. – which is near Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. You know, where a lot of the social media companies – like Twitter and Facebook – are headquartered.

That’s when it occurred to me – everyone needs help with social media marketing, even small businesses in Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, they received a lot of practical advice from our panel – which included representatives from Constant Contact, PC World, Catamaran Marketing, software company Cazoomi, Piedmont Consulting, and the Danville, Calif. Area Chamber of Commerce.

So, relax. Breathe. Here are some basics to keep in mind as you get started.

Choose your tools

You should open an account on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus with your business name – this way you’ll have your name reserved – but you don’t have to start using all of them at once. Pick one or two that work for your business, your audience, and your schedule. Post a couple of times a week and start interacting with your customers. Over time – based on how engaged your followers are – you’ll know what works, and you can add more social media sites to the mix.

Constant Contact customer Ken Bailey Art has a presence on multiple sites. However, the shop’s Facebook Page is where customers interact with the artist, share photos, and ask questions. That’s where most of the social media activity takes place.

Target your audience

One of the benefits of social media marketing is that you can be different things to different people. If your Twitter followers are eager to click on links you provide, but you find there’s more discussion happening on your Facebook Page, that’s OK. That’s the case with WBUR, a customer and Boston-area NPR station. Their Twitter feed publishes links to the news of the day, and their Facebook Page is a place where they run contests, publish photos, and ask for fans’ opinions.

Listen to your customers

Make sure what you’re saying on social media is relevant to your followers. This will give your business credibility and trust. People will come back to you because you’ve shown them you’re an expert in your industry. Ask your customers what they want from you – use a poll, an online survey or Facebook Questions – and follow through. They’ll appreciate your interest in their opinion, and you’ll know what topics or resources to talk about on social media.

Size up the competition

If you’re starting out in social media, and you’re not quite sure what to do or what to say, take a look at your competitors or industry. Use a free tool like HootSuite and set up a search stream for keywords or tweets by and about competitors so you can be in the know. Connect with Facebook Pages in your industry and pay attention to their posts. By observing the conversation, you might be inspired by a topic or promotion, or you’ll quickly learn what not to do.

Give it a try

Many of the small business owners I spoke to at the California event said they can’t wait any longer – they’ve got to get started with social media marketing. If you feel like it’s time to create your business’ social media presence but you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Just take it one step at a time.

Need more pointers? Check out our Social Media Quickstarter site for the best practices and step-by-step instructions on setting up your social media profiles.