Ok I'm kidding…a bit. Of course you have to manage your expectations in terms of building your fan base online but we're often asked by businesses both large and small what steps they need to take to build their following.

That's why I was interested when I came across a great interview with Marla Erwin who was instrumental in getting Whole Foods social media program to the top of the heap in online retail with over 1.75 million followers. Here's a synopsis of how they did it enriched with our experience:

Step 1. Have an amazing brand.

Ok semi-kidding again but there's no denying that one of the factors in WholeFoods social media success is the huge fan base they've built through everything else they've done in their previous 30 years. The degree to which you already have stark raving fans of your brand is a key factor in determining if and how Social Media will work for you. Famous brands that already have 'mission' or 'cause' built right into their DNA like WholeFoods are at an advantage. Companies that have lesser-known products need to put a wider social context around their brand to succeed in social media.

Step 2. Set-Up A System

You have to look at Social Media as a fully harmonized system and not just Twitter, Facebook or You'Tube as stand-alone tactics. Pick the tools that are going to work for you – and you alone – to reach your goals. WholeFoods started by putting user-generated content on a blog. Then they added Facebook with its video and picture richness as an extension of that blog. And they use Twitter as a shorter version of that content yet again. Test & Learn, rinse & repeat until you have a system that works for you. Once your system is set-up then…

Step 3. Listen!

WholeFoods says the #1 focus of their Twitter efforts is customer service and 90% of their output is directly responding to people who have questions. You'll hear a similar answer from master marketers like Dell and Starbucks. As someone famously said Social Media isn't a megaphone, it's an ear trumpet.

Step 4. Make It Personal

WholeFoods realize that once you reach a certain size it's easy for people to start to see you as a corporate monolith and that Social Media is a god-given opportunity to let them peek behind the curtain and see that you're just a "bunch of laid-back people with pretty idealistic visions".

Step 5. Free Your Passionate Voices

They started with one account but now have over 150 including separate ones for the passionate, authoritative voices inside their organization (Cheese PHD person, wine person etc.) and one for each store to bring the brand to your hood. If you want to see more on doing this check my post "Is Your Social Media On A Mission?".

Step 6. Make It A Conversation

Actively try to get the conversation going with your tweets. "What do you think?" "What are some of your ideas?" are going questions to engage your audience. WholeFoods find it easier to get the dialogue going on Twitter then on the more passive but visually-richer Facebook but if your business has an active online dedicated forum it can work just as well for that i.e. Sermo.com for physicians.

Step 7. Tell Them Stuff They Don't Know

Be interested in interesting them. The more people know about the cool, good things you do, the more you fan the flames of your following. WholeFoods uses social to let people know about things they simply didn't realize (e.g. WholeTrade program, Product News).

There's more specific information on setting up your plan here: 6 Types of Tweets including a visual breakdown of WholeFood's tweets.

Hope this helps your cause.