Facebook has risen far beyond its social gossip past – it is now an absolutely critical plank for many of us, a major channel for getting our product, message or brand across. But there’s no point in bashing that message out if no-one’s listening. So one of the first things people fret about, when launching their Facebook site, is the building up of that audience. However, increasing your Facebook fan-base isn’t as simple as the old adage ‘build it and they’ll come’. You need a dash more sophistication than that.

Because it’s not just then numbers that you need – the Facebook model rewards those who focus on quality, not just quantity. It’s important that your fan-building doesn’t end up filling the rafters with static and fluff. You want fans that are engaged, active and involved, not those who simply ‘Like-and-forget’. So when designing your ramp-up strategy, think about what it takes to turn that ‘Like’ into a ‘Really Like’. And the first thing to do is to stop thinking ‘old school’ marketing – remember Facebook isn’t a broadcast media.

Instead, Facebook is better viewed as a platform for dialogue. After all that’s why people log-on to Facebook in the first place; to chat and interact, not to be passive consumers of a hard-sell foisted upon them. So you should bend efforts, for the pulling-in of fans, to the idea of your site as a conversation with between you and your customers (or readers or clients). Okay, ‘enough soap’, I hear you say – what practical steps can I take to boost my fan ranks? Well, let’s run through some strategies that have really delivered – sometimes exponentially – for websites and online companies over the last few years.

Leverage existing networks: This may seem obvious, but all Facebook pages start with one fan – you. To quickly build a critical mass, you need to leverage up on all of the networks you already have at your fingertips. And there are more than you may be aware of. Of course you will first of all want to plunder your email account for contacts. But don’t just use your business email address, reach out across private email networks too. Similarly, use your private Facebook network, but co-opt the Facebook friend’s lists of all interested parties in your organization.

Weave Facebook page into all your channels: There is a real diversity of social networks that the average organization needs to nurture, if they are to thrive in the online world. From Twitter to StumbleUpon, from Blogs to Diggs: you need to ensure that you have placed your Facebook page properly within this bigger landscape. And you need to get the plumbing in place, to join all these resources together. That means getting the right plug-ins for each of these separate networks, and pointing them right back to your Facebook site. Fortunately, this sort of snapping together is a cinch these days, as most social networking sites recognizes how important a ‘glue’ Facebook is. So you should quickly have things setup, and those ‘Likes’ streaming in from your other sites and channels.

Fans are special: One important approach that can convert potential fans into those that are firmly-signed up, is to hold out the prospect for favored treatment. After all, the basis of fan clubs the world over is to elevate the ‘committed’ fan above the hoi-polloi: to make them feel special. If you tease people with access to privileged information, free content or special offers (as a sign of appreciation for their commitment) they are much more likely to hit ‘Like’. But don’t just tease – you also need to deliver on that promised richer content, to those who turned into your Facebook fans.

Organic growth comes from the buzz: After the initial fan-base building, your Facebook page can easily succumb to a painful crawl upwards in numbers, instead of the leap upwards you were hoping for. You may get a drip of new ‘Likes’ from your existing sites and channels, but the Facebook page itself can become a dry repository of those clicks. It should be growing the audience itself, but it won’t do so without effort from you. True organic growth in numbers relies on a buzz – getting your existing fans to become, in essence, your unpaid promoters. After all, that’s why you can call them fans. But to do that, you need to both make them feel special, and to make sure your Facebook page is giving them something of value. So pay proper attention to what you are delivering through Facebook.

Layering in the value: Careful thought about what you put onto your Facebook page can make all the difference to the numbers game, and to the nurturing that organic growth. And the thing you definitely don’t want to do is to make your Facebook page an echo chamber. That’s a real fan growth killer. You shouldn’t simply be regurgitating your marketing news or blog postings. Remember: you want to start a conversation here – to get your fans talking to, and about, your and your organization.

So pull in content and ideas, topics and news from outside your narrow focus, and make sure it is content that demands a response. Try posing questions, starting debates, or asking for help, rather than just ‘telling’. Pictures and video clips are great value, because theses have been shown to have much greater engagement rates. Because of its instant appeal, such visual content is passed around much more kinetically than purely textual posts.

Finally the fans arrive: And that activity is the ultimate fuel for fan growth. A buzz of interaction strengthens the commitment of existing fans, who then bring on board their social networks into your Facebook page, so adding more fans, and building up the community. Just see you role as the ringmaster, encouraging, exhorting and provoking the community into action. After all, fans are in it for the performance – and will end up paying you back a great dividend for being part of the show.