Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann-Marie Payne and Dane Cobain from Sociabull. The most interesting part of how this interview came about is that we met within social media. They are based in England, and I am based in the United States. Ah, the power of social media!

Nick: What are the challenges of an agency pitching social media to clients?

Dane: The biggest challenge is clients that don’t actually know what they want – a lot of MDs and CEOs feel like they should be using social media because their competitors are, but don’t know why they want to do it.

This tends to continue in to our working relationship with them if we’re successful at winning the business – we can suggest some different targets, but it’s not uncommon for a client to change our priority from increasing sales to data acquisition to raising positive sentiment in the same month.

In some cases it’s fairly easy to switch from one priority to another, but we can prepare an entire pitch with the aim of increasing sales and discover that they’re only actually interested in gathering names for a mailing list. If something like that happens, most of what we’ve prepared is no longer useful, and yet they still expect us to go ahead with it despite the fact that we know it’s unlikely to help us achieve our goals and KPIs.

Another challenge that we’ve faced before is pitching work at a company who decide that their intern can do the job instead – we’ve seen people take some of the ideas from our pitches and try to carry them out themselves.

That’s often disastrous, particularly when they give the project to somebody who can’t construct a proper sentence. It’s hard to strike a balance between handing over enough to win the business and so much that they go ahead and try to do it in house.

Nick: What are some of the most successful social media tactics deployed? Any best practices for agencies?

Dane: This is quite a broad question – it depends. For gaining followers on Twitter, one of the easiest things to do is to search for the hashtag #TeamFollowBack and to follow them, or to buy a bunch of robot followers online. This is something that we’d never do, but it happens. Brands that do this are wasting their time though, as social media is useless without interaction and engagement.

Broadly speaking, the best tactic that any brand can employ is one of creating and distributing engaging and ‘likeable’ content – if you’re putting good content out there, the fans and followers will come. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight – it can take a year or longer to build a tight-knit community about your brand, but it will happen.

Best practices? Don’t sell, engage. Nobody is going to buy your client’s product because you ask them to, you have to make them WANT to buy it.

What types of reports do clients value in regards to social media?

Dane: Again, it depends upon the client, but as a standard we usually offer two reports – the first is a spreadsheet of statistics across the social networks, where they can keep an eye on key metrics like reach, fan and follower count, number of comments and @mentions, etc.

The second is an activity report, where on a weekly basis we list all of our activity across each of the social networks that we’re active on, as well as the planned activity for the following week. Some clients don’t ask for reports at all, while others ask us to go more in depth and look at sentiment analysis or activity monitoring for key rivals.

Nick: Has social media made your job easier or more difficult as a public relations agency?

Ann-Marie: Tricky one. I would say that social media as a whole, along with the search capability of Google and BBM instant messaging, has made everyone expect and in fact demand instant gratification, so whereas we used to say that results from media relations would start to flow in by month 3 of a campaign, now clients want instant gratification. Although we’ve always aimed to get some form of result in Month 1 there is even greater pressure now.

That said, with social media you can start to see results from Day 1, although I still believe that if you are growing fans and followers organically (without digital spend or FB ads), you still need to be a little patient.

Social media has enabled us to listen directly to what our audiences need and want, which enables us to test our demographics and key messages. It also enables us to engage directly with our audiences, which is invaluable. We can also be highly responsive – changing direction immediately if something isn’t working.

I have found that social media has improved our media relations. For instance, a number of my Twitter ‘friends’ are journalists who are much more receptive to an approach via social media than by phone or email. I have seen a rise in coverage as a result of social media. The use of the #journorequest on Twitter has also proved a great way of seeing what journalists need and want instantly.

So social media is a powerful ally when it comes to generating traditional ‘earned’ coverage.

Overall I love social media and as a company we embraced it as soon as we began to see its benefits – some four years ago now. Although I myself have been working in the field of what is now termed ‘traditional’ PR for over 20 years, I have become a true believer in the power and influence of social engagement, particularly when there is integrity of content. By that I mean, good quality content and conversations.

I believe that social engagement in its purist form, as a communications medium, sits naturally within PR and takes the place of what used to be called public relations – that is, direct influence of the clients’ publics. You need to know what is going on in the world, be creative and understand your audiences.

Overall I think social media has made life better, although much faster paced. However I think that is true of the world in general.

My feeling is though that sometimes it’s healthy to take a breath and a step back from time to time. Instant gratification is short lived, a bit like a sugar high. When social media is mixed with a more long term viewpoint and forward planning it gives you the healthiest campaign. I think of it in terms of a good healthy breakfast. If you start with Weetabix, with a sprinkling of sugar, you are pretty much set up for the day!

Nick: Where can readers learn more about you?

Dane: We blog weekly at www.sociabull.co.uk and release a new YouTube video every Tuesday on www.youtube.com/sociabull. We also tweet at www.twitter.com/thesociabulls and can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sociabull and Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/sociabull.

We’re also occasionally active on Google+: http://bit.ly/wzbN8d and LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/company/sociabull. And if you’re ever in the UK, you can pay us a visit and check in on Foursquare: http://4sq.com/KZaLP9

I want to thank Ann-Marie and Dane for taking the time to provide their experiences with managing social media on the agency side. Stay tuned, as we might be doing some other stuff together!