JDB Engineering vice president Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM was recently invited to present at two conferences, including the Sales & Marketing Forum, a pre-conference program of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) in Washington, DC, as well as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Conference on Architecture in Orlando, FL. The presentation content for both programs was based upon research that Scott led for the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). Last year, Scott authored a report of the findings, Sell. Do. Win Business. How A/E/C Firms are Using Staff to Win More Work, which is available for free here. https://www.smps.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Sell-Do-Win-Business-Web-Res-Report.pdf
It’s hard to avoid social media these days: LinkedIn. Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. YouTube. Flickr. WordPress. Blogger. The list of social media sites goes on and on, and now numbers in the hundreds. Many of us originally considered social media to be a “kids” activity – high school students on MySpace or college students on Facebook. But something interesting has been happening in recent years: the business world has taken notice – and most of us have, too. The initial business foray into social media was business-to-consumer, and the design community primarily has a business-to-business (B2B) focus, so we’ve been sitting on the sidelines. But that is changing – the year of 2010 has even been dubbed the year of B2B social media by several media outlets. Web 1.0 was all about static websites that were essentially online brochures. Driven by social media, Web 2.0 is about information exchange and social networking. The AEC industry has traditionally been conservative when it comes to marketing (in fact, before 1978 it was considered unethical for architects to advertise), but a growing number of design firms have ventured into social media in recent years. Organizations like the American Institute of Architects have encouraged this, offering recommendations online and hosting a monthly Tweetchat.
Social media is not a replacement for traditional marketing; it is merely another tool in the toolbox. And if you think, “my clients aren’t on Twitter” (I’ve said that many times myself), you are missing the point. Social Media is not about who you know – it is about who knows you. Several public and private owners/clients at a recent Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) event were asked if they used social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter), and they unanimously said “no.” But after further questionioning, it was revealed that some of their staff members do in fact use social media – they check out blogs to find thought leaders (and potential A/E firms) and use social media sites to check up on firms and individuals they are interviewing or working with on a project. Your social media presence networks you with people you don’t know and expands your reach. I saw a recent case study about how a Tweet promoting a blog post led to one firm becoming viewed as a national expert for a specific type of project – one which they had never actually designed! But they wrote a blog post about the concept, used a Tweet to promote the blog, and the post caught the attention of industry media and professional societies; soon the company was being featured in trade publications and leading webinars on the topic. This led to several proposals to design the unique type of project – the prospective clients found them.
So how can you effectively utilize social media without spending too much time on it? If you are not on LinkedIn, you need to be there. Potential clients and potential employees are already looking for you there. Get on LinkedIn, and be active. Find people you know and connect with them. Find people you’d like to know, and see who knows them. Join groups, follow discussions, and participate whenever there is an opportunity. Locally, a great place to start is by joining the South Central PA AEC Industry Networking Group, which has around 200 members. The group meets monthly throughout central PA – real-world connections are being made every month through social media. Create a personal account, and make sure your company has a LinkedIn page, too.
Check out Twitter. Create a handle and begin following people, companies, and organizations. Watch the conversations (in 140 characters, or less). It is okay to “lurk” without participating. Seek out other architectural firms that have active Twitter presences – or engineers or contractors. Watch an AIA Chat to see how Twitter is being used. As I’m writing this article, I’m monitoring the monthly AIA Tweetchat – this month the topic is pro bono work; last month it was BIM. Again, it is not about getting directly in front of your clients or prospects. Once you become active and post regularly, people – potential employees, teaming partners, and maybe even clients – will find you. I wrote a short blog about the 2011 construction forecast and posted it on the www.jdbe.com website. I then Tweeted the link to my personal and company Twitter accounts, mentioned it in a LinkedIn status update, and posted the link to two LinkedIn groups. Several of my Twitter followers (personal and company) Re-Tweeted (RT) the link to their followers, and within six hours a link to my short blog post had a potential audience of over 8,000 readers – probably 95% of whom I didn’t even know.
The reason that people shared the link is because I was providing free information that was of use to them. In this case, the content was an article about the design and construction outlook for 2011. The content came from McGraw-Hill, FMI, ABC, AIA, and others, and I linked to those sources as well. I essentially acted as a researcher and journalist, compiling information into a short, useful article. And this is what social media is all about – the sharing of information. Truth be told, I do follow a few people who occasionally Tweet about their breakfast, but the reality is that there is so much great content being shared by so many people.
Other ways that you can wade into the social media ocean include creating a Flickr (or Picasa) account and creating photo galleries – specific projects, architectural features, staff events, etc. Link to your Flickr gallery from your website (the link will improve your Google search ranking, too, because Google loves to see social media activity). Some architectural firms are effectively using videos, which they post on YouTube and link from or embed in their website. One such firm is OTJ Architects, in Washington, DC. Their website (http://otj.com/) was forwarded to me as a great example of a company integrating video into their online activities. As of this writing, the company has 26 videos posted on YouTube. You don’t need high tech, slick video production, either, so don’t let that be a deterrent. A lot of firms use an inexpensive Flip camera, or even the video function on digital cameras they already own. JDB Engineering has a couple of videos on YouTube and embedded in our website. They are simple slide shows created using free Windows Movie Maker software. I narrated one of the videos and used another free program, Audacity, to mix the audio. In that case I decided to pay a few dollars for the rights to license background music; however, the other video includes audio that I obtained for free from another website – all I had to do was link to the music website at the end of my video. YouTube even offers hundreds of music options for your videos. Creating these videos isn’t rocket science – I originally learned to do it because I wanted to make book trailers, then realized that the technology would work great for the company, too.
And then there is the ubiquitous Facebook. Most people in the AEC industry I know use LinkedIn for professional connections and Facebook for personal connections. AEC companies who utilize Facebook primarily do so as either a staff communications tool or an employee recruitment tool. If you are just getting into social media for your company, I suggest you skip Facebook and focus on (1) LinkedIn, (2) blogging, and (3) Twitter.
Consistency is key, but you certainly don’t have to spend an hour or two a day on social media – who has time for that? In fact, the power of Twitter is often as a research tool – trends, clients, prospects, competitors, so don’t think of it exclusively as an outreach tool. With regard to blogging, think of it as writing short newsletter articles. News to use. For B2B, it is okay to mix in staff news or project awards with informative content. Just don’t make it all about you – share information: trends, techniques, links to other sites, case studies, etc. You can easily set up free blogging accounts at WordPress and Blogger, though it is ideal to host the blog on your own site – that way traffic stays on your website and doesn’t drive traffic to another site (this also helps with search engine rankings). Most web hosting accounts these days have the option to create a blog on your site, and WordPress has emerged as a popular and even preferred option. (You can build an entirely new website on a blogging platform, too, but that is a topic for another time.)
Like most people, my time available for social media is very limited. Based upon time-saving recommendations that I read online, I downloaded Tweetdeck, one of the many free tools available to manage multiple accounts. I can open Tweetdeck and view activity on Twitter (business and personal accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, and other sites. I can monitor conversations (e.g., if “JDB Engineering” is ever mentioned), trends, clients, etc. I only look at it a couple of times a day, for only a few minutes at a time. And some days I don’t even have a chance to open it! But, I also have free applications for my smartphone, so if I’m standing in a line or sitting in a traffic jam, I can “connect” (more often just monitor) to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. Social media is becoming a tool for direct communication, too. I have two prospects (owners) that I communicate with via direct LinkedIn messages, not through e-mail. A direct message is between two people, and not viewable to your followers or connections. I have an architect friend who communicates with me via Facebook. And when a governmental client wanted to contact me recently, he did so via a Twitter direct message. You need to make yourself available where your clients want you to be. In twenty years we’ve gone from just giving out business phone numbers to adding fax numbers then e-mails then mobile phone numbers and now to adding social media handles. If at all possible, make yours consistent from platform to platform. If you want to get in touch with me via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, you can track me down at scottdbutcher. Questions? Feel free to contact me via one of the social media sites or through email, email@example.com.
http://www.twitter.com – Free micro-blogging community
http://business.twitter.com/twitter101/ – Twitter for Business guide
http://www.linkedin.com – Free business-focused social networking community
http://www.facebook.com – Free social networking community
http://www.wordpress.com – Free blogging software and hosting site
http://www.blogger.com – Free blogging software and hosting site
http://www.flickr.com/ – Free online photo sharing and management site
http://picasa.google.com/ – Free photo editing software and photo sharing site
http://www.youtube.com/ – Free video-sharing community
http://www.tweetdeck.com/ – Free social dashboard for desktop and phones
http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ – Free audio mixing software
http://www.aia.org/practicing/groups/kc/AIAB080126?dvid=&recspec=AIAB080126 – AIA article, “Ten Tips for Using Twitter to Support Your Practice”
http://www.aia.org/practicing/groups/kc/AIAB080127?dvid=&recspec=AIAB080127 – AIA article, “Are you LinkedIn? Using LinkedIn to Find Clients, Colleagues and Consultants”
If the year is winding down, it must be time to forecast the construction market for the coming year. Fortune tellers, magic 8-balls, and economic prognosticators have been busy looking into the future – and they don’t necessarily agree about what 2011 holds for the design and construction industry, much less the overall economy.
But that doesn’t stop them from trying (and publishing their predictions).
The most optimistic forecast comes from McGraw-Hill, which is predicting an 8% increase in construction starts next year, with non-residential at +4%, residential at +26%, and non-building construction at -2%. FMI also sees an overall increase next year, forecasting a more modest 5% increase in construction put-in-place. It breaks down as follows: non-residential at -1%, residential at +11%, and non-building construction at +6%. The Portland Cement Association (PCA) is less encouraging, predicting a flat growth of 0.1% in total construction. Residential construction is the only sector predicted to grow, though only at 3.8%. Non-residential buildings are forecast at -4%, on top of a 32.5% drop this year. The PCA breaks the non-building category into public utility, which they forecast at -0.8%, and public construction at -1.2%. (The latter category does include public buildings.)
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has not released their 2011 consensus construction forecast, though the most recent release (second half 2010) forecast non-residential buildings to grow at 3.1% in 2011. Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) recently released their 2011 construct forecast, which projects a flat -0.1% for nonresidential construction put in place.
What does that mean? Well, if you believe the McGraw-Hill forecast, overall construction (all categories) will exceed the 2009 numbers; however, McGraw-Hill appears alone in that assessment. Most likely, 2011 will be similar to 2010, at least for the construction industry. However, design firms – which typically see a downturn six-to-nine months before the construction industry – may benefit from the large construction spending gains that several organizations are predicting for 2012. In September 2010, the AIA’s Architectural Billing Index showed an increase in billings for the first time since January 2008. This was noted to be the “turning point” after almost three years of declines in architectural billings. However, the October 2010 index saw another decline, showing that the design industry is still not out of the recession.
So what does this mean for your core markets? Here’s an overview. Note that the forecasts are not necessarily apples-to-apples, so not all categories match-up or exist among the various forecasts. Blank boxes either indicate that the specific sector or category is not forecasted, or that the figures are included within another category. There are also other forecasts that have yet to be released. I’ve hyperlinked all the sources at the end of this post.
The McGraw-Hill forecast anticipates that the best regions for construction growth in 2011 will be the South Atlantic (+14%), South Central (+10%), and West (+8.0). The Northeast (+2.0) and Midwest (+6%) are forecast to see more modest growth.
Further reading and sources:
Consensus Construction Forecast: Recovery in Nonresidential Construction Sector Expected to Take Hold Mid-2011
FMI’s Construction Outlook – 3rd Quarter 2010 Report
Reed Construction Data – Construction Forecasts
ABC Construction Forecast Predicts “Slow Progress” in 2011