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Social Media Can Help Small Firms Reap Big Benefits

Small architecture firms are using social media channels to boost the awareness and influence of their practices, all for free

By Sara Fernández Cendón

 When the co-owner of an architecture firm of five spends 25 percent of his valuable and scarce time doing something, you might guess that activity--whatever it is--is absolutely integral for business success. In the case of Andrew van Leeuwen, partner at Seattle-based architecture firm BUILD, that something is blogging.

And the results speak for themselves, as the firm estimates about half of its business can be traced back to the BUILD blog. Van Leeuwen says his firm made the strategic decision to forgo other pursuits (like participating in competitions) in favor of blogging.

Jane Frederick, AIA, a member of the AIA’s Small Firm Round Table, says social media marketing doesn’t have to take the place of your traditional marketing methods—Rotary Club or chamber of commerce meetings, trade shows, and award competitions, for example—but can expand your reach very cost effectively.

Frederick, principal of Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort, S.C., who delivered the presentation “Social Media for Architects” at this year’s AIA National Convention in May, believes identifying measurable objectives for social media is critical. “If you are just on Facebook and Twitter because everyone else is, you might have some interesting conversations while you waste a lot of time,” she said in her presentation.

Sybil Walker Barnes, the AIA’s social media director, agrees that social media should be considered a tool within a larger marketing plan. She advises small firms to consider how much time they can invest in creating a social media strategy and then choose a channel that feels comfortable, because using social media requires authenticity and significant personal involvement.

What it doesn’t require is a lot of money—and that’s where social media offers small firms especially exceptional value. Unlike traditional paid advertising and marketing, the most common social media outlets are free to use and offer the potential to immediately reach great numbers of people. Low barriers to entry mean that, with social media, small firms can reach for the influence and awareness that large firms dedicate thousands of dollars in marketing budgets to acquire.

How to do it

Social media involve creating online content that is interactive. Blogging is among the most time-consuming activities, as it requires constant and relatively substantive posts. Less time-intensive social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are suitable for more immediate, casual content. They require only setting up a profile, establishing connections with other users, and sending out brief, regular updates.

Similar to social networking sites, but more specific to the design professions, are Web sites like Architizer and Houzz. Architizer allows architects to upload their work and create a shareable archive of projects they have designed or built. In addition to the site’s 30,000 members, Architizer has a presence on other social networking sites—for example, about 350,000 people are connected to Architizer on Facebook. Similarly, Houzz allows design professionals to upload and showcase portfolios. Homeowners are able to create “ideabooks” using photos from among the portfolios and find local design professionals. YouTube, Vimeo, and other video-sharing sites allow users to post video content and receive comments from viewers.

Social media users often achieve the greatest success by combining several of the above channels. A Facebook profile can promote a recent blog post, or a blog post might include a link to a YouTube video. In the end, all social media activity should refer users back to the firm’s Website, the foundation of any online marketing efforts. 

To direct traffic to her own blog (which receives about 1,000 visits per month), Frederick comments on other blogs and is active on sites like Houzz, which accounts for 10 percent of visitors to her site. 

While social media are especially appropriate to connect architects with residential clients, Frederick (whose work is exclusively residential) says they can also be useful for small firms specializing in commercial work, not so much as a way to gain exposure, but as a way to gather intelligence by “listening” to key decision-makers and by developing a network of sources to exchange ideas. One such network is AIAchat, a monthly 90-minute Twitter chat that connects AIA members for moderated discussions on a variety of topics.

Results: Is it worth it?

The wisdom of many social media gurus comes down to three simple rules: You need to be useful. You need to be interesting. You need to listen as much as (if not more than) you talk. Following these rules creates a sense of legitimacy and builds an audience.

Van Leeuwen says it took some time to build a current daily audience of 2,000. BUILD did it by posting truly valuable information (a study on how copper weathers in different climates, for example), instead of “blabbering about [BUILD’s] latest project,” he says. The most interesting and popular architecture blogs find a way to probe the edges of practice and design in some way. “The moment we realize something is sacred,” he says, “that’s when it goes on the blog.”    

As with other forms of marketing, tracking results can guide social media strategy, but the metrics might vary depending on the firm’s objectives and priorities. In her Small Firm Roundtable presentation, Frederick recommended the free website traffic monitoring program Google Analytics. BUILD (which Frederick uses as an example of a social media–adept firm in her presentations) started a blog to share information. Based on that goal alone, the firm’s blog is already a success, but van Leeuwen says BUILD’s social media efforts are yielding results in other ways. First, the blog filters clients according to interests and sensibilities. Secondly, it is a terrific self-publishing venue, which van Leeuwen says has helped his firm gain traditional media coverage.

Architizer can lead to offline events and programs that involve small firms. “Our Architizer Design Clinic at Dwell on Design, which pairs small firms in the Los Angeles area with people who might be intimidated by the thought of hiring an architect but have a design problem, has led to promising relationships for the firms that participated,” says Ryan Quinlan, program director at Architizer.

For more specific metrics, Frederick is able to track how visitors get to her blog. Her firm specializes in architecture for hot, humid climates, and she’s starting to see that people find her Web site after searching online for terms related to her specialty.

Occasionally a social media post spreads so fast that it becomes a viral phenomenon. This happened to San Francisco–based Beausoleil Architects, which Frederick also cites as a social media–savvy exemplar. Its 28-second video of a false Victorian building façade transforming into a garage door has been viewed almost 2.7 million times on YouTube. Christine Boles, one of the firm’s principals, doesn’t quite understand the mass appeal of the video, but thinks the title, “Architectural Magic,” might have helped. In truth, it’s a relatively modest gambit: a historical façade preserved by a false front and some obscured engineering. But bringing even this small corner of design ingenuity to a wider social and multimedia audience has already brought more traffic to Beausoleil’s Web site. It’s quite possible that most small firms have enough “architectural magic” in their portfolio to purchase everyone’s requisite 15 seconds of Internet notoriety.

   
   
     

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Reference:

Visit the AIA’s Social Media Web site.

Trends: Social Media and the Design Profession

Read Jane Frederick’s, AIA, Small Firm Roundtable Convention Presentation: “Social Media for Architects.”

Visit the Small Firm Roundtable Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the Practice Management Knowledge Community Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the Custom Residential Architects Network Knowledge Community Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to: “Tools for Small Firms: Simple Business Practices that Reduce Risk.”

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.

 

Back to AIArchitect August 5, 2011

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