"There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Mark Twain
Admittedly, I’m an information junkie. As an AEC-industry marketing strategist I regularly search the web for trends to help inform the direction we take our communication and business development efforts, with the ever-elusive goal of capturing our target clients’ attention, and ultimately their trust (and maybe some of their wallet).
Sources of information I regularly mine for new ideas come from social media. I believe in the promise of social media, but lately I have become much more skeptical, and I will explain why I think we in the AEC industry should be too.
I have been blogging on my personal website (then craigpark.com, now thevirtualcmo.com) since 1998, soon after the term "weblog" was coined by Jorn Barger in 1997. I tweet (@cepark49), post updates on Facebook and LinkedIn, and comment on others on multiple platforms, including those above as well as Architizer and YouTube. Admittedly, I’ve shied away from some outlets, like Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest, and ignored some of the more than 200 other social media networks (see Wikipedia for the current list; it changes regularly), simply from lack of time.
That’s right, over 200 social media outlets! That number is staggering until you put it in context. In 2014, the website Edudemic posted even more mind-numbing stats, listing the tsunami-like flood of information that occurs every “minute” on the Internet today. That data wave includes:
6 new Wikipedia articles published
204 million emails sent
47,000 app downloads
61,141 hours of music played on Pandora
100 new LinkedIn accounts created
20 million photos are viewed on Flickr; 3,000 photos are uploaded
320 new Twitter accounts created; 100,000 new tweets sent
277,000 Facebook logins; 6 million page views
2 million Google search queries initiated
30 hours of video uploaded to YouTube; 1.3 million videos viewed
And that’s in just one minute! Multiply any of those by the 1,440 minutes in each day, 10,080 minutes in each week, or over 524,000 minutes each year, and you get the point. There is way too much information for anyone to realistically, legitimately, or even hopefully digest.
Add to that, today the number of networked devices equals the global population (i.e., 7 billion). By 2015 that number will double! In 2015, it will take you over 5 years to view all video crossing the Internet each second!
At the same time, my inbox is regularly assaulted by marketing resource sites and experts extolling the important and even “critical to the future of your firm” virtues of social media. Even though I am a long-time social media contributor and consumer, I am very suspect of unsubstantiated stats of social media effectiveness in driving real business in the form of legitimate leads or project inquiries when they come from the same services and websites who make their money from encouraging marketer’s behaviors, but do not provide statistics - or better factual testimonials - from actual buyers of those same services.
So I have to ask: For all the tweeting of your latest win or published project, have you seen a client (or potential client) retweet? Doubtful. Is your Facebook page generating leads (or projects)? Not likely, but I’m betting you get lots of selfies of your staff having fun? Are your LinkedIn posts getting more work or just seeing your best talent recruited away?
In the beginning, websites, Facebook, Twitter, et al, may have been positioning strategies intended to build a presence, present the brand, and create a story. They may not have actually been intended to generate leads, but as an aftermath of the Great Recession, many in AEC management have come to expect that somehow projects should be their purest objective.
I conducted an informal poll of the 100+ Fellows of the Society of Marketing Professional Services on the effectiveness of their social media efforts and - for the most part - heard nothing but crickets. There were two success stories of website inquiries that generated leads that eventually led to substantive projects. But there were no “social media” successes, except as hearsay. That said, I do believe a firm’s website remains a valuable resource, as a flexible and useful brochure where clients can find (if they look) important information.
As a result, I remain skeptical. Although we clearly have a shifting demographic of buyers (and influencers of buyers) for AEC services, I’m betting that most AEC selection decisions today are still made by generations of Veterans (69+) and Baby Boomers (50-68), while the marketing staff of most firms is made up of GenXers (34-49) and GenY millennials (24-33).
And who uses social media for their “social” and B2C interactions? GenXers and GenY millennials! And who promotes the benefits of social media to the principals and management of AEC firms? GenXers and GenY millennials, of course. They are convincing and passionate, and we (i.e., management) believed that our own social connections as exemplified by those X-Y generational attitudes and approach to B2C marketing would directly translate to the B2B world. The GenZ or Mosaic generation of under 23-year olds aren’t in the equation yet, but as true digital natives will likely want to continue on the social media bandwagon.
All that said, I believe there is still relevance for a social media strategy, it’s just not a panacea.
According to a new study entitled “Digital Megatrends 2015: The Role of Technology in the New Normal Market,” by Oxford Economics, among the other corporate leadership skeptics (and you can pretty much count on most CEOs, CFOs, and principals in your firms in this cohort), the concern centers on a loss of control over messaging and difficulty measuring ROI. Those same two concerns should be top of the list for how you prioritize any of your marketing strategies in the coming year.
So, what are the right social media strategies to address this skepticism? I think there are three fundamental principles you can apply:
First, think of social media as an extension of your media relations program, not its core. Craft extensible content (i.e., common threads delivered simultaneously from your website, PR, and social platforms). Content is king, but content must be relevant to the buyer. Self-serving, aggrandizing hubris (much of what exists today as social output) does not engender trust. Information the buyer can use to make better decision does. Benchmark data, best practices, and challenge/solution/benefit stories all do.
Next, know where you are. The key to ROI is a baseline. Don’t use raw quantity. Increasing the number of contacts or inquiries is important, but more important to those who count (remember: they count dollars) is the intrinsic value. Tie a monetary opportunity benefit estimate to every lead, and then measure change over time. If the volume of dollars is increasing, that’s good. If the scale of the increase (i.e., size of the opportunity) is increasing that’s better. If you get both, that’s priceless. If nothing else about your business development efforts has changed, you can probably tie the growth to your media relations efforts (and give credit to social media when, and if, it is identified as the source of the lead).
Finally, talk to your clients. Ask them what they want to know to make better buying decisions. Like you’re your firm, every client has competitors that look (and mostly act) just like they do. So for every honest answer you get, you’re likely to be able to target content creation that will resonate with a wider audience of potential clients than just those you already know.
Our clients may not be as socially- or media-connected as our marketing teams might otherwise believe, but "Clients know what they want when making decisions, identifying valued partners and the benefits of their AEC relationships, if you ask them!" You can Tweet that in exactly 140 characters.
About the Author: Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, is a principal with national technology consultants, The Sextant Group (www.thesextantgroup.com). Park is an award-winning and nationally-recognized thought leader on strategic marketing, a past national president of SMPS, and their 2007 Weld Coxe Marketing Achievement Award recipient. He is the author of two books, The Architecture of Value: Building Your Professional Practice and The Architecture of Image: Branding Your Professional Practice. You can read his regular blog posts at thevirtualcmo.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.
For more insight on how to grow your business, check out a copy of PSMJ's complimentary A/E Business Development Study.