Social media and AEC marketing: How significant is it?

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The successful architect for the University of British Columbia Student Union Building, HBBH+BH, posted this video on their  special website, http://www.whatsyoursub.com, Cynthia J. Hilliers, vice-president and director of communications at Cannon Design said her practice failed to win the competition because its failure to take the lead in using Twitter to get out the vote.  Does this tell us anything about the future of social media in AEC marketing?

Undoubtedly, Social Media and its implications for AEC marketing proved to be the single most important topic at the recent Society for Marketing Professional Services Build Business conference in Boston.  More plenary and break-out sessions (I counted 10 in total) specifically focused on the topic than on any other theme and I’m sure that the issue of how media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogging are affecting the industry took up much time in the other sessions.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you will find an intriguing dichotomy.  Several of the true early adaptors in this space (myself included) are certainly reporting on some tantalizing and encouraging business results, but nowhere near the hype, and many are suggesting that the Social Media phenomena is severely overplayed, at least in the business-to-business space.  (I sense the story is different in business-to-consumer markets, especially if you are serving younger clients.)

These observations, reflected in recent blogs by Matt Handal and Mel Lester, should not underrate the social media significance.  I remember a few years ago how some leaders in the newspaper, radio and television industry expressed concern about how media convergence — the interconnection of the different media, through a web base — would radically alter their businesses.  Some engaged in expensive and painfully debt-laden “roll ups” as they tried to purchase businesses in then-competing media.  They fell flat on their faces (and lost a pile of money) when the convergence simply didn’t happen the way they predicted.

Convergence, I think, is now truly occurring but the grand plans of the established media players are faltering under the economic pressures of the new paradigm.  Advertisers in the new media space seem to be willing to pay a lot less for the “same” value; and few people are currently rushing to pay for subscriptions.  Old-style print and electronic media advertising still commands much higher rates — and in fact this is one reason why traditional publishers face wrenching decisions about how to transform their businesses to the new (and as yet incompletely defined) model.  (There are exceptions, but these are hard to find.)

These points and challenges were most apparent at the SMPS Conference at the session: “How Social and Digital Media Are Reinventing the A/E/C Editorial World.”

The conference originally invited representatives from McGraw-Hill, Hanley Wood and Reed Business Information but had to make a last minute change when Reed decided to shutter most of its print media specialized AEC publications.  (Several of the titles are re-emerging, often under the ownership of former Reed employees). SMPS conference organizers drafted Marc Kushner of Architizer.com, a web site established less than a year ago,  to fill in for the absent Reed representative.  In describing his new media success, however, he acknowledged revenue isn’t flowing in yet — and the most promising projects involve connecting the new site with one-on-one connections and events (face-to-face).  New meets old.

After the media representatives’ presentations, Cynthia J. Hilliers, vice president and Director of Communications for Cannon Design, described how her practice came in second because another architect HBBH+BH more effectively used Twitter to get out the vote in the final selection process for the new University of British Columbia Student Union Building. (I need to check this further, as various web postings show Cannon Design as in fact setting up the original design competition structure. As well, the UBC Alma Mater Society website says Cannon Design didn’t make it from the initial seven names on the short list to the three finalists.)

Of course, this success in Twittering might be rational in a student voting process and certainly most observers would agree that social media will be most relevant for AEC businesses connecting with the student and young-adult market.  But does it matter much right now for most of us in the non-residential space (we aren’t trying to sell 20-something families on new home projects) or should we just regard the Social Media as another flavor of the day.

In response, I enjoyed Matt Handal‘s observations.

I’m going to the SMPS national conference this week and my initial observation is way too much emphasis has been put on social media. There are at least seven sessions on this topic. And they will be heavily attended. But my gut tells me that will be a big waste of time for many marketers attending those sessions.

Mel (Lester) also says alludes to the idea that “doing social media right” means a big commitment of time and resources. I don’t believe that to be true. I’m writing this post while sitting on my 22-minute train ride home. While I might not be doing social media “right,” I think I’m doing it “righter” than most people/firms in our industry. And I have to tell you; I spend a very small percentage of my time on social media. And the costs…much lower than every other marketing endeavor employed by my firm or me.

Gotta go, here’s my stop!

Certainly, I think time and energy spent on in the Social Media space should be allocated rationally.  If you are not serving students/young people, you don’t need to rush, but equally you cannot ignore the potential.  Facebook and assorted spin-offs are changing the rules of the game and the rate of sign-ups for older people in the formerly “young” social media is truly astounding.  At present, the most encouraging signs of effective use of the new media involve connecting the electronic media to live events;  live social gatherings or one-on-one or small group relationships.  You can, certainly, make initial connections and enjoy soft-touch follow up relationships (and competitive monitoring) with these new tools but you won’t reach the critical next step in marketing and relationship development until you can touch base and relate offline.  That is why I don’t think the days of the live conference are nearing their end.

Meanwhile, of course, publishers like me who earn 90 or more per cent of our revenue from advertising in print media might have reason for concern.  Will the social media decimate the traditional advertising models?  And, if so, how do we replace the lost revenue.  The publishers attending the SMPS event didn’t have simple answers but suggested that event and personal touch marketing, connecting their print media to a wider picture of relationships and multi-media options, probably is the way of the future.  As it is, at present, in our own business, 90 per cent of the advertising we sell is relationship-focused and initiatives like this blog and other projects are designed to provide value to our advertisers beyond conventional response or “branding” metrics.  (Our advertisers will, on request, receive one-on-one consulting which is anything but self-serving.)

In other words, we are undoubtedly in a new era in marketing, but I don’t think the new really replaces the old principles.  Lets use social and other media to make the initial connections (and support existing relationships) but remember that the quality of our client experience and our ability to truly earn repeat and referral business will always remain the key metric of success in this business.  We can then regard social media as part of the 20 per cent “other” that we need to do to be fresh and attract new business.  And, yes, we can do this work on the train or in the quiet hours  when time would otherwise be wasted or direct connections and relationships are simply impossible.  Lets keep things in perspective.

Ironically, I learned the journalistic craft in the old UBC student union building, in Room 241K, the former home of The Ubyssey student newspaper. It is a small world.

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