Sunday, August 14, 2011

Good Connections: How Social Media Are Changing The Way Architects Do Business

Remember when the Internet made its debut in the business world and faced criticism as a source of potential distraction for employees? It took awhile for the Web to be appreciated as an indispensable resource. Similarly, professional service firms have been hesitant to recognize the benefits of social media. The buzz can no longer be ignored, however, as the professional service industry, including architects, continues to hold seminars on social media marketing and practices.
The Marketing and Public Relations Committee of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter has conducted numerous panel discussions on the subject, and “people are eager to learn more about social media and how to use them,” says Tami Hausman, head of the public relations sub-committee. “Firms are also very interested in incorporating social media programs into their marketing and outreach efforts, but many need help.” 

Understandably daunting, social media can leave marketing professionals and firm leaders scratching their heads, wondering where to start. With options including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs and architecture industry specific outlets such as, where should a firm direct its efforts? Hausman, president of Hausman LLC, a public relations firm specializing in the AEC industry, advises a strategic approach. “It is important to understand what your goals are,” she says. “That will determine which tools to use, what type of content to produce, and what messages to convey.” 
Ultimately, the tools selected for a firm’s social media plan should be chosen based on their marketing potential. FXFOWLE Architects spent a year planning and researching for the launch of its blog according to Brien McDaniel, director of public relations. “We formed a small task force and spoke with a few firms with expertise in branding, communications and information technology,” he explains. McDaniel and his colleagues decided that after six months they would review their established social media plan—which included a firm blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and Architizer—to assess if additional online presence was warranted. 

Featuring more than 40 bloggers from nearly 15 offices, HOK’s blog, Life at HOK, publicizes the culture and diverse personalities of the firm. When the blog was launched in late 2008, HOK’s human resources department identified individuals in each office who were already active bloggers or could contribute a unique point of view. “Our bloggers post directly to Life at HOK with no filter,” says former communications manager Mike Plotnick. “The authenticity of the blog hinges on it not sounding like a corporate mouthpiece. It should be raw, organic and represent many perspective and writing styles.” 

Alison Rivlin, a human resource specialist for Bedoya Business Strategies, advises establishing a social media policy which addresses proprietary information, confidentiality, professional conduct, and prudent judgment when posting. Trusting your employees to engage freely in social media on the firm’s behalf, she says, results in a vested company interest and can boost employee retention.
Design firms that retain open-door policies have had a positive impact on employee initiative.  Kimberly Dowdell is an active blogger for HOK who started as an architectural technician and later transitioned to a communications role.  “My enthusiasm and commitment to the firm has increased considerably since I became involved,” she says. “It was a transformational experience that allowed me to find my voice at HOK, which eventually led to a new career path in the firm.” James Way, editor of the FXFOWLE Blog, estimates he spends 7 to 14 hours per week on blogging responsibilities.  He always prioritizes his professional tasks as marketing coordinator, however. “The blog is a forum for sharing our work,” he says. “Therefore, our work must come first.”
Embracing social media has paid off in a big way. FXFOWLE has seen increased traffic on its website, which contains a link to their blog, and a growing number of followers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Plotnick reports numerous inquiries from potential HOK employees, media, peers and competitors. Recently a client discovered a YouTube video featuring an HOK blogger and invited the firm to explore a global relationship with a major hospitality brand. “That,” says Plotnick, “is the kind of bottom line results that really turns heads.”
A version of this article written by Jacqueline Pezzillo appeared in Oculus, the quarterly publication of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter.

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