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Social Studies

Joining the social networking party is easy—but studies show that developing and executing an effective social media strategy is another story. Here’s a look at how A&D firms can better leverage their presence online.

By Robert Nieminen

Joining the social networking party is easy—but studies show that developing and executing an effective social media strategy is another story. Here’s a look at how A&D firms can better leverage their presence online.

The critically-acclaimed 2010 movie The Social Network wasn’t exactly a factual representation of the creation and massive explosion of the Facebook phenomenon, but it was entertaining and did capture at least one fact accurately: Facebook is the work of a genius.

Love it or hate it, Facebook—which now boasts more than one billion active users—has changed the social fabric of a generation and how we interact with each other.

Social networking has created a paradigm shift, not only in people’s (not-so) private lives, but in the marketplace as well. As consumers voluntarily broadcast their personal information—including everything from demographic data and personal preferences to travel and shopping patterns—companies have flocked en masse to the social networking world, trying to capitalize on this marketing gold mine. The problem, however, is that while many companies have a presence on social networking sites, they lack a successful strategy for making the best use of these tools.

survey says
According to recent research from the Harvard Business Review Analytics Services report, “The New Conversation: Taking Social Media from Talk to Action,” while 79 percent of companies surveyed are either using or planning to use social media channels, only 12 percent feel they’re using them effectively. Half of the respondents to the survey use social media only to increase brand awareness, a third use it to increase traffic to their websites, and just 11 percent are utilizing social media to generate new business.

Design firms face similar challenges and mirror those organizations surveyed in the Harvard study. In a recent survey conducted by Interiors & Sources of A&D firms in North America, while nearly 40 percent of respondents told us they employ a staff member dedicated to using social media channels to manage their firm’s presence online, more than half say they do not use social networking to market their services to clients; 70 percent report that they have not developed any new business as a result of their social media efforts.

Still, A&D firms suggested that the overall impact of their participation in social networking has been positive. Nearly 45 percent of respondents to our survey indicated that the influence social media has had on their business has been “positive” (40 percent) or “extremely positive” (4 percent), while less than 2 percent have had a negative experience using these channels. (55 percent report “no change” in business.)

Given the often sensitive nature of information shared between firms and clients, it’s not surprising that 88 percent of respondents told us that they do not communicate critical information to clients using social media, although 12 percent acknowledged doing so. Only a third of respondents (32 percent) reported promoting their published work via social media pages.

So how can design firms make the most of their presence on social networking sites and develop productive approaches for marketing their services to new and existing clients? We talked to several design firms (and solicited feedback on our Facebook page—see sidebar) to find out how designers are making the most of social media.

engaging with audiences
“We get a tremendous amount of information and inspiration from our social media channels,” says John Gilmore, social media leader and senior writer at HOK. “We are interacting much more with our clients, potential clients, business partners, people interested in working here and the media on our channels. These communications are positively influencing our client relationships and the media’s interest in our people’s point of view.”

Gilmore adds that social media channels have enabled HOK to communicate and share news with its own people around the world, who connect 24/7 via mobile devices. The firm is also using social media in a research capacity as well, according to Leigh Stringer, director of research and innovation in HOK’s New York office.

“We used Facebook to capture the widest possible range of honest opinions about how people feel about their work environments. Rather than approaching people through traditional phone or web-based surveys, we used Facebook to make direct connections in an informal, confidential way,” she explains.PageBreak

Firms like Perkins+Will are leveraging their contacts on social networking sites to enhance their conventional marketing and communications channels. “We consider social media to be just one part—albeit a very important part—of an integrated strategy around communication and business,” says Ryan Quinlan, digital content producer at Perkins+Will. “It is meant to support and enhance our other more traditional communications, and tends to appeal to an expanded audience. Social media creates more of a dialogue with our peers and clients, rather than news being one-directional.”

Quinlan notes that Perkins+Will uses a variety of social media channels—mostly Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter—in an effort to engage colleagues, peers and clients in discussions around topics important to the firm, as well as to encourage visits to their website and blog.

An important thing to keep in mind is that a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work for social media. The platforms you choose should dictate the sort of content and interaction you develop with your audience (see sidebar for more). HDR Inc., for example, uses Twitter as its main tool for disseminating news about the firm, as well as the architecture and design industry in general, according to Maggie Scott, LEED AP, communications specialist—social media. “Facebook, on the other hand, we use more for building a sense of community within HDR—sharing pictures, welcoming new hires and congratulating employees on their achievements,” she notes.

further implications
The impact that mobile technology and social networking has on work styles is something we are all currently bearing witness to, the end result of which has yet to be seen. But what’s clear is that as the exchange of information becomes more public (and virtual), it will be reflected in the design of the spaces we inhabit.

Choosing the Right Platform

There are a number of social networking sites and sharing platforms you can join, most of them for free. Here is a quick breakdown of some of the most popular sites and how they are most commonly used:

Facebook: The most popular social networking site in the world, you can create a personal profile or build a page for your business. Browse and join networks; post (or repost) photos, videos or links to content on other websites; message contacts; or simply tell the world what’s on your mind. An administrative dashboard offers access to demographic information of followers and other statistics, and advertising is available to reach your target audience.

Twitter: A simple site for posting abbreviated messages to a network of contacts, also known as “microblogging.” Great for quick messaging and branding that can spread exponentially to a mass audience by “re-tweeting.” Users frequently recommend influential brands or profiles with Follow Friday, or #FF, tags.

LinkedIn: A true networking platform designed to keep professionals in touch with their colleagues and to establish new business relationships. Discussion groups can be created to facilitate topical discussions, conversations and the general exchange of ideas. This is the cocktail party of working professionals online.

Instagram: A popular photo-sharing service that allows users to take photos from their mobile device, apply a range of distinctive filters and share with others, either through the service’s own social media tools or sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Pinterest: Essentially a digital inspiration board or scrapbook, Pinterest enables users to “pin” images found around the web into categorized collections, or boards. Users can post, comment and share content to other sites, and get real-time updates of new pins.

Flickr: An image and video hosting site that enables users to securely post and share photography. Groups and events can be organized through the site, which includes messaging and real-time update features.

YouTube: The site for sharing and viewing video content online. Individuals and businesses can set up personalized channels, and users can edit or annotate video content directly on the site. Videos hosted on YouTube can also be embedded and posted to other websites.

Google+: A project by the global search company that aims to make sharing on the web more like sharing in real life by organizing contacts into social circles. It also boasts the ability to host Hangouts—essentially group video chat sessions where users can also share YouTube clips—with up to 10 people at time.

“Maybe social media’s contribution to the new office will be to act as the new company bulletin board—or water cooler. It’s a great way to catalogue and organize inspiration,” says Scott. “But social media’s effect on the workplace will largely be determined by how companies incorporate social media into their work processes. If social media isn’t integrated into the work, it won’t be integrated into the design, either.”

Given the role that designers play in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible within interior spaces, incorporating social media into their work seems like a no-brainer. “We have more ability to share knowledge around design, value and ‘what’s coming,’” says John Cantrell, interior designer in HOK’s Atlanta office. “Right now, these sharing methods are mostly informal. As we learn to establish appropriate client networks and relationships, sharing knowledge and content in almost real-time as a curator might do, it will start to feel more natural—both as a technological mechanism for distributing the media and, more importantly, as an ongoing conversation with clients as we work together to continually evolve the design and use of their space.”

Ultimately, what social networking enables firms to do is promote their brand, and control and distribute their message to a wide audience of potential clients—some of whom may discover and interact with them through non-traditional means. “We believe the future is online; increasingly, people’s first impression of HDR is being made on the internet or through a smartphone,” says Scott. “Though social media has not won us a project yet, it contributes to a positive impression of HDR and has added value in other significant ways, including client and project research, relationship building and publishing opportunities in traditional media.”

However, the positive impression to which Scott alludes must be carefully managed. The ease with which users—either within the organization or outside it—can post has the potential to result in negative attention for your brand. Firms that either limit the number of employees who can post comments or build in other checks to ensure consistency in messaging are wise to do so. Perkins+Will has an internal filtering system in place that ensures any content posted by employees is appropriate to the brand. “It has to be managed ... because it’s not without risk,” warns Rachel Casanova, LEED AP ID+C, associate principal at Perkins+Will. “Remember, your clients can see things, as can your prospective customers, but so can the competition.”

At the end of the day, a key concept to remember is that social media is a dialogue, not a monologue. If you want to develop a dynamic presence on social networking sites, do what you would if you were sitting across from a client. Be professional. Ask questions. Engage your audience. Educate people. Inspire people. Communicate relevant information—and do it through storytelling (people love that). In other words, share what you have to offer. It’s what social media was designed for, after all.