AEC Marketing: Undeveloped Resources
The many sides of “development”
The end product in the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (AEC) industry has always been successful completion of a land development project. Many companies, rightfully, get caught up in that goal. However, as an industry, we need to ask “Are we developing our resources as fervently as we develop our land?” Resources in this regard equate to keeping our people trained in current technology, keeping our recruiters hyper-aware of potential talent, and keeping abreast of the latest technology…..but what about marketing? Are marketing departments tapping into all of their resources?
Relationships are everything in the AEC industry. An industry associate recently told me that another associate in particular—one who actually KNOWS marketing—prefers to take a client out to dinner over spending that money on advertising. That is how much more effective one-on-one relationships, and time invested individually per client, is perceived to be. The general consensus is that many more dollars should poured into events, networking, and client entertainment than into campaigns. Customer loyalty is “king.” This is not likely to change any time soon.
New clients and a new generation of managers
However, what happens when the landscape around this environment begins to change? Hinge Marketing is a highly reputable marketing and branding firm that focuses on professional services, and uses research and tested numbers to back up their strategic decisions. Their AEC specialist, Karl Feldman, drives this point home in a January 17, 2019 blog post.* He states that 75% of AEC customers will, in fact, run an online search when faced with a challenge (obviously for which they need a provider). He also points out that “As Millennials make more and more of the buying decisions, the way buyers find AEC service providers will change, too.”
It is utterly important to retain existing clients, who will benefit from that tiny little marketing concept called “remind/recall.” These are not the clients who will be searching Google for an architecture or land development engineering firm. However, those firms who are looking for managed growth and the acquisition of new clients, especially as markets rise and fall, will benefit from drawing in new customers. More and more of these customers come from younger generations as time passes. The stereotype of the white-haired 60-year-old, male, senatorial AEC executives conversing over scotch and cigars is changing. Think about it. Many 40-year-olds can say they live in one of the most intriguing eras ever, simply because they entered high school barely touching a computer, then entered a job market spending most of their time on the computer with online access! Those in this age bracket are likely to be in middle management. Where to next? They will be making the next major decisions for these companies. They are oriented towards finding data online. Know your audience.
Advocacy benefits all
With all the tools available in our technology-obsessed society, AEC firms need to take responsibility. Nowadays customers in all industries not only appreciate, but expect, a little something extra. It’s not enough to rest on laurels of yesteryear. Moreover, if a firm is claiming outstanding practical application of science in the field, yet falls short on maximizing the application of information technology, it creates a misaligned vision. It’s like donning the beautiful ball gown and failing to change the bedroom slippers. It ruins the outfit.
Another marketing expert with 15 years of experience in the AEC industry is Tim Asimos with circle S studio. His December 19, 2018 blog* reiterates this critical point. He cites client experience (CX), which means to “add value and provide them with an exceptional experience, from all phases of the relationship.” His point in addressing the topic is that someone needs to champion these efforts. In the same blog, he notes that most AEC firms are not using the marketing plans so many other industries find critical. I agree it’s time to rethink that. There are strategic plans, health and safety plans, and so on—and every one of them has specific leaders devoted to specific segments. The greatest plans fall by the wayside without a course of action, and it never hurts to have that in writing.
It’s clear that internet marketing is not being used to its greatest advantage in the AEC industry.
Not every online vehicle is going to serve as a valuable asset, and that’s perfectly acceptable. For example, Google Display Network ads might not be a worthwhile investment. They may be too passive for such a targeted audience and cast the net too far in a sea of no fish, so to speak.
Google Search Network ads, on the other hand, could have a potential payoff. This audience has at least one foot “in the sales funnel,” so to speak. Because the sales cycle can be so long in this industry’s niche markets, an initial impression can have big benefits down the road. Consider those 75% of AEC customers who run a Google search prior to engaging with a service provider. The advertiser now automatically has an audience with a need. It’s critically important that the advertiser test and refine keywords. For example, demographics—location, in particular, often plays a major role in selection of a service provider. The why is simple—local knowledge is priceless in the AEC industry. Nothing can replace local experience when it comes to permitting processes and regulatory issues. Keywords relating to locality cannot be overlooked, as geographic segmentation is a reality.
Even better might be a video ad to be shown on Google’s partner sites. Entertaining and educating an audience simultaneously is an immediate way to demonstrate knowledge, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent how visual today’s audience really is. A loved one recently wrote to me regarding an online post she had seen about the power of visuals. I actually paid more attention to her words than the post she shared. She said “I thought back to some of the images in my head. Mostly from news programs years ago. Those I remember. The words that went with them, are gone.” How true this is for so many people!
Recently, a department head at a reputable AEC firm expressed an interest in Google Ads search network ads. I can’t help but feel his department would be the perfect one to promote in this way—especially using video or animation. His team’s product involves highly detailed, stimulating visuals that not only serve to delineate a site, but entertain in their own right. Many are vibrant and rich in color—even better, they are simply a product the average human eye doesn’t “expect.” They inarguably catch attention. The call-to-action could easily drive engaged users directly to that discipline’s web page, where even more videos reside.
Marketers often play a “catch-all” role in this industry. They may write proposals. They may plan events. They may handle customer relationship management systems (CRMs) and content management systems (CMSs). They may play the role of “internal marketers” for firm communications. Through all of this, they are often pulled in a multitude of directions, while at the same time their number, proportionate to billable staff, must be kept low for budgetary reasons.
While understandable in a traditional model, perhaps it’s time to rethink this model since we are now in a digital age. There is an entire world of marketing to be done online that did not exist even less than a generation ago. Instead of waiting for full-time firm marketers to find time to develop content, firms would be wise to consider hiring content marketers, even on contractual bases. A dedicated content marketer who has unhindered access to the Marketing Director can get content approved in a timely fashion and actually do something with it. Too often, the length of time it takes for content to be reviewed by upper management decreases its value. While upper management needs to review content to be sure it is on-brand and also carries brand equity, if the process takes too long, the ship will have sailed by the time it can be distributed. Time is of the essence.
AECOM is a very large engineering company that showcases innovation in content marketing.
Upon entering their website (aecom.com), the user is invited to learn more about infrastructure. This is a hot topic in the industry right now, as many major cities’ infrastructure is crumbling and rebuilding is not keeping up with the demand. Therefore, splashing this across the website landing page reaches a large and relevant audience simultaneously. This is not a small market sector and its development often touches surrounding markets. (For example, a new bridge connecting two formerly isolated municipalities across a 200-foot channel could greatly influence the traffic pouring into a hospital on one side of the channel. Suddenly, this now involves the healthcare market.)
Smarter still is the human connection they foster when they invite us to learn about infrastructure as it relates to all types of urbanites—10,000 of them! AECOM wants us to click to hear their stories. They are offering us that added value whichblogger Tim Asimos referenced.
When I click through to the infrastructure campaign***, I’m offered a rotating globe from which I can select a city of interest and view a local report. (Remember what I said about the importance of geographic segmentation? It’s back.) I’m also offered a bright, clear, easy-to-interpret infographic—not to mention there is an animated infographic for each city report. If I want to download the report, guess what? I have to fill out a form and I can also opt-in to receive future communications about relevant content. (Meanwhile, they are tracking their analytics through utm links, which I can see in the URL address—added value for them!)
While designers play an enormous role in these communications, AEC firms need content gurus that can dedicate the bulk of their time to these initiatives—that’s the bottom line.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Another piece of the puzzle which needs be addressed is the state of a CRM database. The database is only as good as, well, its data. Unfortunately, there are firms that have developed systems with extremely scattered data. If a technical employee makes a contact and transfers that information to the system, that person is not necessarily focused on the quality or thoroughness of the data—the employee may be in a rush to simply get the information uploaded to avoid losing the contact. In other words, the goal of that technical person might not align with the goals of the marketing team that wants to use that data.
Let’s say that I’m on a marketing team that has wisened to the benefits of online marketing. Not only do we have a content marketer responsible for blogging daily, but we’ve developed a campaign in which that content rotates. Understanding that clients (and people in general) love to feel special, we send a client an email communication containing an invitation to view about one in every ten blogs based on their specific location and market. Each client can look forward to relevant content once every two weeks, and our company stays relevant simultaneously.
Good idea? Not so fast. The only way this can be implemented in a large firm is by having detailed, and accurate, client and partner data. The firm would do well to implement a standardized system of data input, with built-in “roadblocks” that force the individual to track down the detailed information, before it can be saved, if any pieces are missing. This may be aggravating at the start, but it is a critical initiative for the company over time. Because it behooves the employee to keep the contact, it is motivation to put up with the aggravation and obtain the additional required information.
There is much more to be done in the AEC industry regarding online audience interactivity. AECOM’s example illustrates this beautifully. This can be tied to content marketing regarding the industry-at-large, or it can tie in aspects of the firm’s specific business offerings. Two-for-one marketing, one might say.
Well, AEC firms love to showcase their portfolios. They “wear” their projects like a badge of honor.
So why not integrate those projects into communication about the marketplace at large?
This could begin with email marketing inviting the recipient to participate in a game to keep abreast of featured industry projects. When the recipient clicks a link, a webpage appears hosting what appears to be a card game. Only thing is, each card is not an identical match to its counterpart. There is a project clue or descriptive snippet on one card that “matches” with a picture of the project on the other card. The user has to continue flipping cards over until they match them correctly.
This is interactive enough to captivate for a short while, and during the process, the user is collecting more and more information about the depth and breadth of the firm’s projects.
If the firm were large and the budget allowed, the team could take this one step further. Marketers could consider creating a variation of this game for each market sector served (for example, healthcare, higher education, residential, oil and gas, infrastructure, federal, renewable energy, and so on.) Here would be another perfect place to implement those customized emails to select recipients. Each could be invited to view a relevant matching game based on market.
People make businesses tick
AEC firms are a B2B industry. However, people are people, whether in B2B or B2C industries. A business is only as great as the sum of its people and their capabilities. When other businesses buy its services, they are buying the skills of its employees. Moreover, when B2B firms market to one another, they are marketing to individuals within that firm. The human component cannot be ignored.
We have entered a digital age that gives us ways to foster these relationships more than ever before. A phone call or a shared football game is always going to be a way to foster connections, but we have so much more at our disposal. Our audience is constantly connected in ways we never dreamed imaginable 20 years ago. It’s time for AEC firms to start developing their resources and tapping into that potential.
“7 AEC Marketing Trends to Watch for in 2019. #2 Might Come as a Surprise.”
Title: “17 Marketing Resolutions A/E/C Firms Should Make in 2019”
AECOM’s landing page for infrastructure campaign