Design and construction firms are waking up to the reality that one-way communication is losing ground to interactive websites and social media, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Though these “meeting” sites are popular, a firm should neither put all its marketing eggs in one social-media basket nor dump traditional marketing tools; rather, experts say, social media should be considered as just another arrow in a firm’s quiver.

“The question is, how do you re-engage the things you already know how to do with these new tool sets?” social media expert Chris Brogan asked some 700 attendees of Build Business, the annual national conference of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) in a keynote last week in Boston. Brogan is president of New Marketing Labs, Canton, Mass., and co-author of “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.”

Firms need to find a way to interact with and listen to their customers in all their communications, he said. For example, some AEC company websites have too much information and don’t lead to a buy, he said. Also, as mobile devices become ubiquitous, messages such as newsletters have to fit the medium. “Take someone’s BlackBerry and look at your e-mail [newsletter] there,” he suggested.

Since last year, St. Louis-based HOK has been the poster child for firms in the design and construction field using blogs and social media as business development and recruitment tools. In addition to “the big three”—LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter—plus a blog, HOK has its own channel on YouTube,

“How do you re-engage the things you already know how to do with these new tool sets?”
— Chris Brogan, president,New Marketing Labs

Others are joining the party. Barton Malow, Southfield, Mich., has recruited 25 staffers to blog and has a presence on the social media sites. The idea behind Twitter, for example, is to “generate conversations ... and connect with thought leaders,” said Dana Galvin, marketing manager. For the company, the tipping point for using social media came when someone “tweeted” on Twitter about a jobsite accident even before the ambulance arrived. The company had to scramble to issue a statement through traditional, slower outlets, said Donna Jakubowicz, Barton Malow corporate marketing director.

Sheryl Maibach, chief marketing officer for Barton Malow, said that after wrestling with legalese and pages of restrictions, the firm finally went with common sense when it developed its formal guidelines for employees using social media. “Does it pass the mother test?” she said. “That is, would you be thrilled beyond words to have your mother see it? We even put [that] in the policy.”

Many social media initiatives are guerilla operations started by someone with a passion for it. Getting upper management onboard may be a challenge. “Silence isn’t buy-in,” noted Gina R. Miller, managing partner of DMD Insight, New York City. “The way I sold it [to management] was to tell them this was not going to be a panacea but just another tool that we should have,” added Maibach.

“Despite reduced revenue, SMPS invested in its future with”
— Thomas E. Smith Jr., president, Society for Marketing Professional Services

Results at this point often are measured as much in terms of buzz and anecdotes as in numbers. “We’ve been profiled in magazines that, before, wouldn’t have given us the [time] of day,” says Allison Brooks, business development director, Winter Street Architects, Salem, Mass.

Mike Plotnick, communications manager for HOK, urged firms to get onboard with social media even if clients aren’t there yet. “Do you want to be leading them or scurrying to keep up with them?” he asked.

At the society’s business meeting, SMPS President Thomas E. Smith Jr., president of Bonterra Consulting, Pasadena, Calif., reported membership has declined to 6,000 from 7,000 during these financially hard times. He noted accomplishments in the past year despite reduced revenue. The society launched, a private online community for the exclusive use of members that allows them to connect and share resources. “It was a major investment in our future,” Smith said, “and 62 groups with common interests already have formed.”

President-elect Carolyn Ferguson, of the marketing firm WinMore, Kingwood, Texas, said the society also is working to provide “senior education opportunities” so members do not “outgrow” SMPS. The society signed an alliance agreement at the Boston event with management consultant FMI to work on developing this curriculum.