Construction industry firms and individuals who use social networking face confusion both about how to use the tools and how to measure success, according to research rolled out last month at the Society for Marketing Professional Services’ Build Business conference.

How Firms Use Social Networking
Source: Society for Marketing Professional Services Foundation; based on Zoomerang® social networking survey of 576 members, conducted January 2009

Funded by SMPS Foundation, the open Internet-based survey was conducted between Jan. 30 and Feb. 15, netting 371 complete and 205 partial responses from SMPS members. Some respondents clearly confused electronic social networking with going to conferences or other offline networking events, says Barbara Shuck, vice president of marketing for Emc2 Group Architects Planners, Mesa, Ariz., one of the co-authors of the white paper “Social Networking for Competitive Advantage.”

Firms that use blogs, LinkedIn (, Facebook ( and Twitter ( use them primarily for marketing individual professionals (62%), firms (50%) and, to a lesser degree, for employee recruitment (20%) and retention (7%), the study found.

The largest factor preventing AEC firms from using social media is lack of understanding of what it is and how it works, the study says. Still, understanding and use are soaring as current users spread the word and sites get more coverage by media. LinkedIn reportedly has more than 40 million users and Facebook more than 250 million. Twitter doesn’t release statistics but clearly is growing exponentially. Shuck sees social media growing among members as well. “Our study is already out of date,” she says.

One firm that embraces social networking is HOK . Despite presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Delicious and VisualCV, “I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of its potential,” says Mike Plotnick, media relations manager in St. Louis. Four corporate communications staffers manage the social media sites and engage about 30 staffers worldwide as HOK bloggers on Plotnick and his colleagues are aware they may be ahead of their time, but he says social media already has helped HOK win some business.

The tone of the conference, which drew 600 people July 16-18 in Las Vegas, was cautious but not grim. “We do hear of firms that are hiring, especially in business development,” says SMPS President-elect Thomas E. Smith Jr., president of BonTerra Consulting, Pasadena, Calif.

SMPS now has 58 chapters, including three new ones in the U.S. and its first international chapter in Ontario, Canada. It conducts seven regional conferences, as well as the annual national conference, with an eighth planned in 2010, says SMPS President Dana Birkes, vice president at The Flintco Cos., Tulsa, Okla. And, SMPS has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.