In January I interviewed the Three SoMegos – Holly Bolton, Dana Galvin-Lancour, and Adam Kilbourne – about recent developments in social media. They shared some high-level insight about the state of social media in the A/E/C industry. In this week’s post I’m sharing some of the conversation from an excellent, recent panel discussion at the SMPS Maryland Chapter in Baltimore. 
The program, Leveraging Social Media to Grow Your Firm, was moderated by Ida Cheinman, principal and creative director with Substance151. With Ida were five panelists who represented a cross-section of A/E/C firms in terms of size, reach, and services offered. They included:
Kathryn (Katie) Garrett, director of communications for David M. Schwarz Architects. The firm has one office in Washington, DC, and employs 35 people, including two marketers. They launched into social media a few years ago with the attitude of, “Do now, ask for forgiveness later!” Initially they engaged with Twitter and YouTube, later developing a Facebook platform. Today their focus is Twitter, a company LinkedIn page, and a blog, although they still maintain Facebook and YouTube accounts. They’ve also toyed with Instagram, but only for an annual social event
Susan Merrigan, FSMPS, CPSM, marketing director for Perkins + Will. With 1600 employees and 24 offices, Perkins + Will is able to employ a “digital content producer,” who has a social media plan. His role is to push out content to all their offices. The firm has a general Twitter handle, as do all of the individual offices, and social media is very coordinated within the firm. In fact, they have best practices published on their Intranet, and they’ve also created a Twitter cheat-sheet for staff.
Andrew Cushman, vice president of Urban Engineers. Andrew has been a social media champion in his firm, which provides civil engineering from fourteen offices in ten states. They seek to raise firm recognition through social media, but are also very cognizant that a firm could damage its reputation by using social media the wrong way. They are big into videos, and have a full-time videographer on staff because they believe it puts their projects in a better light. They also use Facebook and Twitter to push out their messages.
Brooke Eaton, vice president of business development and marketing for B&R Construction Services. Before Brooke joined the firm, an officer manager reserved the company Twitter handle, but did not do anything with it. Today the firm employs 40 people, and the entire marketing/business development department team consists of one person: Brooke! While she joked that “adding social media seemed almost suicidal,” they have engaged on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, with a goal of becoming better known. It can be a struggle, because while she is not new to social media, she is new to the corporate side of the equation. Content generation is a continual challenge for B&R. 
Jessica Reid, director of marketing and business development for Mueller Associates. Now in their fiftieth year, Mueller is a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering firm with 40 employees. When Jessica joined the company in 2011, they were not using social media. She had been personally engaged on several channels, and grew LinkedIn and Facebook pages for the company. Working in conjunction with a “forward-thinking” vice president, she delved into developing a social presence for the firm, and has found that LinkedIn has been the most successful.  
The panel truly represented the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, and the participants shared a ton of great insight.  
Ida opened the program by surveying the audience about social media usage, and LinkedIn seemed to be the most prominent for business, based upon a show of hands. A lot of the audience signified that, either personally or professionally, the are currently engaged with Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ as well.
However, Ida noted that while many companies are engaged with social media, only a third of A/E/C firms have actual documented strategies in place.
Ida was curious about how the panelists prioritize their tasks: “Day-to-day, we come to work and have emails, proposals, and crisis, which take over the best of plans.” She asked everyone to talk about their time management strategies and how they plan and schedule for social media.
Katie responded that at David M. Schwarz Architects, “We maintain an editorial calendar, with our blog being the key. Everyone on staff contributes in some capacity to the blog, and then we schedule social media posts around the blog topics. We use Hootsuite to schedule Tweets. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are different tools and each requires a different approach. We like to film two or three minute snippets of staff commenting on relevant topics and create clips from public speaking engagements that we post to YouTube and then share on the other platforms. Monitoring and engagement are what you should be focusing on. Just like at a cocktail party, nobody wants to listen to you if all you talk about is yourself. We also employ social monitoring – what are we reading this week that would be of interest to our followers? That’s the weekly stuff we push out outside of the editorial calendar content.”
Susan added that Perkins + Will is very blessed to have a full-time employee. “He has a weekly plan, and meets with the corporate PR director every week. Each platform has a different tone and purpose. Facebook is more for culture and recruitment. The blog features our people and their perspectives. We make sure that we give out helpful information, not just brag about ourselves. Each office has a social media schedule – for example, one hour per week.  Each person in the firm is responsible for their own social media activities, and we have guidelines that suggest what people should do. We trust our employees, and have a culture where we can trust people to put out the right information. Perkins + Will won the first place SMPS Marketing Communications Award for our social media plan.”
Ida next asked the panelists about the different platforms, and “who does what?”
It was Brooke’s decision to engage in Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. “We have a goal to put out two things per week – one is tied to press releases, the other is to push out something that we’re reading, a conference that we went to and heard something of note. I do this at lunch or at home as I’m told on a regular basis that I’m ‘not paid to Tweet!’ I totally get that. The point of social media is to be current, which is why Twitter is so great. It’s easy for me to measure the interaction and, selfishly, I like it the most, so it is the easiest to figure out a plan. Facebook, to me, is more for personnel recruitment. A lot of the time, the heart of the matter is what your social culture is like when you peel back the curtain. Those intangibles are critical for recruitment. As for LinkedIn, a lot of people are on it personally. For B&R, it is most successful when people joining the firm bring in their larger network, so it has helped with name recognition.”
Andrew added that Urban Engineers uses Facebook “as the ‘fun’ side of the firm, for recruiting and retention – it gets more people involved because they are familiar with Facebook. LinkedIn is more for professional and business use – we try to keep it very straight, like ‘this is what we do, this is who we are.’ On Facebook, no one comes running if we don’t update every two days.”
Cross-posting information was a concern mentioned by Ida, who said, “I worry that it means I’m ending up with three posting on three platforms, all of which slightly miss the mark for the platform. What if you don’t have time to post tailored content?” She asked the panelist to speak to this.
“LinkedIn is the professional Facebook,” stated Katie. “Twitter is both a conversation and a news source. There are good times of day for each of the platforms – and they are different. We play around with it a bit ourselves. Paying attention to those times will make it easier for you as each post can be tweaked to be slightly different. We put our blog posts on all the other platforms – Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. For Twitter we schedule three or four posts about a blog over the course of a week. On Twitter it is okay to recycle content because, as a platform, it moves fast. We had previously been scheduling blog posts for 8:30 am, but tweaked it towards lunchtime and we’re seeing a better response. People get on social feeds at lunchtime, and will go in and read something. Twitter is good for the morning rush hour. Facebook and LinkedIn are one-post per piece platforms and have different best times and days to post.”
Andrew noted that Urban Engineers has 450-500 employees, and “a handful of people that understand the different platforms. They understand what we use those platforms for. We talk to them about what we do and don’t expect to happen. No one has free reign to speak on behalf of our firm.  It is extremely engaging when you reach out to younger folks – in terms of retention, they love it. We have a dozen approved Twitter folks who will err on the side of caution, asking ‘are you okay with this?’.”
Susan added that Perkins + Will “has a bunch of people really interested in social media. Our digital content producer has identified and knows who’s really active. He follows them and might re-Tweet their Tweets with the corporate account. As for tone, LinkedIn is much more professional with a ‘news’ tone. Facebook is much more casual. Recruitment is huge on all platforms – our HR people use LinkedIn almost exclusively to recruit now.”
Ida was curious about how each of the panelists’ firms schedule content and posts.
“It’s much more organic as news happens,” said Jessica. She noted that the recent AIA Baltimore design awards offer an example of this. “We follow our clients to see their angles on projects. We won three project awards, which allowed us to engage with the AIA, engage with our clients, and reemphasize relationships. We’re using Facebook and LinkedIn in the morning every day. We like to see what other firms are saying. Recently we built a relationship with a client at the University of Baltimore, and I’ve been seeing her repost my posts, or push out our content. Last year we won an ENR award, and there was a lot of activity and engagement around the project. We use both Facebook and LinkedIn similarly, and engage on a conversation level with a lot of people. “
In fact, Mueller recently gained a new client through their LinkedIn activities. Says Jessica, “We joined a museum and cultural group on LinkedIn, and watched their conversation. A director of finance/administration posted a question about mechanical engineers. We didn’t want to ‘ambulance chase,’ and sat back for a few hours, thinking and waiting. Next we reached out to someone at a client and asked them to talk to the institution directly – a few hours later we went back on LinkedIn, and Mueller had received two recommendations. The next day we reached out to the prospect, and it was not a cold call as they had already received three recommendations – one via phone and two via LinkedIn. We were successful landing the project, and are now on our third contract with them. Watch what groups are doing – use blogs and conversations and discussions as there are lots of ways to talk with clients that you normally wouldn’t have the opportunity.”
The impact of social media was the next topic, which Ida introduced by noting, “Professional services firms across all industries are using social media to create impact – branding, marketing, public relations, business development, client engagement, human resources, recruitment, and internal engagement.” She asked the panelists to talk about the impact they have witnessed.
Susan believes that the impact has been greatly felt with recruiting: “Interviewees mention social media channels.”
For Katie, analytics are key. “One principal did not want to start blogging, but is now the biggest blogger. He constantly pesters us for his hits – he looks at the statistics because he cares. We look at the readership, links, and reposts. When we post on LinkedIn, how many people are seeing and commenting on it? That’s engagement. That’s a win. We have had blogs that were republished by media – those are the really big wins. Staff retention and recruitment are big things right now – we engage all levels of staff in content production, though we have very specific people who can control and release content. Even the summer interns are involved – we interview them and create blog posts on their travel fellowships and theses. On the engagement side, are people enjoying what we are producing?  If not, we reevaluate and adjust.”
For Andrew, the ROI comes from “Making the people in your firm aware of it. Celebrate wins. We had cake for our one thousandth Twitter follower. Every time a client takes something and reposts it, you need to let staff know. When you engage clients, you can show the president and they see connections. You need to take wins and make them a big deal, even if they aren’t.”
“Did I get a like today? This month?  At all?” That’s one of the ways that Brooke looks at ROI and impact. “We’re still working to get every member of our executive team on LinkedIn and get connected. We have people who aren’t updating LinkedIn, even still listed with their past employers!”  
However, Brooke was formerly with a much larger firm, and has a different perspective. When she was with Smith Group, they looked at six things: “First, we set goals – by campaign and structure – with measurable action and monetary value. For goal-setting engagement, we looked at how many followers we had month-to-month. We looked at newsletter sign-up, clicks to our website or YouTube channel. Second, we used analytics to track goals, track reach, and track traffic. For leads, we looked at conversion rate. Third, we assigned a monetary value to each of those conversion goals. For instance, do one of 50 people who sign up for our newsletter want to reach out to us and hire us? Fourth, we measured benefits by channel. Fifth, we determined the costs to run each of those platforms, like labor costs. Sixth, we would analyze and approve – like when we were able to hire a person and didn’t have to hire a headhunter.”
Ida added that another goal could be to increase awareness, “So getting a blog republished in a business journal might be ROI.”
Jessica noted that their followers are limited – roughly 100 on each platform. Furthermore, some of their key leadership are not engaged on any social media platforms. “It’s a challenge to get things started,” she said. “We have to reiterate materials to staff internally – sending out posts to LinkedIn and Facebook, and then sending to staff with a note of ‘this is a social media post’ so they can see the messaging. One co-worker said, ‘My wife just yelled at me because I didn’t tell her about the award’ after it was posted on Facebook!  We still have print campaigns and a newsletter, which goes to 2500 people. It is sent two-to-three times a year, and costs $6000 or more for each mailing. Social media is much more effective and inexpensive.”
Susan believes that one of the keys is “talking about value with leadership. A lot of our clients are looking up senior leadership on LinkedIn before interviews. We looked at the LinkedIn pages for associates to make sure they had an appropriate and representative page. We added projects and pictures to take it away from being a summary of why someone else should hire them. A lot of clients are savvy. In three years, we’ve gained 33,000 followers on LinkedIn.”
David M. Schwarz Architects created a template and guidelines for LinkedIn, added Katie. “We took new headshots and gave suggestions to complete their LinkedIn profiles. We did this for associates and up, but sent it out to all staff.”
Gaining followers was the next topic of discussion, and Ida asked the panelists about their experience with cool, innovative strategies for growing their followers.
For Urban Engineers, their biggest tool is an electronic newsletter with 35,000 recipients, with an additional 5,000 printed copies. “We have a programmer,” Andrew said,” “who weeds through emails that come out. We’ll resend it (electronic newsletter) in five days, eight days, ten days, to those who haven’t opened it. Almost half of the recipients open the email. When someone wants off the list, we apologize and send a letter, then call and explain why we do the newsletter. Everyone gets 100 emails a day, and they don’t necessarily have time to open it when they receive it. We have a lot of people who reach out and say ‘the fact that you resend it is good – I want to read it and need the reminder’.”
Katie added that her firm has an open rate of about 30%. “Make sure your content is good! We get great feedback from clients about our newsletter. Don’t underestimate how much they want to be included in content production – it’s the same thing with video production – they are honored to participate. It is something that their marketing people can use, too, so it has value for both sides. We interviewed a photographer we’ve been working with for twenty years. Don’t feel that the burden is on you to produce all the content.” 
Susan noted that Perkins + Will uses weekly eblasts from the individual offices as well as corporate: “We want to make sure we get everyone, and not everyone is on social media. We include ‘follow us’ links at the bottom.” As for software, Perkins + Will uses Vertical Response.
David A. Schwarz Architects uses Constant Contact, while others noted that they use MailChaimp for email marketing. Hubspot, Infusion Soft, Sprout Social, and Hootsuite were also mentioned by panelists as effective tools.  
To close the session, Ida asked the panelists to share a few lessons that they’ve learned along the way.
Andrew responded, “The first thing is that social media is here and it is going to continue to grow, whether we like it or not. Five years ago we’d (marketers) be called into the boss’s office for having a Facebook, now we’re called into the boss’s office for not having it up! It is very easy to lose focus on what we are using social media for – at the end of the day, you must be able to understand what you use each platform for, and what you are looking to get out of it. Are you achieving what you want to get out of each platform? You really need to try and gain wins, and then celebrate them.”
“Stay on top of it,” added Brooke. “If you decide that you are going to do social media, then be active. Make a plan and attempt to stick with it. Readjust if you get more content coming in. My former boss used to say, ‘people fail and companies fail at social media for the same reason that New Year’s resolutions fail.’ Don’t treat your social media plan like you treat your New Year’s resolutions!”
For Katie, the key is having goals “and knowing why and what. Don’t be afraid to be creative. I’ve found that the best engagement comes from times that we are creative, stepping outside of the box. One of our most popular blog posts ever was on Valentine’s Day, and featured places that our staff love. It was fun, interesting, and showed places that people have never heard of or seen. It was easy to do – took only twenty minutes. This applies to enewsletters and social media. It’s different than your marketing plan – don’t get confused. It doesn’t need to be as formal as a marketing plan because it’s about engagement and people more than anything else. You need to get a response from them. Have guidelines, but don’t be too formal! And don’t Tweet at 11pm on Friday night. Let people have fun with it!  But, within reason. Just Google ‘Twitter fail’.”
“Turnover is a major thing with a larger firms,” cautions Susan. You need to stay on top of your social media people in each office.” She also shared a conversation that took place with her firm’s social media manager. “He said it would have been nice to have a clean state, but instead he inherited pockets of things and had to figure out how to restart it all.”
From this SMPS Maryland program it was clear that A/E/C firms of all shapes and sizes are regularly engaging in social media, with LinkedIn and Twitter being primary channels. But while these firms are engaging weekly or even daily, a lot of other firms are still merely paying lip service to social media, even though it has continually demonstrated value in generating awareness, keeping firms in front of clients and prospects, and even generating leads for companies. It’s always great to benchmark with other firms, and when it comes to social media, a lot of A/E/C companies are still finding their way. For those firms, the five panelists have developed a roadmap to get them started!
Is your firm engaged with social media?  If so, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned or pitfalls that you’ve encountered?