Carl Davis

As I mentioned in the previous post, I had the pleasure of attending the PSMJ Industry Summit
in Orlando two months ago.  One of the most fascinating break-out sessions I attended was “Using Knowledge Management as a Strategic Tool,” presented by Carl Davis, CEO of Array Architects, a design practice headquartered in Philadelphia. 

Carl shared with the audience how Array Architects was able to rebrand itself as a leading firm in the health care design market by focusing on knowledge sharing as a primary marketing and business development tool.  In the A/E/C industry, a lot of firms talk about blogging and using social media, often just paying lip service to their efforts.  Array Architects talks the talk and walks the walk.  At the Industry Summit, Carl stated that their company goal is to have four thought leadership posts per month, every month.  It’s a lofty goal for a 115-person firm, but they’ve enjoyed great success by diverting a lot of their business development time and effort to developing knowledge pieces including blogs and ebooks. 

I sat down with Carl to learn exactly what his firm was doing – and I found our conversation inspiring as Array Architects is really on the leading edge of education-based marketing in our industry. 

First I inquired about how and when Array got into their thought leadership marketing approach.  “It was during the recession,” Carl told me.  “We needed a differentiator, and I looked at what other firms were doing – consulting firms outside of the A/E industry.  Successful firms were trading on knowledge that solved problems for their clients.”  When he sat down with his colleagues and pitched the concept of thought leadership marketing, Carl said he “scared the bejesus out of my partners.   But they also agreed that if we were not trading on our thought leadership expertise and experience, we would be trading on low fee, which serves neither our clients nor our firm very well.  We needed a sea change in the way we take our design services to the market.  We haven’t looked back!”

Carl feels that they’ve had a lot of internal success with this approach because they are able to track the results of their efforts:  “Part of the reason we’re still going strong is that we can point to live, real-time data to support their thought leadership efforts. I can take information to the thought leader and show the interaction trail.  For instance, when we can show that an administrator of a health system opens up one of our thought leadership emails and then traversers our website, and that the interaction was initiated by their thought leadership piece, they become believers.  Before that it was a leap of faith.  The key however, is to ensure that our content has a real impact with our clients.”

But has this knowledge-based approach impacted their brand?  When I queried Carl, his response was immediate: “It’s had a pretty significant impact.  We pushed out the knowledge-based practice brand through a new website.  Our emphasis  was less about portfolio and more about people and process.  For six months prior to this new brand rollout we developed thought leadership content to support the brand.  Our investment of $360,000 for redoing the website to accommodate our knowledge brand and our digital collateral platform was well worth it.  I have to think that the new brand rollout obviously helped position Array as thought leaders, but you still must have content that solves client’s problems or addresses daily concerns they have.  Initially a lot of the digital look and feel carried a lot more weight, perhaps 70% was brand and 30% thought leadership.  But that’s now reversed.  In 2011 when we started this journey, we were still feeling the impacts of the recession, and it seemed like a considerable risk.  Fortunately we have leaders that think big picture and longer term.  There’s no doubt in my mind that our success is a combination of insightful content and a knowledge-based brand.

Creating a continual stream of meaningful content is a challenge for most A/E/C firms, but at Array Architects it has become cultural, according to Carl.  “People are continuing to contribute with very little prodding.  Staff now see that they can take a small project experience, and turn it into a blog post that resonates with clients and industry partners.  Recently we had a planner that decided to take their normal project delivery, and make it interactive. Our clients’ positive reaction to the presentation resulted in using this alternative approach as the basis for thought leadership piece about how to present raw site selection data to clients in an interactive manner to allow a more informed decision.  The piece was easy to write, and we’ve gotten a lot of traction with it.” 

Carl believes that one of the keys to success is thinking small, not grand, when it comes to topic selection: “We’re not always thinking about big ideas that take months to research and write.  While those are important, what seems to resonate are those topics that solve problems that clients deal with day-in and day-out, like door hardware.  It’s not sexy, but it causes so many problems in health care projects.  Getting staff to pull from their everyday project experience has really helped.  Our content is not necessarily coming from senior staff, but from designers with enough experience to have solved a problem that just may be of interest to our clients.”

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Array’s content comes from many places, but past experience isn’t a major driver.  “We still talk about our projects and buildings and design,” he says, “but there are very few projects that are won based upon a design that you did on a previous project.  When clients call references, they are asking about process, people, and how your firm delivered their service, not ‘what do you think of their design?’.” 

Today it has become so cultural at Array that 35-40% of the staff are participating in content development!  It has also become a major recruiting tool: “Thought leadership helps us to attract talent that might otherwise have passed Array by.” And it has been attractive to all generations, he says.  “When we probe in interviews about Array, and ask about the candidates’ perceptions of us, knowledge and thought leadership are always at the top of that discussion.  So we have to assume that clients are picking up on the same tone.”

In fact, for certain new employees it is part of the job from the very beginning: “When we hire people at the project manager level and above, one of the things we ask is that they come on their first day with a blog.  From day one they know the expectations and culture of the firm.” 

As many A/E/C firms can attest, it can be an extremely difficult task getting technical professionals to write blogs or develop thought leadership pieces.  Once again, Array is a step (or two) ahead of the industry.  They created an internal platform known as K2 (cleverly named for the belief that internal knowledge should never be more than two conversations away – knowledge to the second power). 

“We use Knowledge Architecture’s Synthesis platform,” Carl says.  “It is an ‘intranet on steroids’ where people can share information and ask questions.  If they have a problem on a project, they can pose questions to the firm.  This creates an internal knowledge management tool, with all kinds of ideas, meant to be the go-to place for sharing ideas, sharing information, and asking for information.”

“What we found is that a lot of people don’t like to expose themselves to the public – it can be risky – but they can become comfortable with the concept (thought leadership) by sharing internally.  This prepares them to become external thought leaders.” 

Array’s dedication to thought leadership also influences their hiring decisions.  Carl can point to two recent hiring decisions that were driven by the need for thought leadership support.  In both cases, they required part-time administrative assistants; however, instead of going the traditional hiring route, Array looked for recent college graduates with special skill sets – in professions where individuals are finding it hard to land jobs.  “We hired folks out of school who were finding it difficult to get a job in the profession they went to school for, and were willing to provide administrative support because it was an opportunity to get into their profession,” he says.

“One of our editors graduated with a degree in journalism.  We brought her on as an administrative assistant/editor, and now we’re getting content out much faster than before.  She takes ideas from thought leaders, interviews them, researches the topic, crafts posts, and then hands it off.  This gets us 65-to-70% there, which is the hardest part for technical staff who have project responsibilities.  After that, thought leaders find it fairly easy.”

Carl adds that Array “entered videography production in this way.  Two years ago we hired an administrative assistant/videographer.  She recently went fulltime into videography because of the value her work is creating in thought leadership marketing.  We now have a video management series once per quarter that she produces.  As we’ve grown our brand, our thought leaders have increasingly been sought out to serve on industry panel discussions, which she films as well.” 

For firms looking to move into thought leadership marketing, Carl believes that the formula is fairly simple.  He says, “What it takes, more than anything else, is commitment from leadership and a passionate champion.  Then you must provide the team the resources and support they need.”

One of the single biggest benefits of thought leadership marketing is that it has really taken the sales out of selling for Array’s staff.  “As soon as we began to have successful experiences, and could track site visits back to their business development activities, they realized that they have significant impact on our firm’s business development efforts without always having to pick up the phone! Remember how hard it used to be with getting people to maintain CRM?  It’s not anymore.  Now they (staff) come back with business cards or forward emails to our receptionist, who enters the data, and the CRM begins taking place.  They do this because they understand the importance of getting thought leadership in the hands of potential clients!”

Of course, when a firm launches a thought leadership marketing program, they are putting it out for the world to see – clients, prospective clients, and competitors.  Through Array’s extensive tracking capabilities, they know that competitors are regularly visiting their website, but that doesn’t bother Carl, who notes: “Information is getting to clients.  Sure, competitors are gaining access to that same information, but the clients want to see a continual flow of useful and insightful information, not pieces or occasional blog posts,” which is an approach that a typical design firm might take.

One of the interesting side benefits of Array’s approach is how it has generated opportunities for getting article placements in print or digital publications.  According to Carl, “We have digital publications that go on our blogs and ask to use them in their publications.  Some of the more well-known industry publications like to be the first to have content.  When we have a blog, we’ll push it out to various publications to see if they have any interest in publishing it.  I bet that we have two to three postings, per month, from various media.  We used to have one or two per year, and it was a long, drawn-out process.”

The knowledge-sharing approach has been exceptionally successful for Array, according to Carl.  “With thought leadership as your platform, you can do so much more with less resources than traditional business development.  You can only shake so many hands per month.  And what happens when your business developer retires or leaves your firm?  With thought leadership as your strategy, things only get stronger as time progresses.”

If you are interested in learning more about Array Architect’s approach, check out Carl’s KA Connects talk on “Building a Knowledge-Based Practice in the Digital Age.” 

Is your firm regularly engaging in thought leadership marketing? What approaches have you found to be the most successful?