I'm always amazed when I speak with A/E/C professionals who tell me that their firm doesn't have a marketing plan. I've come to believe that true, strategic marketing planning is fairly uncommon in the A/E/C industry. In fairness, a lot of marketing plans are prepared, but they are merely a waste of paper – dust collectors, I call them – because after a lot of thought is put into these plans, they go on a shelf and don't get viewed for a year. It’s a lot like that exercise bike in my basement, that usually gets ridden only on January 2 each year!
As a professional marketer, I take some responsibility for that. I often joke that the language of architects is Archispeak, while engineers are fluent in Engineerese. But marketing has its own vernacular, too, and outside of communications, sales, and marketing staff, our terminology is viewed as jargon. So just as we ask that our technical colleagues speak in terms that us laypeople can understand, we need to reciprocate.
You've most like heard that any goal needs to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely (or some variation). That's a good framework for your marketing plan. But it also has to resonate with any staff member tasked with achieving the goals and objectives within the plan. Furthermore, you must remember that the plan is not about you. It is about your firm, your clients, and even your client's clients.
Marketing plans cannot be created in a vacuum. The worst thing you could possibly do is sit alone in your office or cubicle and pound out a marketing plan. Marketing planning is a team sport, with a number of people playing key roles. Marketing staff need to be a part of the planning process. So do sales staff – whether you have seller-doers or dedicated business developers (or both). Market champions (aka segment managers, market leaders) are critical as well, as is the executive in charge of sales and marketing. Depending upon the size of your firm, it might just be two principals working on the plan, or a rather large group that includes other principals and managers.
The most important part of any marketing plan is not the final document, but the intellectual capital that goes into creating it. Even if no formal plan is eventually published, the strategic conversations can greatly impact the success of a firm moving forward.
So what should you discuss? The components of a typical marketing plan actually make a good outline for conversation.
This is some of that marketing jargon I referenced. Think of this as a summary of what's been happening. Is the A/E/C industry in expansion or contraction in your regions? Are your primary markets in growth or decline? Why? What do the economic prognosticators believe is in store for your regions and markets? How has your firm been doing? Did you have any marketing goals – for the past year or a specific period? If so, did you meet or not meet these goals? Why was this? This is pretty much just a “lay of the land” to form the foundation for what is to come.
Lots of people talk brand, but few really understand it. A brand is not a logo or company colors. It is not a positioning statement or a slogan. A brand is in many ways a perception that others have of your firm. It is a promise of an experience that someone would get working with your firm. It is your reputation, and something that is critical to define and control. A popular definition of brand is “a singular concept that you own in the mind of the consumer,” but I really love Jay Baer’s definition: “Branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company. And vice versa.”
Within the branding umbrella, there are many components. Do you have a USP? (See how I threw in some jargon there?) Short for Unique Selling Proposition, what marketers really mean when they talk USP is differentiation. How is your firm different from the competitors in your market space? Remember, doing it cheaper, faster, or better is not a differentiator. Your clients are prospects all expect that you'll meet their schedules and budgets, and will provide a quality project. This is the baseline. But maybe you have a unique process to project delivery. Or you've really effectively integrated technology in a way that no one else has.
Value messages spring from your differentiators. How can you apply those unique elements of your company to benefit your clients or prospects?
From your brand springs your corporate identity – the items that people all too often confuse with brand: company logo, colors, typeface. Does your slogan or tagline reinforce your brand? What about your logo – does it visually reinforce your brand? Does the company color – or colors – harmonize with the branding message? And yes, even typeface is important. You can’t position yourself as a progressive firm if you are using an Old English-style font on your letterhead!
You firm’s target markets can be broken into different components.
The first is your geographic target market. Where do you provide services? Are you a small operation that only focuses on a certain city or a few counties? Or a regional firm that targets five or six states? Maybe you are a national operation, or focus on North America. Perhaps the world is your oyster, and your target market is global. Make sure this is defined and understood by everyone. But also remember that if your staff is only licensed to practice in a few states, or your company only has business or contractor licenses in a few states, it’s difficult to define your target market beyond those limitations – unless growth is part of your marketing plan. Also remember that in many states, your firm is prohibited from marketing professional services unless you’re set-up to provide those services and you have professionally-licensed staff in those states.
A subset of geographic target market is by office. If your company has multiple offices – particularly those providing the same services to the same market sectors – you should have well-defined geographic areas for each office. You certainly don’t want two offices calling on the same prospects or submitting proposals against one another. Clients sure love that, don’t they? And unfortunately, this really happens.
The next way to look at target market is by market sector. Your focus could be the educational market. But that’s pretty broad. Break it down further. Is it primary and secondary schools (K-12), or higher education? If it’s higher education, do you target public or private colleges and universities? And what types of projects or buildings? Are research laboratories or student housing primary areas of focus? Most firms target multiple, complementary market sectors, and that’s a sound approach because when one market is down, another may be up. Focus on your areas of strength – don’t try to be all things to all people.
Generalists struggle greatly. They may get enough work to exist, but it is hard to expand when you’re not known for anything. Clients have become increasingly sophisticated, and they prefer to work with firms that exhibit deep credentials in their industry or project/building type. The generalist approach works best for the small local firm, heavily active in the community, that knows everyone. There’s not a lot of opportunity to grow into other geographic markets, but there may be enough work to keep the “local generalist” busy year-after-year. But as for the rest of us, we need to specialize – all the more reason that branding is essential!
Yet another way to segment your target market is by service or product line. If your company only provides a single service, this approach is not relevant. But for firms with multiple specialty, design, or construction disciplines, it may make sense to define your markets based upon each service. I don’t think that using this approach alone is overly effective, but it does make sense when combined with the other approaches to market segmentation.
For instance, let’s say that a smaller, one-office firm offers civil engineering, architectural design, and interior design. Civil engineering is typically less transportable than other design disciplines, so the geographic target market for the firm’s civil discipline may only span a few counties. But architecture is more transportable, particularly if a firm is focused on niche markets. So the architectural discipline may be able to target select clients in their home state, and several surrounding states. When pursuing work beyond their immediate “home” territory, their strategy may be to partner with local civil engineers in the other geographic markets. Interior design is also transportable, but a lot of interiors work flows through architects. In this instance, our example firm may actually target non-competing architectural firms to provide interior design to those firms, too. This works when the example firm targets Market Sector A and B, and they provide interiors work for other architectural firms that target Market Sector C and D.
There are many ways to define target markets, but it is extremely critical that everyone in your firm engaged with marketing and business development understand and agree upon your specific markets. It avoids confusion, eliminates potential conflict, and makes go/no-go decisions a lot easier!
In the next post, we’ll continue with the marketing plan theme and discuss sales and marketing staffing as well as setting sales objectives.