Architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and environmental firms need to continually stay abreast of what is happening in marketing and business development. As consumers, we are receiving a nonstop parade of marketing messages on a daily basis. Some sources report that we see 5,000 or more marketing messages daily. However, the way we are receiving these messages continues to change, based upon societal preferences and newer technologies.

We used to receive these messages in a limited number of ways: terrestrial radio commercials, television commercials, newspaper and magazine advertisements, and billboards. Newer technologies were developed and, is always the case, advertising followed. After the invention and widespread adoption of email, we soon began receiving unwanted emails promoting countless products that we didn’t want or need. As the internet grew in popularity, advertising followed. Social media came into fashion – first on college campuses, then to the general public – and soon advertisers found their way onto the social platforms. Today marketers reach us via video, podcasts, video games, cinemas, television, radio, outdoor, and pretty much everywhere else. 

Advertising is just one example of how changing technologies, as well as generational and societal preferences, have altered the way we receive marketing messaging. 

Where is AEC Marketing Headed?

But has the AEC industry really kept up with the changing marketing approaches? Or are we stuck doing things they way we’ve always done them? (Among the most dangerous words in business, by the way.) 

As consumers, we are being targeted through increasingly personalized and sophisticated marketing approaches, yet far too many AEC firms are still using the same marketing techniques they used thirty years ago. Does this make sense to you?

If we had a crystal ball, perhaps we could see where marketing is headed, and align our approaches based upon the insight. As it is, it seems we’re stuck asking the Magic 8-Ball for guidance, with such helpful responses as “Reply hazy, try again” and “Ask again later.” (And if you had a Magic-8 Ball as a kid, you know exactly what I’m referring to!) 

However, the Society for Marketing Professional Services has attempted to pull out their own version of a crystal ball to gaze into the future of AEC marketing. By surveying more than 330 members, they’ve pulled together a forecast for how marketing will evolve over the next three years. The research is encapsulated in their new report, Marketing 2022: A Survey Exploring Current and Future A/E/C Marketing Practices, is available for free (registration required), and can be downloaded here.

To be transparent, I should mention that I led the research and authored the report!

The high-level intent of the report was to look into current, popular business-to-consumer marketing (B2C) approaches to determine which ones will become common in the AEC industry. Our industry tends to be slow to react to new approaches and techniques. However, at the lightning-fast way things are changing, it is critical that AEC marketers stay abreast of these newer approaches and technologies, and incorporate at least some of them into their marketing mix.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” It was popularized by former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, and is sometimes attributed to General George S. Patton (or even American patriot Thomas Paine). AEC marketers are often followers, taking their cues from B2C marketers. However, I think “get out of the way” could be replaced, and the idiom should be “Lead, follow, or go out of business.”

SMPS Marketing 2022

Things are changing rapidly, and as AEC marketers, we need to keep up – and our firms need to get over “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and let their marketing and business development professionals embrace newer approaches to evolve their marketing programs.

For instance, education-based marketing is already becoming commonplace, but it is quite literally the future of AEC marketing. Participants in the SMPS research indicated that by 2022, more than 85% of them will devote at least half of their marketing programs to providing education. You can brag about your staff and your latest project accomplishments all you want, but no one is listening. Yes, you still need the “boilerplate” to be available when requested, and to respond to certain RFP questions (but it needs customized to each audience). However, the very nature of professional services firms like architecture, engineering, and construction management require that firms demonstrate their intellectual capabilities – these are knowledge-based companies. Self-promoting hyperbole doesn’t meet this threshold.

Thought leadership does.

This is why 80% of SMPS research participants signified that they will be employing thought leadership marketing within the next three years.

Furthermore, these respondents also believe that thought leadership marketing will be the third most important marketing and business development approach within the next three years. 

Marketing Evolution

So what will be the most effective approach – and how will it change?

Survey participants by far believe that networking is the most important current approach. Yet within the next three years, they see client experience as overtaking networking for the top spot. 

On the B2C side, customer experience has been the rage for years. Loosely defined, customer experience is a combination of the customer's journey with a firm or product, every brand touchpoint through the relationships, and the environment of the experiences.

In the Marketing 2022, I share an example of the evolution of auto dealerships, which understand that their profits come through servicing automobiles, not selling them. So they work hard to enhance the experience that begins the first time a consumer walks in their showroom (or even earlier, if they see or interact with advertisements, social media, and websites). Today, dealerships package annual car inspections and unlimited free car washes as part of the sale. The remind us when we’re due for oil changes and milestone services. They provide free food and beverage to those customers who wait during car servicing, and provide transportation to and from work or home for those that don’t. They send us birthday greetings, and even offer to buy back our car. 

And they do all of this through data. They always ask how they are doing. How was your service today? Were our staff friendly? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being highly unlikely, and 10 being highly likely, how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague? (This is known as Net Promoter Score.) 

They focus on creating a positive environment for each and every interaction – touchpoint – throughout the duration of the relationship and follow-up to see how the experience was for the customer. 

Are you doing this with your clients? Well, according to SMPS research, only 18% of firms in the AEC industry have a formalized approach to client experience. And yet marketers believe this will become the most important marketing and business development approach over the next three years. This makes a ton of sense, seeing how most of an AEC firm’s business comes from repeat clients (typically around 80% of annual volume). 

But this also shows a major disconnect. Marketers understand how critical client experience is to their firm’s future, and yet fewer than a quarter of firms are truly focused on it right now.

Many of the ways we’ve done things in the past won’t work in the future. And, interestingly, client experience is perhaps far more a reflection of operations than marketing, so it is an approach that must be fully-integrated from top-to-bottom in your firm.

The SMPS research also looked at specific marketing approaches that all of us experience – whether we realize it or not – in our personal lives as consumers. Some of these include:

  • Personalized marketing
  • Account-based marketing
  • Influencer marketer
  • Podcasting
  • Voice search 

The research also delved into tools like proposal automation and video, as well has how social media is evolving within the industry.

Download this free report and use it as a roadmap as you develop your strategic plans and marketing strategies. And remember as you read it: “Lead, follow, or go out of business.”

Okay, Boomer

Remember that “we’ve always done it that way” thinking will be a kiss of death in the future. A Fortune 500 CEO is no longer necessarily a Baby Boomer; rather, the CEO very well may be a leader from Generation X. Apply that to other companies and across all C-suite positions. Today’s decision-makers are often Millennials and, no, a Millennial is not a recent college graduate. In fact, today’s college graduates are from Generation Z (iGen, Gen Next, etc.). Digital natives are in the workforce and making decisions right now. Your sales and marketing approaches must address their preferences and processes. 

What worked yesterday no longer works today. What works right now may very well not work tomorrow. 

The leadership of the Society for Marketing Professional Services has generously decided to make this report available at no cost to anyone in the industry who is interested in the research. Take advantage of it. Learn how AEC marketing is changing right now, and projected to change in the future. Incorporate this knowledge into your business planning. 

Or, grab that Magic 8-Ball, because I guarantee a very honest response of “Outlook not so good” will be in your future!