The Social Media Evolution

TEXT Sharon VanderKaay

Architects are interesting people who know a lot about issues that affect the well-being of society. As holistic lateral thinkers, they see things that reductivist linear thinkers may miss. They connect dots that need to be connected. In addition to raising awareness for the value of design, they are able to shed light on their creative process for a business world that is waking up to the dire limitations of traditional problem-solving. Moreover, architects have valuable inside information regarding how innovation and the iterative process unfold to yield extraordinary results.

Alas, much of this insight is hidden behind the walls of firms, destined to be shared with a limited audience, while some bits of brilliance remain forever lodged inside the architect’s brain. Most of the public knowledge that escapes from architectural firms generally appears in the form of polished marketing messages, formal announcements and rehearsed conference presentations. Meanwhile, a wealth of illuminating observations emerge only through conversations at cocktail parties and other social encounters.

Spotlighting Hidden Talent

Online social networking provides an opportunity to extend these cocktail party conversations to a global scale. The Internet is rapidly evolving beyond Web 1.0, which showcased websites that broadcast one-way corporate messages. By contrast, Web 2.0 offers multiple ways to engage diverse participants through lively social media. Your participation in this arena can add to your credibility, make you the go-to person for niche areas of expertise, and place you at the centre of emerging issues. After decades of concern that clients don’t understand and value what architects do, social media provides a worldwide window into this vibrant profession.

Contributions to social media in the form of blogs, micro-blogs (e.g., Twitter), videos (e.g., YouTube) and other public forums connect you to a world that celebrates, criticizes or totally ignores you and your ideas. These conversations are changing traditional notions of marketing, as well as how we grow what we know.

Benefits of Participation

Even if you have no interest in winning projects beyond your neighbourhood, there may be someone on the other side of the world who can help you understand your clients, your practice, or your BIM issue in a way that will save you time and aggravation. In turn, your point of view can be noticed and appreciated both locally and globally. Over time (and occasionally overnight), this exchange increases the value of your knowledge while building recognition for you and your firm.

If you’re already famous, there’s an opportunity to increase your fame and followers by providing a behind-the-scenes, personal perspective on your fascinating world. There could be vast untapped public interest in the thoughts you chewed on at the breakfast table. Or, if you happen to be an intern architect, opportunities abound to be recognized for your ideas rather than being limited by traditional measures of value-creation potential, such as years of experience or formal credentials.

Regardless of what career stage you are at, social media provides an outlet for reflecting and organizing your own thoughts, then communicating these thoughts in a candid, human-to-human voice. Engaging wholeheartedly in social media also stretches one’s ability to participate in constructive dialogue with a wide range of individuals without descending into polarizing debate.

A Natural Evolution

These are still the early Wild West days of understanding how professional services firms will develop their social marketing approach. For some practices, social media will eventually overtake their formal marketing and communications efforts. This shift away from marketing to a passive audience is part of a larger trend toward global brands finding ways to talk with instead of shouting at their customers. By talking with customers, companies gain empathy that enables them to co-create better products and services together. Similarly, in order for architects to develop in-depth understanding of evolving client concerns, they must participate in dialogue that removes old walls.

Web 2.0 also reflects a yearning for human connection and self-expression by revealing doubts, asking questions and sharing lessons learned. Unlike banal brochure language, it is full of surprise and emotion.

It’s easy to be put off by frivolous uses and abuses of social media, or to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of online content, along with its varying quality. But to ignore this fundamental evolution is to rely on prefabricated marketing messages instead of engaging in a lively exchange of ideas that can attract genuine interest.

Architect Selection in the Web 2.0 Era

Twenty years or so ago, nearly all clients chose their architect based on trusting personal relationships that developed over time. Shared empathy arose from these trusting relationships, as well as the mutual confidence required to design extraordinary architecture. Since that time, well-meaning but vague assumptions regarding fairness (as opposed to conflict of interest) and objectivity (for decisions that really do require a degree of subjectivity) have imposed a distance between architects and some of their clients. Without meaningful opportunities to share knowledge though dialogue, the crucial trust element is missing. As a result, the architect selection process has become extremely difficult for clients. How can they know what is behind the faade of promises at the proposal stage? Who are these people who say they are “excited about the opportunity” to work on my project?

Similar to how recruiters and HR managers check a job candidate’s Web persona to get a better picture of who the individual really is, social media can provide prospective clients with the online track record of architectural firms. The Internet offers a window into what the firm cares about and how they are contributing to a body of knowledge. Social media will never replace a trusting personal architect-client relationship, but it presents candid views of people within the firm and their work.

Getting Started

Here are some strategic questions to consider prior to wading into social media:

1. What is my/our purpose for engaging in these activities?

Do we want to be known as the go-to firm for a niche service or building type? Do I want the public to better understand and value how an architect thinks? Can we offer perspective on the realities of architectural project management?

2. How does this purpose fit with our firm’s real priorities and true personality?

The norms for open and transparent participation in social media tend to expose false faades and lack of authenticity.

3. Who are the people we want to engage and what are their interests?

Consider the range of topics and the degree of informality that suits the people you want to attract, such as prospective clients, future staff, journalists and board members.

4. Who will be responsible for this initiative?

Designate someone, or a team, to respond appropriately to both positive and negative comments, as well as to keep posts and other content fresh. Continuously monitor mentions of your brand on the Internet.

5. Who will be our voice, or contribute to our voice?

Decide if you will contribute as individuals, or speak on behalf of the firm.

6. How will we present ourselves?

If we have a blog, what will it be titled and what will it look like? What will our Twitter graphic be? How will we
describe what we do in our profile for each social networking site? How can we reveal our interesting personalities without appearing flaky or remote?

A good introduction to showcasing your expertise while engaging with others is Paul Gillin’s book The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media.

Tips and Traps

1. Watch and listen before participating to avoid making gaffes that create a poor first impression and which might appear years later in Web search results. Observe the most intriguing blog posts and Twitter headlines as well as off-putting examples; read a range of company profiles before simply entering your standard description.

2. Look at examples beyond architecture firms. Research the online presence of leading architectural firms as well as other professions. A word of caution: some architectural firms currently use social media primarily as a platform for promoting their awards and projects rather than sharing knowledge derived from those projects, so it is important to survey a wide range of examples.

3. Contribute comments and ideas that will attract your intended readers and entice them to forward your flashes of insight to others. If you push a steady stream of self-centred announcements and media releases, you will lose people’s interest and create the impression that your firm is insular.

4. Pay it forward. Contribute comments to the blogs, videos and news stories of other individuals and firms. Give credit and recognize the people who have influenced you.

5. Reveal your thinking, expose your doubts. Perfect wordsmithing and an authoritative tone may be the norm for websites, but they are out of place in the world of social media. Consider the example of Frank Gehry, who is endearing even when he sounds irritated because he isn’t afraid to tell us about his ups and downs, and the questions that run through his mind. In his own way, he inspires more confidence than the conventional know-it-all.

6. Be spontaneous and informal, but keep in mind that what you say or do may be viewed by prospective clients years from now.

7. Recognize that your time will be redirected from creating outbound messages and finding clients, to participating in exchanges that attract inbound interest in finding you.

8. Be aware that your online reputation will be built with you or without you. If you are not contributing to online content, Web search results for you and your firm will be created entirely by others.

Bewildering. Then Addictive.

Creating your own attractive and enlightening content can become a compelling creative outlet, rather than one more thing on your marketing to-do list. Although the concept of online knowledge exchange and co-creation of ideas has been around for well over a decade, there are no formulas or rules for implementation. Professional service firms must continuously experiment to determine the right kind of involvement for their needs and resources. The lack of standard templates means that you can distinguish yourself by defining your unique approach and demonstrating your leadership. CA

Sharon VanderKaay, Associate AIA, is Director of Knowledge Development at Farrow Partnership Architects. She thanks Patrick Spear for assisting her in making sense of the social media evolution. Contact her on Twitter @farrowpartners or at