Why Aren't Philadelphia's Architects Taking Advantage of the Web? It's a Case Where Less is Definitely Not More.
By Amanda Gibney Weko
Many architects apply Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous axiom Less is More when they design buildings. Unfortunately, too many architects apply this same belief to their public relations efforts – particularly when it comes to the Web.
Architects have long been resistant to PR. The pompous conviction that architecture as art should speak for itself was grounded in the American Institute of Architects’ ban on self-promotion in its 1909 charter. Never mind the fact that the ban was removed in the 1960s, architects took another two decades to even dabble in promotional efforts. In Laura Iloniemi’s 2004 book, Is It All About Image?, the author recounts how many firms refused even to be interviewed on the subject of publicity.
But let’s step backward to the advent of the Internet. The late 1990s saw many architects embracing the new medium for showcasing projects with online portfolios of their work. It was great progress. Here were architects proactively embracing a communication effort.
The problem is that a decade later too many firms haven’t looked past the idea of online portfolios. It’s a one-way PR model that does little to engage audiences who view the sites.
Why does this matter?
First, clients aren’t always awed by pretty pictures. In this era of social networking, instant messaging, everyone’s-a-critic blogging, and customer feedback ratings, clients crave – and architects need to learn how to deliver – information that creates a dialogue.
Don’t show me a detail of a composite-wood rainscreen wall panel. It just looks like the corner of a building. Tell me that the rainscreen offers a moisture barrier to prevent allergens, is an environmentally-friendly recycled product, and saves money because it can be fabricated off-site and installed quickly. In short, architects need to learn how to tell their clients why good design matters.
Today, even the AIA is saying things like, “The better an architect or architecture firm is at marketing, and the more strategically-focused, the more likely the sole practitioner or firm will be to work on truly interesting, profitable projects.” When even the AIA is talking about strategic marketing, firms better listen.
Listen up, Philly
Turns out it’s not always sunny for Philly’s architecture community. In 2009, in a down economy, with architecture firms hemorrhaging staff – and those same staffers starting new firms every day – marketing and PR efforts matter more than ever. Firms need to differentiate themselves to key audiences. And the Web is a perfect place to start.
My research looked at where Philadelphia’s architects figure into the Web presence equation. I reviewed each of the 292 member firms of the AIA Philadelphia Chapter by looking at their public Web sites. For each firm that had one, the site was evaluated for the following components: blogs, feedback forms, options to sign up for company newsletters, client testimonials, client login/FTP components, and external links. I wanted to see if any local design firms were pushing the envelope with visitor-centric content or innovative features.
When I was surprised to find that of the 292 member firms, 72 didn’t even have a Web site, I took the research a step further. I searched each firm name on the professional networking site, LinkedIn. I was curious if the people at those Web site-less firms were online.
Results at a Glance
221 of 292 firms have a Web site.
If you don’t have a Web site, 76 percent of your competitors do. Potential clients and teammates looking online will find them first.
Of the 221 firms with a Web site, 95 (43 percent) include one or more interactive components.
7 sites have blogs.Only 3 percent of local firms use blogs to describe their work or their practice. Architectural PR experts recommend Web site content that strikes a balance between academic, technical language and simpler, layperson language. While architectural media and other designers may respond best to formal project narratives written in an academic tone, blogs offer the opportunity for casual text to which client or employee audiences may respond.
49 sites have viewer feedback forms.
Only 22 percent of firms offer Web visitor feedback forms. Forms give visitors unwilling or unable to make a phone call (think of the 2:00 am Web surfer) a direct opportunity to contact you at their convenience.
14 sites have subscriber sign-ups for print or e-newsletters.
Only 6 percent of firms use their Web site in tandem with newsletter or e-marketing efforts by letting people subscribe online. Developing ongoing communication with online visitors could lead to the next client relationship.
10 sites have client testimonials.
Less than 5 percent of firms tell their success stories with client testimonials. Testimonials are a great way to sing a firm’s praises without drafting self-serving text. Testimonials also play an important role in the government selection process for public-sector work (certain government forms require project performance details, and testimonials are preferred; the government agency rating system also relies on testimonials to gauge firms’ performance). Collecting positive feedback after every project can be used both on and off the Web for marketing benefit.
(9.50%) 21 sites have client login / FTP components.
Only 9.5 percent of firms display a client login area. This shows other visitors that a firm’s clients matter, and that the design process is integrated with technology usable by all members of a project team.
36 sites have external links.
Only 16 percent of firms capitalize on external links. Linking to professional organizations (i.e. AIA, USGBC), consultants, vendors, client organizations, nonprofits, architectural media, or general-interest sites improves search-engine rankings, provides a value-added resource for site visitors, and displays more about your firm’s level of commitment and service.
Of the firms with external links:
15 (42 percent) have links to project teammates and/or consultants
18 (50 percent) have links to professional organizations
21 (58 percent) have other types of links (i.e. favorite sites)
204 of 292 firms have a LinkedIn presence.
Nearly 70 percent of AIA Philadelphia member firms are involved with LinkedIn, representing more than 4,547 individual entries. LinkedIn is arguably the fastest-growing online network of professionals. In addition to developing personal contacts, LinkedIn offers the opportunity to draw attention to a firm’s (or its staff members’) specialized knowledge through the Q&A feature, online forums, and group membership. Plus, it’s free and easy to use.
Surprisingly, 23 of 72 firms without Web sites have a LinkedIn presence (32 percent). This presence represents more than 54 individual entries.
My research is meant to support the need for enhanced Web site content. Having a site in the first place seems like a moot point – it is a business imperative in 2009. After reading the results, be proactive. Architects don’t have to take my word for it. Nearly half of your colleagues have sites that provide some kind of enhanced content; ask them about the feasibility of incorporating new features and how the features impact their business. Your business could depend upon it.
Amanda Gibney Weko is a writer and communication consultant for the design community. Educated as an architect, she balances an understanding of the design process with marketing and public relations savvy. She is the author or co-author of five books and contributes regularly to the AIA journal Context and other trade magazines. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.