The Tweet and Roar of Social Media

Geilenkirchen, Germany’s city seal (1556), designed by Duke Wilhelm V of Jülich.

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

We confess. Like many architecture firms, Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company has been slow to get its feet wet with social media. But we have been watching and learning from how others are leveraging online communities to recruit and retain talent, manage brand, and find leads.

The AIA’s KnowledgeNet (think of it as LinkedIn for architects) is a forum to share collective resources with thousands of like-minded colleagues. The site is structured as a collection of more than 15 AIA Knowledge Communities and member- created communities on topics like practice management, according to Kathleen Simpson, who led the seminar. It also might be just the place to dip that toe in the water in a more controlled environment. Architizer is another way for architects to connect with architects, view projects, search for jobs, and learn about competitions.

What about architects who are generating social media content? Washington-based FORMA Design is a small firm with some big ideas. Its three principals take responsibility for posting to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—and they say it is driving business their way. One principal, Andreas Charalambous, AIA, says his firm also recommends social media strategies for clients as part of branding and graphics packages. FORMA uses Facebook to drive interest to its work and Charalambous likes it because it’s more immediate than updating FORMA’s website. Charalambous and his partners created a company page and more than 350 friends and clients have “joined” already. “We are careful not to overwhelm [clients and potential clients] with unsolicited messages,” says Charalambous, who sends links to FORMA’s bi-annual newsletter and announces special news, awards, or the firm’s sixteenth anniversary. “There isn’t a post every day [and] we don’t pontificate,” he says. “The message has to be important enough that the receiver is willing to take five minutes to look or read.”

YouTube requires the most effort for FORMA, but it has also been most successful. The firm’s videos to show before-and- after images of interior projects are produced in-house. Before- shots often appear in black-and-white, so they are instantly readable against the after-shots, both of which are coupled with a music soundtrack. Gone are the days of lugging portfolios to a potential client’s door. Charalambous takes his iPad and shares images or videos. “Very rarely do people come to us without having seen our work somewhere online,” he adds. Magazine articles are interact with a printed page.  “Potential clients have to see you over and over again on the website, YouTube, Facebook, and in print. It’s an integrated part of who we are and what we do,” he says.

FORMA’s principals do not blog, however, which is contrary to the approach a lot of other firms have taken in terms of getting their message out. Ayers Saint Gross and Shepley Bulfinch both have excellent blogs with regular postings on important topics by principals. Their efforts take a committed investment by the firm—including time and energy in developing meaningful messages. HOK has probably set the gold standard for its comprehensive social media program. Its Life At HOK blog is an effective recruitment and retention tool that unites 25 regional offices across three continents.

The bottom line on social media, as far as HOK, Shepley Bulfinch, Ayers Saint Gross, and FORMA are concerned is: don’t do it just to do it. Do it if you have something to say. Otherwise, it’s counter-productive. They have all developed a strategic plan that centers on finding the best forum (or outlet) for outreach.

A few things to think about: Consider investment and ROI. Time is money, after all, and keeping social media current and meaningful takes time. Do you have the resources to invest? Train your firm’s voices to represent you and establish a policy for proper behavior. In other words, make certain that your firm’s employees use appropriate language and that they understand copyright law when it comes to sharing images. Remember, in the virtual world, once you put something out there, you can’t take it back. Evaluate content carefully.

Our firm has developed an internal blog that has become a nice forum for design discussion. Perhaps by the next time we write, we’ll be tweeting!

Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, is the Chief Operations Officer for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company.

Deborah Marquardt does public relations for Hanbury Evans. Her writing has appeared in national magazines.

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