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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Does one size fit all? The answer is in the details.

If the common denominator at the SMPS conference is the best way to succeed in marketing AEC services is by generously sharing insights and services, does this mean the sharing needs to be the same for everyone, and is appropriate in all circumstances? The answer, of course, is that while the basic principal makes sense, you need to be more pragmatic in its execution. The devil, indeed, is in the details.

Take for example the disconnect between giving presentations at the conference and hoping to gain business from them. The commonest assertion in the selling of professional services is that strategically building your reputation with free articles in respected publications, white papers, and speaking engagements with your 'target' market, you'll build your name and recognition -- and attract business from the people who really count. So, indeed, most speakers at the SMPS conference had as their objective the goal of gaining leads and contacts for their own business/service.

Consultant Mel Lester, for example, shared some basic common ideas in his presentation, Marketing the Experience. His suggestion: AEC practitioners need to rethink the standard approach to business, especially the brochure-type websites where the story is all about the company, and not about the intended audience. He cited his own website,, where he said he has dozens of pages of useful free information, and only two or three pages of self-promotional material.

Originally, I had sat near the front of the meeting room where about 150 people were listening to his presentation, but the conference facilitator gently invited me to move to the rear because of the (presumably very disturbing) clattering of my keyboard -- I take notes by typing into the laptop, at 80 words per minute). So, I moved back, found an electric plug in at the rear of the room, and noticed something just a little disturbing. A few, then a few more, people got out of their chairs and left. (Most stayed to the end.)

But I knew something had not quite worked for some of the audience members, though it took a while to figure out exactly what had happened. Realistically, I realized the disconnect in trying to answer this question: "How can full-scale architectural or engineering practices, or for that matter general contractors, really "give away" that much on their websites?"

You aren't going to want to share everything about the practical day-to-day "give" on your job site, and you certainly aren't going to share the inner workings of how you saved money or time in serving your best clients, without at least checking with them ahead of time. And do most first-time (or for that matter) repeat visitors to AEC websites really go there to receive an information dump, or are they seeking some confidence and insights into the business operating the website? In other words, presumably people looking at AEC sites are interested in knowing: "Do these guys do the kind of work I need done, and do they have a reputation in that field?" Pictures, images, perhaps testimonials, and where appropriate, controlled use of emotional cues like music, video, and flash imagery would seem to work better than a whole pile of free information and resources.

Similarly, most professional practitioners who are successful in business draw the line between free services/information and giving away their core services. "Free estimates" may be appropriate in some consumer-oriented sectors, but are the kiss of death to really professional contractors and AEC professionals (there are exceptions to this, and every rule, of course). The point is that for most established contractors and AEC services, your website should be something of an electronic brochure, not a library of goodies that you give away.

But there are exceptions, and Lester proves the exception. Consultants selling consulting services must, in effect, share the core of their philosophy up front, for free, or nearly free. This builds relationships, and sales. And, indeed, while some people left the room at the SMPS conference, others gathered at the end of his presentation to greet him and ask him for more information.

The challenge is, frankly, defining your frame of reference for your generosity. If you are an architect, engineer, or contractor, you will need to think about where and how to make that connection. Your website or blog might be the right place, or maybe speaking engagements and presentations at conferences. But you may find your generosity is best shared with a little thoughtful connecting, or sharing referrals that generates useful business for your prospects. You may find the sharing is within the community, on non-profit boards and organizations. I can't tell you where you should share. But when you try to make one size fit all, you may find the fit is not that great for most.

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