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Friday, September 28, 2012

Your community service bragging opportunity

This might seem to be a contradiction.  "Community service" and "bragging" generally don't go in the same sentence.  One is selfless and humble, the other is self-centred and arrogant.

Yet, for this exercise, could you risk reversing the roles a little and share your community service story here.  (If you know someone who you can "share" it for, that is okay, as well.)  You can use the comment function here, or email  If you have an image to share, even better.

The goal is to build a repertoire, a library, of successful initiatives and provide them as examples for others.  See today's other Construction Marketing Ideas blog for some additional thoughts here.

Hangout will be at 2 p.m. this afternoon, as it is every Friday.  Please feel free to join.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How important is the typeface in your construction marketing proposal

This Google Plus posting has attracted some intriguing comments.  Yes, Baskerville is the best.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Customer empathy, business growth and construction marketing

Edward Hess and Anne Liedtka's The Physics of Business Growth:  Mindsets, systems and processes, has already provided me with a crucial business insight -- and I've just finished the first chapter.

The writers advocate that growth occurs when a business's leaders can truly empathize with customers, to the point of knowing and understanding them far more than from the simple product/service transaction perspective.  They suggest that if you can see into your clients' real interests and needs, you'll capture insights into innovations and product/service ideas that will truly make their lives better -- and of course, help your business to grow.

Simple, eh.  How much time do we spend on our internal processes or in dreaming up new products/services, and how to market them, when we could find what our customers really want and need by truly caring about their interests?  Of course, if we develop products/services that truly appeal to our best current customers, we won't need a huge marketing budget, either.

Have you learned about new ideas, products or services by empathizing with your clients?  Please feel free to share your observations by commenting or emailing

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Referrals, repeat business, speeches and presentations, then advertising: Your construction marketing priorities

In this weekly Google Plus Hangout (Friday 2 pm), I discuss how and when you should advertise.  If you think that someone who earns 97 per cent of his income from advertising would urge you to pay for advertising in our (or any) media, you will experience a surprise.  I suggest that advertising should be carefully considered and only used after you've fully accessed the "low hanging marketing fruit" of systematized repeat and referral programs, and effective public speaking and presentation initiatives.

When you are ready to advertise, you should also be aware that the cost-per-lead will (short term) be much higher than through the repeat/referral and public speaking options and you should be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket.  If you have a $2,000 marketing budget and use it all on one advertisement, you are likely to be extremely disappointed in the results.

Conversely, at a crucial stage in your business growth, you can experience a quantum jump in the amount you should spend on advertising, and the results you can expect to achieve.  This is because if you can afford enough advertising to be extremely visible to your potential clients, you'll benefit from the synergy of your advertising.  As well, while the acquisition costs of advertising-based leads are high, their lifetime value -- and their ability to generate repeat and referral business -- can also help your business.

Please feel free to join me at the 2 p.m. video broadcast/hangout.  You can find information about how to register for a Google Plus account to gain access in the sidebar at, or you can email me at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Long memories and new relationships: Construction marketing experience foundations

Today I had conversations about construction marketing with someone I know well, and who introduced me to some fundamental ideas about how to sell advertising almost 20 years ago. In the end, he decided not to do business with me. I also decided I did not want to engage, consult or meet someone who has shared a passion for business and publishing in this city for almost the same length of time and (an outsider might think) could be a worthy colleague or partner.

In the first situation, the individual is launching a new, competitive web-based publication.  On the advice of a senior employee of our company, I invited him to join our organization.  He would be free to pursue a variety of other non-compettive publishing projects, and we would provide him a salary guarantee and benefits for the construction industry publication where we hoped he would be an ally rather than competitor.

My first reaction on hearing this suggestion: "No way will this individual sacrifice his independence for any sort of employment" but the publisher shocked me, within hours, by indicating real interest in the idea.

However, by day's end, he had sober second thoughts.  He told me he simply could make far more money and conduct his business with greater success on his own.  I wished him well.

Meanwhile, another employee proposed that we invite another successful local publisher to speak at our annual planning meeting. I had been considering a consultant/facilitator (highly recommended) who expects to be paid  $300 an hour.  "Why don't you ask (name of indivdual) if he would like to speak to us," the employee said.  On the surface, the suggestion seemed inherently logical. The individual certainly knows business-to-busness media, lives in town, and might well accept a free gig to share his experiences with us.

But I told the employee I would rather not do business with the person.  Although I don't hold him responsible, he certainly had a role in a story about 15 years ago involving some pretty heavy litigation and truly uncool business practices by his former bosses/owners -- and he appeared directly on the scene at some key points in the saga.  I won't describe specifics in a public blog (reflecting my policy not to identify anyone negatively) but the story culminated when we squared off in court  and the judge completely cleared our business, awarding costs.

Things have changed; the culprits  have moved on, and the individual certainly has an excellent reputation.  I don't hold grudges against him, but don't feel comfortable, either, allowing him into our inner business sanctum.  Memories die hard.

These stories suggest that as we gain experience and build our network of relationships and experiences, we develop perspectives and tend to reach conclusions that either create opportunities or limit them.  I sometimes wonder if a little more innocence would be helpful, but equally, don't see why I should have to relive painful memories, or expect someone to change course and revise their values mid-stream, no matter how compelling the reason.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thinking differently about construction marketing and business growth

As a somewhat prolific blogger, I receive plenty of invitations to receive review copies of books, proposals for link exchanges, and the like.  Most land in the trash can, but a few stand out.  Today, a proposal for a review copy of The Growth Gamble: Why Business Leaders Need a 
Vegas-Mindset to Successfully Grow landed in the in box just as I experienced a classic test of small business flexibility and organization.

Writers Ed Hess and Jeanne Liedtka advocate that growth requires risk, and many different adventures and experiments, from where you learn about what works.  Since the failure rate of new innovations is so high, it is important to plan for this -- by playing your cards right (the authors use the poker analogy a lot.)  Conventional business management seeks to reduce errors, to systematize processes, to standardize things so the risk of operational failure is reduced.  This is deadly for innovation.

Fair enough.  Late last night, a person I knew well sent out an announcement for a new publication which might be seen as a direct competitor to my business.  I forwarded the announcement to our most effective sales representative.  The salesperson emailed me back:  "Why don't you offer him a job?"

Seemed far fetched to me, initially -- I knew this individual values his independence and he doesn't function well in large, bureaucratic organizations.  But wait . . . we are NOT a large bureaucratic organization, but we have some things to offer a potential employee that might appeal to someone who wishes a bit more security and stability, including a decent benefits program.

So I emailed and then called the person.  I explained our general hiring compensation model.  We discussed his non-competing business activities and how we could manage these in the context of an employer-employee (with benefits) relationship.  Within a couple of hours of our conversation and my brief email, he sent me a comprehensive proposal which involves some "asks" but sets a reasonable negotiating position.  

I don't know if we will reach an agreement, but there is a good chance we will.  If we were rigid and overly structured, trapped in processes and protocols, this sort of decision could never happen.  Yet the new employee, if we hire him, will still work within the framework of responsible operating business systems and processes.  

I'll ask the publicity people for a review copy of this book.  Here is a bit more from the promotional materials:

Growth, and particularly innovation, is a probability game. When large organizations pursue growth, their mindsets are often completely out of sync with the reality that guides professional gamblers and VCs. Chances are that these organizations expect ten out of ten projects not only to win, but to win big. They demand that their managers and employees produce growth, inadvertently thwart their attempts, and uphold a system in which pulling the plug on a failed growth opportunity is a career-threatening act. Would-be growth leaders in this environment are like professional gamblers who are unable to act independently but instead receive instructions from on high—from a source that has little information about what is happening this minute in this particular game. Not a formula likely to win in Vegas—or in business.
“The reality is it takes on order of magnitude about 1,000 growth ideas to produce 100 good growth experiments,” explains Hess. “And doing 100 growth experiments may produce 10 viable growth initiatives worth investing in. Growth is an iterative learning process characterized by detours, zigzags, and remakes.”
Growth is a learning process. Good growth companies understand the realities of growth. Growth requires the right mindset—a learning mindset—and the right processes designed to make small bets, learn critical information quickly, and then assess next steps.
“We call that process Learning Launches,” says Hess. “Not only is the right learning mindset needed, but also the right attitude is needed individually and organizationally about failure. When you are exploring growth—when you are entering areas where you have not played before—by definition you will make mistakes and have failures. Remember, so long as you make small bets and use the right rigorous process, there is no real failure so long as you are learning.”
Growth can be messy and inefficient. Most companies can’t stomach the uncertainty that comes with growth. It violates their dominant no-variance operational mindset. Well, guess what—growth and innovation are high-variance processes by their nature. If you do not accept that fact, then your growth initiatives will be limited to small incremental improvements, which at some point will not produce enough growth to keep your stakeholders happy.
“Operational excellence strives for 99 percent defect-free performance,” says Hess. “Contrast this to growth experimentation that can result in failure rates of 90 percent. In operational excellence environments, managers are rewarded for stamping out variance. Yet, in growth environments, variance is the norm.”

From The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes (Stanford University Press, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-8047753-4-2, $12.99, 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The fabric of business: Discovering a consultant to become a consultant

Today, I had the opportunity to be creative -- working on two problems, one immediate, and the other longer-term.

The immediate challenge is discovering an economical and reliable method of generating interesting and relevant editorial content for a revitalized network of U.S. construction websites -- the foundation for our business regrowth south of the border.

This project dates back in original concept to 2005 -- when I registered a diversity of domains, contracted with offshore developers to design a content-management system, and envisaged soft-touch site maintenance with revenue from Google AdSense.

The project then never succeeded.  The Pakistani and Indian-built sites (yes, I actually had sub-contractors in both 'warring' nations working on the project), produced sites minimally to my specifications, but utterly useless in quality and design.  In any case, I didn't have any useful content to put on the sites, so they languished.  Foolishly, I left the AdSense code in place -- earning virtually nothing from the horrible under-construction sites, while I made a modest income from my active blog and core sites associated with our printed publications, which we maintained reasonably well.

Then, Google lowered the boom, disabling my business account with a "significant risk to AdWords advertisers message."  I didn't know at the time how the fact that I continued to have a valid personal AdSense account tied to my blog would change my life, and result in me becoming something of an AdSense expert a few years later (though the money from AdSense is still insignificant in the overall business.)

Well, now we are planning to restore these defunct domains to life, but we will take a gradual approach, building some useful content, looking for qualified local representatives, and tying the sites into creative and well-respected industry-specific live networking events (especially co-ordinated by the Design and Construction Network (  We have a plan for a high-quality (but not wildly extreme) design update to increase the sites functionality and cross-media usefulness.

The unanswered problem, though, is content.  The sites need current news, updated with some frequency, and solid features to attract and retain readers (and ultimately local advertising representatives and advertisers.)

Accordingly, I've been casting my net for qualified writers to take things forward.

I started with the job board at our local Carleton University, receiving two applications.  I also posted on the Service Canada job bank -- so far no responses.  This afternoon, I tried another service,, which provides an employee-type independent contractor system, where work is billed by the hour.  (You can also bid by project at fixed rates, but here, odesk competes against well-established project services such as

The service attracts workers/contractors from around the world.  Not surprisingly, hourly billing rates are far lower for offshore suppliers than North American ones.  However, we need writers who can understand the nuances of the North American construction industry, write clearly and effectively in English, and generate relevant content geared for specific local communities and regions.  It is a tough challenge.

So far I've received six applications.  I'm taking a simple approach.  Each applicant will receive a three hour paid assignment at the rate the individual specifies (whether it be $3.00 or $22.00 per our.)  I want the writers to suggest three locally relevant stories, and write one 500 word piece.  I give some optional additional assignments, as well, without hourly compensation, to see if any of the writers will go beyond the minimum.

I'm not sure what results we will achieve, but at an average cost of less than $15.00 per hour for, effectively, 18 hours of work, the research budget is about $250.00.  If all goes well, I will have six decent stories, at a cost of $45.00 a story, relatively inexpensive compared to the usual freelance rates.  Of course, it is quite possible that the contractors will deliver garbage, or "work" without producing any valuable results.  This is a risk I am prepared to take.

The larger picture relates to our overall business strategic direction, succession planning, and growth, of which the U.S. expansion project described above is just one example.  The consultant had been recommended by another successful business owner.  He told me that he gets all of his business from referrals (something I think you can understand from your own experience).  However, he hit the right nerves when he suggested that one route for me to go as I advance in age and prepare to relinquish day-to-day responsibilities for the business is to become a consultant -- one who can and should earn upwards of $300,000 a year.  Not bad for a part-time "job".

I'm a long way from there.  In the meantime, we'll continue to build, experiment, grow and seek out better ways to find employees and contractors, develop content, and enhance and build the business.

I enjoyed the day.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Exploring the "super intelligent" world

Today,  I went on a quixotic quest.  Could I learn more about where the person I spent three months in a tent, traversing Africa, ended up in life?  I discovered tantalizing clues on the Internet -- I won't publish his name until I verify their accuracy -- but, if true, my tent mate belongs into a rather exclusive club. He is a member and perhaps is the president of the Omega Society.  To join, you need to verify that your intelligence is "at the 99.9999th percentile (one-in-a-million level) on a test of general intelligence."

Obviously, individuals with this intelligence level travel on a much higher plane than most of us.  I remember the guy as being the other "nerd" in our overland African tour group who managed, upon arriving in Nairobi, Kenya at the journey's end, to head to Uganda at the time of Idi Amin's rule.  I considered joining him on the trip but, on listening to advice from Canadian consular officials, decided to travel a safer route.  Shortly after he departed, Amin announced he would detain all Americans on Ugandan soil.  Realizing my travel-mate had been planning to go to the dictatorial country on his own, I thought it prudent to visit the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to report his risky travel plans.  A consular official there quickly invited me into a conference room, where he told me indeed my travel-mate had managed to sneak a note out of his prison cell.  Much to my surprise, I met him, one final time, in Lamu, Kenya, as I prepared to journey overland to (then) Rhodesia and South Africa overland.  We haven't communicated since.

I'm not sure what I will learn when I pick up the phone tomorrow.  There are tantalizing clues about his post-Africa life -- including a six year odyssey through some of the most dangerous parts of the world, but what he is doing (if it is him) in Oklahoma, is beyond me right now.

Why search out someone from my distant past, where our lives have traveled entirely different directions since?  The answer, to me, is in the questions I can ask -- the puzzle pieces I can solve with journalistic inquiry.  I know I am not intelligent enough to be a member of the Omega Club, of course.  But I know for several weeks we shared the experience of observing the shooting stars and the Saharan silence -- so silent that you could hear your own ears.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Construction marketing basics: Focusing on repeat and referral business

New LinkedIn Construction Marketing Ideas group members are invited to share their biggest challenge.  I receive two or three emails a week, and do my best to provide a succinct answer.

Yesterday, a reader observed:

Here is what we struggle with. 
Getting potential clients to do an apples to apples comparison. We give detailed spec sheets with our bids and referral list of past clients to call. Yet unless it is a direct referral from a past client who has seen our work first hand, we hardly ever get a job. Any leads we get from our website so far have not got past the bid stage. Just trying to find out how to get a better percentage of signed contracts.
My answer:
It is hard to get anyone to do a true "apples to apples" comparison because of the invisible variables relating to branding and trust.  Direct referrals from satisfied clients, obviously, are golden -- they are able to share their experience with people they trust, and radiate their trust in you.  When you go outside that orbit you are competing against others who have earned a similar level of trust, or you are competing against "low price wins" clients/competitors -- a loser's game for most of us.
The best advice I can give is to spend more of your time finding those referrals,  building them into the basis of your marketing; coupled with testimonials (videos may be effective) to back them up on your website and in other media.  I offer some suggestions in my "construction marketing ideas" book. 
In my ongoing poll, about 3/4 of most contractors' business arises from repeat/referral -- so even an incremental gain in the percentages in these areas will pay off more effectively than other media.   
Now, in terms of capturing the "other" 25 per cent, I tend to believe that marketing should have its highest impact with approaches that bring you as close to real clients as possible.  Again, if you are seeking to build your brand (trustworthiness reputation), perhaps the highest and most effective longer term approach is to focus energies on community service and charitable initiatives.  Of course, you can't put these in your "marketing budget" because if you do this sort of stuff, you can only succeed when you absolutely don't expect anything in return (a real paradox, but one I've seen play out many times.)
Indeed, the challenge with most contractors' efforts to reach beyond repeat and referral business is that they fail to capture the trust and reputation inherent in their successful client relationships in their outbound marketing, and in communicating with new clients not within the repeat and referral orbit.

You can "build a brand" with lots of money, but I think a more effective approach is to build on the successful qualities that lead to happy clients being willing to refer their friends.  You can do this in two ways:

First, focus on enhancing and improving the "wow, this was great" element of your client experience so you can naturally attract more repeat and referral work -- and strong visual and written testimonials for your other marketing;

Second, reach out into the community with service and contributions which have nothing to do with selling, but everything to do with sharing and community respect/involvement.  This enhances your trust and reputation.  You should worry far less about reciprocation and recognition than in conducting your good deeds -- but these arise naturally when you least expect and demand it.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Buying or selling: The decision-maker's perspective

Today I spent several hours on telephone conference call meetings.  We were discussing choices regarding the websites for our imminent U.S. market rebuilding.  Much of the time, we focused on a well-crafted and designed proposal from a service contractor who proposed to deliver the new websites, in significantly enhanced format to our current sites, at a price approaching $10,000.

I didn't have a problem with the quote, the price, or the website developer's expertise, talents and relationship with one of the company's key contractors.  But equally I knew that our entire U.S. project depends on keeping costs rock-bottom low.  By the end of the afternoon, I had confirmed that we indeed have the legal right to "clone" existing sites (developed by the same organization seeking the $10,000 contract) for a price tag in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars.

In fairness, we'll go back to the contractor and ask for a re-quote based on the simple "clone" model -- no extras, no goodies, no bells and whistles.  I'll probably be willing to pay more than the rock-bottom copy-cat service price for the work, and I want to allow our contractor to maintain good relationships with the service provider.

Meanwhile, almost coincidentally, I received a strange mass market email proposal from another service provider, who purports to have a list of more than 100,000 names of contractors and others, and who also designs websites and the like.  It turns out that the contractor who works with us closely -- and recommended the $10,000 contractor -- has had some previous business dealings with the other service provider, who I know from earlier communications.  Neither has much love lost for each other.

In this conversation, the competing service provider suggested an elegant and inexpensive solution to our website building process.  We could develop a scalable system with original designs and the like and all the bells and whistles, for a base fee of $1,500 plus $300 per additional website.  The system would be relatively easy to administer.  Much less expensive, of course.

But could I accept his proposal?  I need to live and respect the other people in this story.  The individual closest to me and my business doesn't have fond feelings for the service provider (and the feelings are reciprocated.)  

Of course, I can take this person's suggestion and then prepare a RFQ, and post it publicly on an international service like  Or I can use my existing contractor who helped produce clones of the original site for a fee of about $200.00 each.  

Decisions.  Decisions.  Clearly, as well, the choices I'm making here are not shaped entirely by the good will and initiative of the company's employees or contractors, my own experience, and alternative service providers' recommendations.  Price is a factor.  If the original $10,000 proposal had been more like $3,000, I might have said:  "Let's do it -- it is more expensive (perhaps 50 per cent more expensive) than the lowest cost alternative; and may not even be the best choice technologically . . .but we know and respect the supplier and wish for a seamless experience."

But $3,000 is not $10,000 -- and the possibility of achieving a higher quality result, at least in theory, for $2,000 or even $1,500 remains in place if we are prepared to do some research, take some risk of failure or a bad selection decision, and possibly the need to ruffle some feathers.

I share these perspectives because they show the challenge of virtually any marketing or selling initiative.  You can't just "rely on relationships" and you may in fact be setting a fair price for your services (I don't doubt that for many businesses, the $10,000 proposed fee is quite reasonable).  You may be frustrated because you can't talk directly with the decision-maker or, even more frustrated because, when you speak with the decision-maker, he considers the relationships with staff, contractors, and your reputation -- and you can't overcome this baggage.  You may be in a situation where you provide enough information to cause the potential customer to ditch the original proposal, and take your information to achieve lower costs -- with work done by third parties.  (In other words, you've acted as a totally unpaid consultant.)

I don't think I had intentions of behaving unethically or playing people off against each other this afternoon.  In fact I felt quite stressed by the conflicts and would have liked to find a simpler solution.  Nevertheless, when I am spending company money, I want to be sure we are receiving the best value -- and at the end of the day, I felt that "none of the above" applied to the people who were trying to sell me their services.  We'll get the job done, but not the way the marketing script-writers had hoped.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The "better than" construction marketing selling model

This posting by Mel Lester is worthy of careful reading.  He addresses the challenges of selling professional services when you are not a professional yourself -- in other words, you are indeed a salesperson rather than a rainmaker.

The challenge, as Lester indicates, is that conventional sales representatives don't  have the technical expertise and knowledge to deliver real value -- at least if they behaves like "typical" representatives.  And there are few things more irritating to decision-makers than dealing with sales reps who bring nothing to the file other than their persistence in their selling efforts.  Conversely, the best way to win the order is to deliver value in the selling process; to show that you really have solutions that will provide value to the business or organization.  He suggests a variety of options, notably having enough knowledge to provide real support either in knowing where to go for the technical resource, or facilitating the overall process.

Assume the role of solution delivery facilitator. Although prospective clients would quickly recognize that I wasn't a technical expert, they learned to trust me as the conduit to the right technical resources within our firm—or even with other noncompeting firms. The platform for doing this effectively was both developing a general understanding of the technical issues (as mentioned above) and knowing who to go to within our firm (or outside if necessary) for any relevant client problem or need that was identified.

Lester suggests one option is for the rep to spend more time to really understand the technical stuff  and even to develop enough expertise that may be distinctive from the core business, so that the selling sessions are more about sharing and giving than pushing and prodding.

Actually, anyone selling professional services should try to avoid being characterized as a mere seller. You're an expert solution provider, even if the solutions come primarily through others' expertise. As I learned, the best way to change perceptions about your role is to serve clients rather than sell to them. And when you commit to serving instead of selling, you're more likely to uncover opportunities to use your own skills and knowledge to help clients.

Problem solving and delivering business value, after all, is hardly limited to the domain of the technical experts.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Social media and video in construction marketing: A special live video event

You are invited to a special live video event outlining my latest discoveries about social media and video for construction marketing at 2 p.m. on November 9, 2012.

This special one hour session will focus on how AEC marketers can most effectively use these new techniques in marketing, without squandering resources or setting themselves up to fail.  I'll suggest some sustainable, practical ideas, with live demonstrations.

If you register before September 30, the admission fee is $9.95 (and includes a copy of my social media book, which sells for $4.95 on Amazon.)  After then, the price increases to $19.95.
(If you have advertised in any of our publications, you can attend without charge.  Just email me at for a special free pass.)

(If you register and cannot attend, or don't think the event has provided genuine value for your business, just email within 48 hours of the event and I'll refund 100 per cent of your payment, without question.)

For more information and to register, visit here.

Eventbrite - Social media and video in construction marketing:  A live video event