Guidance for AEC Industry Marketing and Business Development Leadership

 

However you choose to define the word “arsenal” it alludes to the collection of resources available for use in an “attack.” It’s time to forge ahead and take control of the perceptions and messaging that exist in the industry about your firm, professionals, and services. 

 

What are the Public Relations Weapons Available to an AEC Firm?

As the firm’s marketing leader, you’ve most likely had to battle for management buy-in to create a public relations program for your firm. Or perhaps you’re looking for ideas to propose to the team. Either way, now the challenging part begins. 

 

Creating messaging that is fresh, strategic, and concise is important for keeping your firm name top of mind as you build and enhance your brand. Relevant content can draw potential clients to your website and, if written well, drive search engine optimization (SEO). However, finding consistent topics for your various marketing channels can be a struggle. Strategic content creation involves gathering information and developing it into messaging that can be repurposed into multiple marketing tools. 

 

Successful AEC public relations programs use some or all of the following communication tools to support your firm’s strategic business goals:

 

The AEC PR Arsenal

  1. Advertisements:Advertising is a marketing tactic involving paying for space to promote your firm, people, services, or a cause. The goal of advertising in the AEC industry is to reach a targeted audience that would be likely and willing to hire your firm.

    1. Benefits:With the right kind of market research, placing an ad with a targeted, client-oriented publication whose audience needs your services can be successful. Advertising is a way to expand the firm or services’ exposure locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. Advertising lets you be very clear and concise in the message you are trying to convey and can enhance your brand. 

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Distribute advertisements to past, present, and potential clients through social media, website, or direct mail campaign
      2. Display in your office (lobby, hallways, breakroom, etc.)
      3. When placing an ad, discuss a deal for free press coverage for your firm or projects
      4. If placing an ad, ask for an opportunity to submit an article
      5. Negotiate ad rates/space

  2. Association Involvement: Client-oriented associations are organizations that bring together industry leaders from a specific target market. These associations are formed to provide education and networking opportunities for like-minded professionals. These organizations range from nationwide associations to those that encompass groups in individual states, counties, cities, or market sectors. 

    1. Benefits: Becoming involved in associations where your clients/potential clients go for their professional development can be extremely helpful in understanding the industry trends affecting that market. There is no better way to be able to network with so many existing and potential clients than going to these meetings. It is typically a very cost-effective way to meet as many clients at one time as well as involve numerous colleagues at once.

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Develop a list of client-oriented associations to target
      2. Actively participate on committees, board of directors, etc.
      3. Speak at events
      4. Sponsor events
      5. Make a list before each meeting of attendees you want to connect with

  3. Awards:  Industry awards may recognize a company for excellence in a completed project or collaborative team success or may recognize an individual for a specific achievement.
     
    1. Benefits: The recipient of an industry award receives a third-party endorsement of their expertise. If the award recognizes a project or your firm, it provides an opportunity to further enhance relationships with clients. The recognition can be used as a piece for marketing materials and websites.

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Make an annual calendar of award programs for participation
      2. Follow the submittal requirements exactly 
      3. Submit the award on behalf of your client
      4. Promote on social media, in marketing collateral, and on website
      5. Ask to review submittals of the winners from previous years
      6. Purchase an extra award for the client and give to them for display
      7. Invite your client to the awards ceremony so they feel honored as well

  4. By-line Article: The goal of this content is to present the firm or the author as an expert on a specific topic, and to share useful information and best practices with readers.

    1. Benefits: This establishes the firm and individual team members as thought leaders in your field while being free/cost effective. Often this type of column provides consistent exposure (monthly guest contributor).

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Build relationships with publication editors
      2. Confirm policies, specifications, and copyright rules
      3. Remain unbiased and avoid overtly promoting your firm, service, or product
      4. Use content in SOQs, website, social media, proposals, and brochures
      5. Focus the subject to support your firm’s target markets/clients
      6. Mail/repost article to existing, past, and potential clients
      7. Display in your office (lobby, etc.)
      8. Add to the individual team member’s resume and/or website bio

  5. Direct Mail: Direct mail marketing is any physical/online correspondence you send to contacts with the intent of educating and introducing them to your firm. Effective direct mail will be educational based, have something identifying you or your firm, a call to action (CTA), and a way for your targets to contact you.

    1. Benefits: The major benefit of direct mail is that it is a mechanism to reach a wide, yet targeted audience. You can control the message that supports your business development efforts.

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Plan an annual program
      2. Develop a “series” that is mailed out every 4-6 weeks (usually 3-4 included in a series)
      3. Feature unique aspects of your firm and staff expertise
      4. Promote advantages your firm provided the owner on a project
      5. Use client quotes

  6. Feature Articles: Feature articles are more in-depth than traditional news stories and go beyond providing the most important facts. The content provides a detailed description of a place, person, idea, or organization. The articles, which explore a subject at length, are not constrained by the tight deadlines of regular news articles.

    1. Benefits: Feature articles do not cost anything and can put your firm in the public eye. With some creativity of subject, feature articles are easy to get placed if you pitch a newsworthy story. This type of public relations establishes your firm/expert as an authority on the topic and is seen as impartial journalism because you have not paid for the space. Submitting a feature article can help you establish a relationship with an editor who will refer to you/your firm in the future.

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Conduct a thorough analysis of any targeted publication
      2. Review media kit/submittal guidelines from each publication
      3. Provide newsworthy ideas
      4. Make sure your query letter/pitch letter is top quality
      5. Follow up! Follow up! Follow up!
      6. Inquire about reprints/reposts of your article (sometimes available for a small fee from the publication). Send to existing, past, and potential clients. 
      7. Use as collateral material 
      8. Give a copy to a client that may be featured/project features in the article

  7. Newsletters/E-newsletters: A newsletter is an email or physical mailer you can send to a contact list to obtain a consistent form of indirect marketing. As a part of an email marketing strategy, newsletters can help nurture your relationships with contacts and bring them value through relevant, original content. 

    1. Benefits: When newsletters/e-newsletters are created with the client in mind, they can be very successful. The suggested goal is to provide educational topics that can establish your firm/team as an expert or thought leader on a particular subject. These forms of communications can influence your clients’ perceptions of the firm and provide an opportunity for you promote your projects indirectly.

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Content must be useful and educational to the reader, not general promotion of the firm
      2. Provide a website link to “read more” to help increase SEO
      3. Use a template site that can save money on custom design costs
      4. Include interviews with owners, industry leaders, etc.
      5. Consider an internal newsletter to help with communication and distribution of office information
      6. There is no need to write “new” content for this newsletter. Use information that you have already added to the website, but now it can be promoted through push marketing of a mailer/email.
      7. Review analytics regularly

  8. Photography: Project photography is the graphic and visual representation of your projects, processes, and people.

    1. Benefits: Photography provides an avenue to communicate the project’s design intent. Nothing is more important than good photography in your marketing program.

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Share costs with the entire project team, client, contractor, and major suppliers/vendor
      2. Negotiate rates with selected photographers
      3. Determine if publications have preferred photographers 
      4. Research the AIAP website for recommended photographers in your local area
      5. Ge photos of “detail” and “process” shots to utilize for any proposal or award submittal

  9. Press Events: A media/press event or press conference serves to communicate important news connected with an organization or company and involves the participation of journalists and representatives of the company/organization. The event offers journalists an interactive forum to find out about your organization and campaign/reason for the event.

    1. Benefits: Allows you to provide journalists with much more information than a press release and gives journalists the opportunity to ask questions and set up interviews.

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Supply detailed press kits
      2. Offer tours of the site, facility, or project
      3. Prepare and rehearse with your participating staff
      4. Share costs with other team members involved in the project/campaign

  10. Press (or News) Releases: These short documents communicate information about a newsworthy event or development and are distributed to publications that would be interested in the topic. In the AEC industry a press release serves to inform the audience about events, projects, services, experts, and other important firm information.

    1. Benefits: Press releases are free and can be targeted to specific publications focused on subject matter, geography, and other demographics.

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Even if your press release doesn’t get published or gets little recognition, you can still distribute to past, present, and potential clients through various physical and electronic means. 
      2. Post on your website and through social media
      3. Use in SOQs or proposals and supplemental information
      4. Format the press release correctly
      5. Press releases can be a great client relations activity. Use it as an opportunity to interview the client/owner/user group. Don’t forget contractors, consultants, design team members, and vendors. 
      6. Gather quotes for the article as well as for use in other marketing collateral.

  11. Project-Related Promotion: Marketing while being billable is an ultimate quest for any AEC firm.  Project-related promotion is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this goal. Using an existing/in progress project to promote your company’s name, logo, image, expertise, and team is an easy way to become known to the general public. Other examples of project-related promotion include merchandise with logo such as hard hats, safety vests, jackets/clothing worn by employees on project sites. Other ideas for promotion include grand opening ceremonies, groundbreakings, topping off, etc.

    1. Benefits: This type of public relations is an example of subliminal advertising. This form of promotion can reinforce your firm’s name and image. There can be multiple newsworthy opportunities presented for each project. Events/milestones already planned can be promoted that will further cement your relationship and dedication to a client or project.

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Install job signs on project sites. Include all team member firms and share the cost.
      2. Submit project milestone press releases
      3. Negotiate participation in client-organized public relation events. Offer to assist with expenses.
      4. Create a project memento

  12. Promotional Items/SWAG: Traditionally SWAG stands for “Stuff We All Get” and refers to promotional items/products for marketing and giveaways. Essentially, SWAG is a form of branded merchandise that is given away as a form of advertising.

    1. Benefits: SWAG can be a very effective subliminal form of advertising. The goal is to have branded items that are desirable and items others want. These items can be used internally or externally depending on your desired audience. 

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Establish relationships with trusted promotional vendors 
      2. Plan ahead to mitigate supply chain delays and shortages
      3. Consider giving SWAG items to clients as a thank you gift
      4. Try to choose items that have everyday use and are not likely to be easily discarded
      5. Don’t just give away your items. Provide an opportunity for a direct marketing contact to receive the item

  13. Speaking Opportunities: When existing and potential clients attend trade shows and conferences, they often look forward to professional development/learning opportunities such as speaker sessions, roundtable events, and workshops. Be aggressive and propose a relevant topic for one of these client-oriented conferences and create a plan for your technical professional to become the expert.

    1. Benefits: Speaking opportunities are usually free and can sometimes be paid. Oftentimes an added benefit is that at least the presenter’s conference admission is paid for and/or discounted. No other marketing activity establishes credibility or elevates the speaker as an expert. Once you have an opportunity to speak once, you are typically contacted for future topics. Where else can you be in the room with hundreds of potential clients? And finally, being in the room with your clients and potential clients helps you gain first-hand knowledge of their needs. 

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Make an annual calendar of conferences for participation, by market sector. Add them to your market sector agenda so the opportunity for speaking or sponsoring is not overlooked.
      2. Develop a speech series for each market sector that can be utilized several times with minor adjustments per target market
      3. Post videos and or promotional materials on your firm’s website/social media
      4. Turn your speech into a white paper and use in SOQs or proposals
      5. Interview attendees to learn of areas of interest and concern in their industry. They will accept a call from you if you explain that you are gathering their input for a work session at a relevant conference.
      6. Schedule other appointments with potential/existing clients during conference
      7. Have a booth so you can stay visible during the conference when not speaking.
      8. Obtain attendee lists for future marketing efforts. Try to get the list prior to the conference for promotion of your session and/or booth number.
      9. If speaking is not an option, offer to host and facilitate a panel discussion with other industry experts.

  14. Sponsorships: Sponsorship refers to the financial or in-kind support of an event, team, industry association, charity organization, etc., with the objective of attaining certain business objectives. Sponsorship is an increasingly popular marketing technique used by most businesses to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

    1. Benefits: Sponsoring a client-oriented industry event is a great way to get exposure. It is a unique opportunity for networking as well as a chance to do some advertising. 

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Target client-oriented or client-supported events
      2. Create an annual budget
      3. Promote sponsorship/involvement through press releases, social media, website, etc., if appropriate 

  15. Trade Shows/Exhibits: A trade show is an event held to bring together members of a particular industry to display, demonstrate, and discuss their latest products and services.
     
    1. Benefits: Having a booth or sponsoring some part of a trade show is an excellent opportunity to market to numerous existing and prospective clients at one time. Participating allows your firm to make a visible statement about your services, experience, and team members. Other competitor firms also attend this event which provides an opportunity to differentiate your firm. 

    2. Tips and Tricks: 
      1. Make an annual calendar of tradeshows for participation
      2. Create a “signature” exhibit or booth display
      3. Create a “gimmick” enticing potential clients to visit your booth
      4. Review list of attendees prior to events 
      5. Create a list and plan for who to seek out and meet
      6. Train staff members that will be participating at the booth or in the show on “how to work a booth”
      7. Send out a pre-conference email/mailer to target attendees inviting them to your booth to participate in your “gimmick”
      8. Read name tags and target potential clients at booth
      9. Set up meetings with attendees outside tradeshow hours
      10. Consider tradeshow booth vs. hosting an added event at the conference
      11. Follow up!  Follow up!  Follow up!

  16. Website: A site or website is a central location of web pages that are related and accessed by visiting the home page of the website using a browser. For the AEC industry, a website can be an online informational source about your firm, people, projects, values, locations, etc. 

    1. Benefits: A website is an easy way to provide an online brochure. The site can be constantly updated with the latest information that is viewed by employees, potential employees, clients, potential clients, and general public. When a website is updated regularly, it becomes a powerful tool for marketing your firm. 

    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Create a reason for people to continually visit your site
      2. Provide value-added features on your site
      3. Can you use your site as a revenue producer?
      4. Have your website be the “host” for all of the social media and other online promotion material to help increase SEO.

  17. Video: Videos are a powerful and increasingly affordable way to showcase your firm’s services and influence target markets. The most effective videos create connection, authenticity, and familiarity by combining visual, audio, and appropriate music and text. This digital content can be shared quickly across multiple online and mobile platforms. 

    1. Benefits: Improvements in affordable equipment makes producing and editing high-quality video in-house more feasible. When used with a good linking strategy, video can increase SEO because many search engines are set to give preference to sites with video content. Video content can improve your email marketing, social media, newsletters, websites, and proposals.
       
    2. Tips and Tricks:
      1. Decide what level of video quality you want and be sure you have the resources to obtain it
      2. Whether you hire a professional videographer or do it yourself, make sure the content is consistent with your firm brand
      3. Define your key messages and then use a script storyboard to serve as a guide for what the final deliverable will look like 
      4. Have your safety director review job site video to ensure compliance with safety standards
      5. Consider a mobile device as a capture source for short promotional videos that will be primarily viewed on social media outlets
      6. Know the limitations of posting video on YouTube
      7. Use content to create short videos for tradeshow slideshows, virtual presentations, and virtual client interviews. 

  18. Social Media: 

    Social media’s original intended role, as an online networking system, is important for AEC firms. Social media has become an essential component of any content-based marketing program. More and more AEC firms are jumping into social media because it helps them reach a wide audience at a relatively low cost. In today’s marketing environment, you have to be where your clients and referral sources are. And these days, that increasingly means social media.

    1. Benefits: Social media is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to promote your firm’s content. Creating a social media marketing strategy to promote your website’s content via different channels will help build your reputation and visibility — i.e., your brand.

    2. Tips and Tricks::
      1. Use social media as a way to boost your website’s SEO
      2. Use social media avenues to conduct market research on people or entities
      3. Social media can be an effective recruitment tool
      4. Assign “Channel Champions” that will be responsible for engagement
      5. Create a social media calendar to plan “spontaneous” posts
      6. Integrate social media into your market sector public relations strategy
      7. Build tasks into schedules
      8. Social media commitment = website content commitment

 

But utilizing one or more of the suggested public relations activities, your firm will be able to provide indirect marketing support to your business development effort. Start small, track metrics, and be effective.

 

Long-term strategic planning is about constantly evolving your content to deliver new material and packaging it to be distributed in a timely manner to your target audience. As the project develops, so does the content. The delivery mechanisms will vary as well. Build material around project achievements to maintain a steady flow of content and keep your firm visible. Don’t let this source of ongoing material be forgotten.

 

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About The Author

Keri Hammond, FSMPS, CPSM

Keri is a long-standing trailblazer in the Utah AEC industry. Clients appreciate her ability to get things done – they know she does whatever it takes, with integrity, to help them build their business. Keri is known for her leadership and diplomacy; she motivates others with positivity, trust, and unwavering support.

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