Modern A/E marketing is about stewarding knowledge, conducting research, using technology smartly, and working to become more agile. This blog describes these “four pillars” in detail.
Every year, some of the most interesting and thought-provoking people in the architecture and engineering industry descend on San Francisco for a few days in May. Combine a few parts knowledge management with a spoon of process improvement, a chunk of innovation, and a slice of marketing, and you have KA Connect. For me, KA Connect is a source of learning, inspiration and perspective. It makes me smarter at what I do. It helps me understand the pulse of our clients (and potential clients to-be). And, it’s usually a source of tremendous content topics for our agency (like this one).
As I reflect on the speakers and discussion at KA Connect 2015 and reconcile them with my own experience and intuition, I believe there are four emerging pillars of modern marketing in an A/E firm:
- Knowledge Management
- Agile Marketing
Today’s leading A/E firms are investing in these 4 pillars to both improve their competitive leverage and to make their client attraction efforts more effective and efficient. I’ve presented these pillars based on how broadly adopted I perceive them to be in the industry from most adopted to least adopted. Let’s look at each one in due course.
#1 – Knowledge Management
For all intents and purposes, it appears that marketing and knowledge management are becoming virtually one and the same. I’ve written about the flow of knowledge and its role in marketing a firm a number of times in the past. I’ve highlighted firms that are investing in developing cultures of knowledge sharing to drive innovation, improve collaboration and cultivate external thought leadership. Yet, up until KA Connect 2015 it didn’t strike me how intertwined the two disciplines had become nor how many firms were truly investing in knowledge management in a meaningful way.
- Anecdotally — During her talk on Arup University, Kyle Fisher described her role as a combination of marketing and knowledge management.
- Statistically — In his survey on AEC Knowledge Management practices, Chris Parsons shared that upwards of 33% of firms have a knowledge management leader and that marketers are involved in more than twice the knowledge management activities than individuals in any other department (download the preliminary survey findings here).
Leading A/E firms have come to the realization that knowledge is their product — much more so than their portfolio of work. As Andy Ernsting so eloquently put it, “clients don’t hire buildings, they hire people to design them.” When we embrace that concept to be true, it becomes quite obvious that knowledge management should be a critical function of the modern marketing department.
So, what is the marketer’s role in knowledge management? The answer to that question warrants an article in itself, and will ultimately come from Chris Parsons as an extension of his research. But, on the surface, I’d say it’s three things:
- Catalyzing — Driving the process of knowledge sharing across the firm.
- Mining — Searching the firm’s knowledge communities for “diamonds.”
- Translating — Turning those “diamonds” into both quality external thought leadership and better project stories that are in-tune with client interests.
#2 – Research
So, if knowledge is your product, then thought leadership is the manifestation of that knowledge. But, knowledge actually comes from two sources. The first, previously described, is the knowledge of your firm’s people — the tacit and explicit knowledge cultivated by your architects, engineers and consultants from their years of client work. The second, is knowledge built through formalized market research.
Numerous studies have found that thought leadership content based on research is likely to be perceived as higher quality and will generate more leads than thought leadership content based on experience alone. Yet, as of the writing of this article, I’m aware of very few A/E firms that are investing in formal research to both inform their practice and to serve as the basis for thought leadership content. I’ve referenced the folks at PGAV Destinations and their research into consumer travel habits a number of times as an example of a firm doing this very well. Arup has invested in numerous research studies to frame the future of the industries in which it works and used them as the basis for thought leadership. The firm has developed studies on aviation, retail, higher education, corporate workplaces, and museums.
At KA Connect, Leila Kamal from EYP, shared some insights into the research her firm is doing related to its higher education work. Essentially, the firm has been selectively conducting pre- and post-occupancy studies with faculty and staff to gauge the impact of its work relative to the university’s objectives. The research has been telling — providing insight into how students use facilities and how those facilities are impacting faculty research.
Importantly, the research is having a meaningful impact on the firm’s client attraction efforts. States, Leila, “Our research shows [our clients that] we’re paying as close attention to [their] mission as they are. While it’s hard to measure the ROI, clients are definitely coming to us now as a result of our expertise and our research. We’re not having to dig under rocks to find them anymore.”
#3 — Martech
This year’s event provided some much needed clarity on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart — marketing technology. Any avid reader of this blog knows that I’m a firm believer in the power of technology to improve the way firms market themselves and attract new clients (and projects) to the practice. From knowledge management and digital asset management to CRM, social selling tools and marketing automation, an AEC marketing technology stack is emerging that can give you both new ways to operate and better ways to do the things you’ve always done. I tend to believe these technologies exist along a continuum of marketing activities a firm performs in order to generate marketplace awareness, attract and engage potential clients, identify project opportunities, and drive pursuits into projects. The continuum looks something like this:
To simplify this further, I’ll lump these technologies into two categories:
- Pre-Opportunity Technologies — These are technologies your firm can use to make your client attraction efforts more intelligent and more effective. Knowledge management systems like Synthesis are giving marketers insight into the knowledge that actually exists in their practice; knowledge that serves as the basis for external thought leadership. Sales enablement tools like LinkedIn Sales Navigator and SalesLoft make identifying people to target within an account much more efficient and effective. Marketing automation tools like ActOn, Hubspot and Marketo bring behavioral data into relational marketing to inform both broad-based marketing objectives and specific account pursuits.
- Pursuit Technologies — These are the technologies your firm can use to make your project pursuit activities more effective. Digital asset management tools like OpenAsset drive tremendous efficiency into marketing teams by reducing the burden of image and file management and massively streamlining the production of marketing materials. CRM technologies like Deltek Vision are the critical tools leading firms use to manage and track business development activities, centralize and maintain employee resumes and project profile data, and forecast what’s happening in the business.
Collectively, these technologies make both marketing and business development more effective, more informed and more efficient. Yet, a lot (if not the majority) of firms are slow to adopt. By 2018, I expect most of these technologies will have gained meaningful adoption across the industry.
I’m going to make the case for why I believe this to be so by showing you over time the incredible ways you can use marketing technology to make your new client acquisition efforts more effective and more efficient. I’m going to encourage you to take small incremental steps to try new things and new approaches based on technology. I’m going to show you how to apply data to relational marketing. And, eventually you’re going to hire someone like us (or us) to help you get incrementally better at using marketing technology to drive your business outcomes. And, it all starts right now. Right here.
#4 – Agile Marketing
Starting today, your marketing needs to start failing fast. Let me give you some clarity on what I mean. One of the more interesting talks of KA Connect 2015 was delivered by Jonathan Bykowski of Array Architects. Jonathan talked about the firm’s continuous improvement efforts. Essentially, Array has been applying lean principles to the practice of architecture. The initiative is transforming the firm’s client process, its culture and, to some extent, the very nature of the firm.
While I’m by no means an expert in lean, what struck me about Jonathan’s talk is the simple and efficient philosophy of lean. If I were to summarize it, lean is about being better today than we were yesterday and better tomorrow than we are today. It teaches work teams to identify problems and then organize to solve them incrementally over time. It embraces the recognition that perfect is the enemy of better. And, it encourages quick failures. Failure is simply the elimination of one alternative to solve the problem; hence getting us closer to actually solving it.
For students of software development, this sounds an awful lot like agile development. Agile is a philosophy embraced largely by developers to incrementally improve software. It utilizes daily huddles and bi-weekly project bursts to develop software more efficiently. In fact, we’ve been applying a similar approach to our web design projects for the past 6 months and have seen it deliver drastic improvements in our quality control processes.
And, finally, large corporations are starting to embrace this philosophy in their marketing departments. Agile marketing has been a hot topic in other industries for a few years now. While my sense is that only a minority of marketing teams actually operate this way, the logic behind it makes incredible sense. Organize daily, operate in small bursts, fail fast, try an alternate path, and consistently look for a better way.
While I’m not aware of any A/E firms adopting anything like this in their marketing functions, I do believe this is the direction most marketing departments will be taking over the next 5-10 years. And, given the forward-thinking nature of the firm, I’d expect you’ll see Array Architects apply its lean approach to its marketing efforts at some point in the near future to create its own flavor of agile marketing.
Summary + Action Items
If you’re a principal or a marketer in an A/E firm, I believe these 4 Pillars should be ignored at your own peril. Going forward:
- Thought leadership will play an increasingly critical role in attracting the best clients and projects.
- The best firms will invest substantially in both knowledge management and research to cultivate “both a practice advantage and a marketing advantage” (Chris Parsons).
- Technology will continue to transform how we market. Digital asset management and proposal automation tools will drive further efficiency into the marketing department freeing up resources to focus on higher-value activities like content and digital marketing. Marketing automation will eventually be embraced as a part of the AEC marketing technology stack and behavioral data will be used to inform content marketing efforts and will become part of the go/no-go process.
- Agile marketing, or some form of it, will eventually be adopted (especially in firms where marketing and business development are truly separate functions).
Here are some suggested action items for you after reading this post:
- Start a conversation in your firm about research. Use the conversation to identify 1 potential research topic you could pursue in the next 12 months; then do it.
- Commit to investing in 1 new marketing technology for 1 year. If you’re weary of investing in a broad system like CRM, consider a simple tool like LinkedIn Sales Navigator or a list-building resource like ZoomInfo. The key here is to get your firm comfortable with trying new approaches using technology. Small steps can lead you towards becoming a more sophisticated user of marketing technology and to more strategic, transformative investments later.