In this post, we’re only going to look at the 2 stages of buying where the web appears to have its most active role in the buying process — Researching and Evaluating. And, we’ll outline the sections of the A/E firm’s website that play the most critical role during each phase.
The framework for this post is outlined in my recent article on the 8 Stages of the Buyer’s Journey and the Professional Service Firm Website. Here’s an image from that article that shows how the web fits into the buying process:
1. Researching (12-24 months prior to the project)
The research stage in advance of a major architectural project could easily be many months to well over a year. At this earliest stage of the buying process, there’s really two types of research that a prospective client for an A/E firm performs:
- Issues-Based Research
- Firm-Oriented Research
This is research driven towards the fundamental challenges the client is facing in their business. It’s often problem-oriented and conceptual in nature. Clients use issues-based research to frame their thinking at the earliest stages of a project. Essentially they’re looking for objective perspective on what they should be thinking about in relation to their upcoming capital investment The client is building a framework for what will matter to the project’s success and in selecting an A/E firm. Issues-based research is generally organized in the form of a series of questions. Some examples could be:
- What’s driving the workplace of the future?
- What trends are shaping the design of oncology centers?
- What does a thorough inspection of a grain silo entail?
- How often should we update our master facilities plan?
- How are advanced manufacturing techniques impacting facility investments?
- How will technology change the nature, use and function of higher education learning facilities over the next 15 years?
- What is most important to young families in selecting a vacation resort?
Relevant Site Content: Knowledge Centers and Thought Leadership
Issues-based researchers will find a home inside your firm’s knowledge center and thought leadership channels. In fact, there’s a good chance they’ll spend virtually all their time inside this area of your website. If you have sound research and well articulated thought leadership on the right issues, it can often be the client’s first entry-point into your firm. Maybe your firm has a research program, maybe it publishes a monthly article, or maybe you have a collection of issues-based blogs. Regardless your thought leadership positions you as a value-added resource for the client BEFORE they even think about talking with any A/E firm.
Roughly 70% of your firm’s website content development efforts should be focused on producing this type of issues-based content.
This research generally occurs towards the latter half of the stage. Once a client has established a framework for what will be important to the project, they begin to identify and seek potential partners. While a large client making a $2-300M facilities or infrastructure investment generally has a sense of who the key players are in the space, this doesn’t mean they’re not still asking questions about those firms and looking for answers to them both on the web in general and more specifically on the firm’s website. Some examples of questions a client might be asking at this stage could be:
- Who are the top healthcare only architecture firms? Do they have specific experience that appears to be releavant to this project?
- Who are the leading silo design firms and contractors in the market?
- Which firms are being most recognized recently for their work in the higher education market?
- Who are the leaders in the firm’s healthcare practice? Have they written or spoken on issues related to design of oncology facilities recently? What have they done in that area recently? What are they working on now.
Relevant Site Content: Portfolios, Firm and Leadership Profiles
Once a buyer has framed the issues driving their investment, they start to shift toward formulating preliminary impressions about which firms they might be interested in working with on the project. At this point in time, they start to migrate away from the firm’s thought leadership towards more traditional marketing content. They generally look first toward portfolios to get a sense of the firm’s past experience and the impact of its work. Then, they spend time within the firm’s actual marketing content — practice area overviews, explanations of disciplines and services, and any other content related to how the firm tells its corporate story. Keep in mind, the buying stage that directly follows research is the resolving stage. Essentially, once a client has established a perspective of what needs to be done, they look to build the confidence and organizational commitment to move forward. To the extent possible, these elements of your site should be structured to inspire your clients about the prospect of working with you. You’re looking to offer a vision of a better reality, both for the client personally and for their organization.
2. Evaluating (3-6 months prior to the project)
During the stages of resolving and planning, clients tend to go dark relative to their interactions with a firm’s website (and usually the firm, in general). They may make short site visits here and there, but they’re not meaningful interactions. However, once a client completes the planning phase of their effort, and they enter the evaluation stage of buying they’re likely to return to the site for at least a few meaningful visits. The site plays a critical role in the pre-evaluation stage of a client’s journey. This is the informal stage of evaluation where clients vett the collection of firms they identified during the research stage to determine whether they’d like to have more formal interactions with them.
Relevant Site Content: Thought Leadership, Design Books and People Content
Contrary to what you might think, at this point in the process, clients are likely to spend less time in a firm’s portfolio of work. The research phase already largely weeded out the firms less qualified to do the work. If your firm’s still in the consideration set, the client has already largely concluded that the firm’s reputation and experience meets their expectation. At this point, the client is trying to get a sense of what it might be like to work with you. They’re looking for any cues that might describe the culture, the firm’s orientation towards client service, and what it might be like to work with them. To our surprise, the evaluative buyer tends to return to the firm’s thought leadership channels. Yet, they’re not squarely returning in a learning and educational capacity as much as they are with an eye toward what the firm’s people are like based on what interests them and how they write. Also, clients are likely to spend more time with design books to try and get a sense of the firm’s perspective on projects like theirs. And, finally they will spend much of their time with the people-oriented aspects of the site. They’re essentially validating the people they might work with. This is often true even if they’ve already had conversations and potentially, face-to-face meetings.
Three Recommendations for Applying These Learnings
So, how can you use this information to make your website a more effective selling tool for your firm and advisory tool to your clients?
- Psychological States — As you look at each stage, you’ll notice that the buyer is in a different psychological state at various points in the buying cycle. This can have an impact on the style, media and tone of communications. Content targeted towards the issues-based researcher should focus on being educational, objective and thorough while content targeted towards the firm-oriented researcher should focus on quickly communicating outcomes and impact. Finally, content targeted towards the evaluator should focus on making the firm’s people feel personable and real.
- Better Call-to-Actions — Ultimately, when you extrapolate the buying process further it becomes abundantly clear that firms need to think about the progression of calls-to-action more thoroughly. Instead of that static “contact button”, firms should consider a variety of different points of conversion such as subscription offers, targeted content offers, and showcasing critical personnel.
- Identify Buyers at Different Points in Their Journey — This insight can help you allocate business development resources towards people based on where they appear to be in their buying process. With marketing automation and lead scoring mechanisms, a firm has the ability to identify later stage buyers based largely on their behavior. At first, you’ll use this solely as a tool to prioritize potential clients for targeted, proactive business development outreach. Eventually, you’ll use this information to help you deliver a more personalized web experience based on what interests people and where they are in their buying journey.
Other Useful Information