Maximizing the potential of social media practices in the creative professions

More than a decade into LinkedIn and Facebook, which were founded in 2003 and 2004 respectively, most Internet users take part in social media. In January 2014 the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of adult Internet users in the United States participate in at least one online social network — including 65 percent of 50-64 year olds and nearly half of those older than 65. Predictably, participation rates were higher for younger users.

The overwhelming majority of architecture and design firms are also engaged: 88 percent of firms in this year’s DesignIntelligence technology and innovation survey use social media.

But to what end? While 22 percent of respondents reported that social media led to new business prospects, twice that amount said that it did not and 35 percent did not know. Some in architecture and design firms may see such statistics as justification for backing away from social media. After all, if it doesn’t pay off in winning work, what good is it?

If done correctly, social media can be an effective part of a broader business development effort. However, firms that stop there are missing much of the power of the medium. Those who understand its nature can take advantage of the full scope of opportunity it provides.

Successful and sophisticated social media programs in architecture and design firms tend to share nine essential qualities:

1. The social media program integrates into a broader strategic and tactical framework. Social media activity is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for achieving strategic business objectives. Its success should be measured by how well it accomplishes goals in areas such as gathering market intelligence, adding to the firm’s knowledge base, or building the organization’s brand and culture. Social media should also be one step in a defined process. For example, a firm might use social media to identify and make initial contact with influencers in the design and business media, but seek to further the relationship through phone calls or face-to-face meetings.

2. It’s a conversation. Traditional marketing broadcasts to an audience: the firm sends a print brochure into the world and people must use another medium to respond — if they bother to do so at all. Announcing a news event on Facebook may feel like the traditional model, but social media is strongest at generating multi-party conversation. Another advantage: because social networking takes place in the public sphere, the medium gives firms access to conversations it normally would not be a part of. Consequently, the firm can have a voice in discussion topics that interest its clients, counter misperceptions and negative comments, and present a positive and authentic view of the firm.

3. The program is built on authenticity, originality, transparency and personality. The social sphere is keenly attuned to spin and will reject or ignore bland corporate speak and unoriginal thinking. Most social networks were originally built for personal or creative use. Consequently, users appreciate transparency (they like to know who they are dealing with) and they respond to brands that communicate an authentic personality and voice.

4. It takes the “two ears/one mouth” approach. Social media can provide more valuable platforms for listening and learning than for talking. Smart firms stay attuned to who is leading conversations on important topics, how the firm is perceived in the market, and what ideas may add to its expertise and leadership in practice.

5. Ultimately, the purpose is to build real relationships. Successful programs are founded on building strong relationships with key stakeholders: potential clients, community members, business and design media, potential talent, and others. Social media may function merely to make the initial contact or it may be the medium in which the conversation takes place, but the ultimate purpose is to create a connection between one person and another, as well as between individuals and a brand.

6. The program is tailored to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each platform. LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and other networks attract different types of participants, maintain their own norms of behavior and interaction, and impose different technical limits; a comprehensive plan adapts its content (especially topic, form and tone) to the unique qualities of each outlet.

7. Social media is paired with relevant, useful and original content. Tweeting a quote from Buckminster Fuller or posting an image of a new project on Instagram can be sufficient standalone content. But successful social media outreach should frequently point to deeper thinking conveyed in videos, infographics, blog posts, white papers, or other media. While passing along smart ideas from others is a natural part of social networking, the highest goal is to contribute something new to the conversation. Top-of-class social media practitioners base their programs on original content that is valued by recipients and positions the firm as an intellectual leader in its specialty.

8. It blurs the line separating the inside of the firm from the outside. Architecture and design organizations are full of people who use social media as an extension of their personal interactions. Smart firms resist the temptation to limit activity to official representatives (often members of the marketing department) and invite everyone into the conversation. Social media interactions can be like a visit the office — a way to experience the firm’s expertise and culture as conveyed by the people who live it every day.

9. Senior management provides the right support. Like any major initiative, no social media program can succeed without the right resources. A strong program requires the allocation of staff time, leadership of dedicated social media champions, and involvement of subject matter experts who develop thought-provoking content. Firm leaders and senior managers can ensure success by publicly supporting social media as a priority for the firm — and setting a positive example by their own participation.

Social media alone is not enough to ensure a firm wins great work from the right clients, attracts top talent, and stays abreast of the latest trends in professional practice. But when supported and implemented properly, it can be a vital part of a broader strategy to accomplish real and significant business benefits.

Bob Fisher is the publisher of DesignIntelligence and managing director of the Design Futures Council.