While techies may disagree on whether the building industry is on Web 2.0 or beyond, one thing is for certain: The traditional park-your-company-on-a-homepage website is no longer sufficient to support the business development efforts of AEC firms.
“A decade ago, design firms didn't really have an idea of what the Web was all about,” says Karen Courtney, manager of marketing and business development with Indianapolis-based BSA LifeStructures. “Early websites consisted of the equivalent of a firm brochure.”
As bandwidth grew and the number of users increased, many firms began to post everything and anything on their websites—project profiles, drawings, images, staff bios, and awards.
“The idea was that the more information the better,” says Courtney. But this “data dump” approach only bogged down websites and required users to sift through page after page of information to find what they needed.
Today, the data-heavy website has been replaced by a more streamlined and refined model that is highly targeted to the markets being served.
“Instead of posting 50 projects, we'll post a half dozen that highlight the changing way our firm builds healthcare and education projects,” says Courtney.
Effective websites also enable users to envision what it would be like to do business with the firm, says Mike Reilly, president of Boston-based Reilly Communications and chairman of the Construction Writers Association's annual Website Awards program.
“Whether you are a potential client or a potential hire, you want to know what it would be like to work with the firm,” says Reilly. He says the judging panel for the 2007 CWA Website Awards keyed on websites that play up the firm's culture and personality.
“In an industry where there is so much sameness, the judges were craving pages that showed a little differentiation, a little humanness, a little humor,” says Reilly. “So many firms have made their websites so similar to the competition's that there's no competitive advantage. Clients have a tough enough time telling design firms apart to begin with, and the similarity among websites only exacerbates the problem.”
Reilly suggests including more candid photography as opposed to formal images. “I'm not talking about posting snapshots of someone's cubicle,” says Reilly. “You still want something that's professionally done, but less formal, more real.”
Firms should also consider incorporating more-advanced technologies and practices into their websites, like streaming video. For example, companies can post short videos of their most-engaging personalities discussing important topics, such as master planning for hospitals.
“Video is quickly becoming the vehicle of choice for communicating on most consumer-based websites,” says Reilly. “That's going to work into professional service websites. It's great because it engages Web users in a way that text and still pictures never could.”
Blogs are another tool that can be effective for business development, but that doesn't necessarily mean firms should run out and launch a bunch of in-house blogs, says Reilly.
Instead, Reilly urges his clients to make deliberate and regular efforts to visit and engage with key industry blogs. “Have a dialog in the response section of the blog,” he says. “Become part of the conversation.”
As one example, Reilly points to a blog hosted by Paul Levy, head of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which is widely read in the healthcare industry.
“You want to read what Levy is writing, who is responding, and what issues are top-of-mind of the people who are in that business. It's also important to respond to be part of that community and be known.”
Attracting potential hires
BSA has developed a separate site for recruiting new employees. The firm draws primarily from recent college grads or those close to graduation. Being based in the northern Indiana, the firm has had a steady stream of candidates from Ball State and Purdue. In an effort to diversify the hiring pool, BSA is now aiming at students from univerities around the country.
Courtney says the firm utilizes their website to compete against more sought-after locales like New York and California.
“We created what we call a 'day in the life' of working at BSA, which allows potential students to better immerse themselves in life at the firm before actually signing on,” says Courtney. “We've had great success with the site in attracting a more diversified staff. We've attracted students to work in Indianapolis from as far away as Virginia and California.”