Marketing Plan for Architects: The 7 Steps To Attract Clients
How can you take control of your firm's future? One step at a time. Whether you're looking to get your first client, more clients, or just better clients: these are the 7 baby steps that I recommend to help you reach your marketing goals.
Follow these steps, and you'll have the right understanding of your marketing performance, point of difference in the market, and the beginnings of a consistent content marketing plan to help attract leads to your firm.
You'll notice that specific social media advice seems to be missing from this article. Since I've covered that elsewhere on this blog (here, here, here), I've decided instead to focus on the backbone of your marketing plan: the principles and practices that make up your long-term architectural marketing strategy. These are the things that will stand the test of time, and outlast any current social media advice.
Baby Step 1: Know what's going on in your marketing.
In this first step, you'll setup the tools that you'll use to measure how your marketing is going and assess your starting point. Without data about where your traffic is coming from, how many visitors you have, what they're doing, and why they aren't reaching out to you: you won't be able to make very impactful marketing decisions. Most importantly, you won't be able to tell what is working (so that you can do more of it), and what isn't (so you can stop wasting your time).
These are the tools every architect needs to familiarise themselves with, and the data you should check at least every 90 days or so.
You don't need to set strict KPI's or metrics for yourself and worry about them, but you do have to have a healthy interest in how your firm is doing over the long term if you're interested in growing and being more profitable.
You'd be surprised how many firms I interact with in my consulting practice who spend thousands of dollars or pounds each month on ads, SEO or a social media managers without checking their data to see whether it's having any impact.
Furthermore, you'll notice as I go through each tool that there are two steps to generate ideas for improvement from each finding:
- Ask pertinent questions about your performance based on the data presented.
- Generate hypothesis about how you could improve, in relation to those questions.
By following that process, and organising it around the data that you're measuring, it will be much easier to generate experiments in an organised way, without running the risk of overlooking obvious ideas the way you would if you were just staring at a blank page searching for tactics.
- Unique visitors: How many people are visiting your website?
- Acquisition source: Where are they coming from? Social media? Google? How have these changed recently in response to our marketing efforts?
- User Behaviour: Check each page of your site for bounce rate, and time on page. Keep an eye out for pages that are getting lots of engagement, and ones that are doing worse than the rest. Some pages and projects will have no visitors at all! Think about improving, moving or deleting those weak pages to bolster up the better parts of your site.
- A goal: It is very important that you get help setting up Google Analytics goal tracking on your site for whatever the primary action is that you want your visitors to take. Normally, that is submitting a contact form. But, you can also create a simple goal like "visited the /contact page". With this goal data, you'll be able to see where your most engaged users came from, what they looked at on your site, and much more. Some firms will even set up a goal like "spent 60 seconds or more on our site" or "visited at least 3 pages on our site" to at least get a sense of where their best visitors arrive from, even if those visitors don't reach out to the firm.
Google Search Console
Check your Google Search Console every quarter to see how you are performing in the Google search engine rankings. Review the data so that you can find answers to these important questions.
- Did our impressions and clicks grow compared to the previous 3 month period?
- Which pages are generating the most clicks, could we make them better?
- Which pages aren't getting any clicks, should we remove them from the site or take their content and add it to a page that's getting more Google Traffic? Could they be improved and updated so that Google gives the fresh, more detailed content a better ranking?
- Do any pages have bad click-through-rates, suggesting that the title or description could be improved to get more people clicking on our link in the search results? Is the description and title relevant to the search queries that the page is currently ranking for? (eg: Maybe the post is ranking well for Dental Clinics but you've got the project name "Main Street Clinic" as the page title.
Instagram Audience Insights
Review your Instagram Analytics from the Instagram settings menu to work out which posts are doing well, and which aren't. Growing and reaching a lot of people on Instagram is really simple: post more of the type of photos that get a lot of reach and engagement, and stop posting the type of content that doesn't.
The best way to do that is to review your best posts and figure out what elements made them work.
- What was the photo of? A hero shot? A detail? A Kitchen? A bedroom?
- What did you say in the caption?
- Which hashtags did you use?
- What time of the day/day of the week did you post it?
- Who did you tag in the photo?
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
It could take the form of a spreadsheet, Trello board or an expensive CRM app: but it's important to track what happened to leads and prospective clients.
I've noticed that a lot of clients have been able to generate new business by simply checking who they forgot to reply to, or who they should probably follow up with that they didn't. Most people's email inboxes are disorganised - it's important to create a separate repository for information about your conversations with project leads.
Even an autopsy on bad leads that didn't go anywhere, or were a bad fit, can give you useful information on what you could be doing to improve your positioning or sales process.
- Should you have followed up more?
- Were there prospect quality issues? (I like to give leads a star rating)
- What step of the sales funnel represented the biggest obstacle?
- How well did you close leads?
- What was the predicted revenue value of the contracts signed?
- Based on the info above, what is the average revenue value of a lead (both good and bad)?
Baby Step 2: Who is your minimum viable audience?
For your marketing to have an impact, you need a specific type of client in mind. Otherwise, who are you writing for? How can your website speak to your visitors? How can you educate them or solve their problems?
Seth Godin summarises it beautifully:
"When you seek to engage with everyone, you rarely delight anyone. And if you’re not the irreplaceable, essential, one-of-a-kind changemaker, you never get a chance to engage with the market."
"The solution is simple but counterintuitive: Stake out the smallest market you can imagine. The smallest market that can sustain you, the smallest market you can adequately serve. This goes against everything you learned in capitalism school, but in fact, it’s the simplest way to matter."
It's difficult to put into practice, but...
"Just about every brand you care about, just about every organization that matters to you–this is how they got there. By focusing on just a few and ignoring the non-believers, the uninvolved and the average."
Take my business, Vanity Projects, for example:
My minimum viable audience is registered architecture firms with 1-20 employees in Australia, UK, US, Canada and New Zealand who believe in the value of promoting architecture in modern, relevant ways. But, they know that architecture is a unique field, and have concerns about taking marketing advice from a marketing generalist without experience in the profession.
If a person like that goes looking for a marketing consultant, they will find me quite easily. I'm not very interchangeable in the market, so the case for working with me is clear: you will have a hard time finding a marketing specialist who has worked with any architecture firm, let alone 100+.
My vertical positioning works for me because my background is in architecture, I know the field, and I'm deeply passionate about it.
Do you have something similar to help seperate yourself from other firms?
Many architecture firms are afraid to position their firm around any narrow part of the market, even if they're more passionate about that area than anything else they find themselves doing. But, it's vital that you pick an area to focus on in your marketing.
You have a lot more to lose by not becoming unique, easy for clients to find and widely known as an expert in something.
My experience working with so many firms has taught me that by focusing your positioning around a strategically important niche, you'll find that the number of leads, and the quality of those leads will improve significantly.
Eventually, you'll become so well known for that one thing that you'll end up getting leads for all kinds of things. I get loads of leads from real estate agencies, property developers and building companies. I refer them to other consultants because I am fortunate to have a full schedule of consulting clients in the architecture field, and I'm not looking to grow my team, but you'll certainly be free to take on a much wider range of work that will be offered to you once you double-down on the right audience and establish a good reputation.
Baby step 3. Establish an email list.
Architecture isn't milk and bread, you don't buy it every week. In fact, the few people who need an architect rarely need one more than once in their lifetime. That means you can be patient. You don't need to grab the customer's attention while they stand in line at the check-out.
The best type of client follows an architect over the span of years, becomes familiar with their work, their ideas, and their capabilities. The ideal client would miss you if you were gone. They are your fan, then one day, your client. The most successful architects see their marketing working that way, they aren't in a hurry to "close the deal".
More importantly, they don't compete with thousands of other firms over the tiny handful of prospects looking for an architect in their area on any given day of the week.
Great clients don't set out to find an architect today, stumble across you and give you a call. Uninformed clients do that, the ones who will rarely understand the value of your service. The type of client who doesn't care to research and educate themselves on architecture before hiring an architect is the type of client who will ask for free work, undervalue your expertise, haggle over fees, and say things like "I've already designed the house myself, I just need someone to draw it up and get it through planning". In short, gross. That's a generalisation, I know - but I want to emphasise the point that introducing your firm to the few who are looking for an architect today is a terrible idea - it's much better to focus on building a relationship with people who genuinely value what's special and unique about the work you do.
Ignore the non-believers, the uninvolved and the average. Let someone else design their building.
To build, nurture and re-enforce that relationship with your audience over the span of years, it's important that your marketing is fundamentally about staying in touch. You can do that in a few ways - most firms do it through social media, but nothing beats email for reaching your core fans again, and again, and again until the message sinks in.
This, I believe, is the crucial limitation of social media that many brands are struggling with today. Your ability to reach your audience is declining day by day. Eventually, few of your followers will see your posts. They'll forget that you exist.
Below is data from Neil Patel's research showing the decline in social media engagement experienced by 183 brands generating at least $5mil a year in revenue.
It's clear that social media engagement is falling, on average. You've probably experienced it first hand on your accounts.
This is true not just for Instagram, but across the board as social media platforms become more competitive.
In a separate study, growthbadger.com interviewed a thousand brands to uncover their views on which channels are more important and less important now compared to two years ago.
They separated the bloggers by revenue. You'll notice that a significant portion of the more successful websites, with more traffic and more active audiences, view social media as less important now than than it was in the past.
They also clearly believe that email, advertising, and youtube are becoming more important over time compared to other marketing channels.
Instagram will not turn into MySpace, it will remain ridiculously popular, but there'll just be too much content for people to follow - Instagram will have no choice but to serve other people's images and videos instead of yours.
It's time to reduce your dependency on social media, the fossil fuels of marketing. Easy to access, high in energy, but an unsustainable and finite resource over the long term.
It's not to say that social media is dying. In fact, Neil Patel's study found that more of the large brand's customers are discovering them through social media now than at any other point in time, even though they are getting less engagement.
Still, it's a good idea to start an email list to diversify your brand and hedge against the unpredictability of social media, in any case. Your email list will outlast anything else you're doing on social media. Use Mailchimp or Convertkit. Start small. Add people when you can. Ask your Instagram followers to join (test their loyalty).
How often should you send them something? Whenever you have something interesting for them to read, look at or watch that will deepen their trust in you, and remind them why they connected with you in the first place.
It can be your projects, blog posts you've written, video of talks you've given, invitations to a Google Hangout group meetup or simply books, videos and articles you've read and want to recommend to your subscribers.
As the research shows, social media still plays a big part in introducing your brand and projects to new people - but retaining them and deepening that relationship is certainly best left to email and other channels.
Baby step 4: Start a blog.
Good things come to those who write. Your audience follows you because they like the way you think about architecture. If they're following you on Instagram, they like your fresh, original, surprising take on the types of spaces they live and work in.
They like what your work represents: a type of lifestyle, or future they dream about having for themselves.
They aspire to be like your clients: happy, healthy, wealthy, creative, smart, sophisticated. They see, in your work, an alternative to the mainstream way of life they grew up with.
You're a leader to them. A bit of a hero, actually. For some of your followers, you're their favourite architect in the world. How does that feel?
I believe that every architect who is passionate about the work that they're doing should be writing. Your audience wants to hear your thoughts. Show up, engage them, and they'll trust you more, understand what you do, the value you bring, and they'll tell their friends.
Writing works for so many reasons. It will make your firm a lot easier to discover online, but most importantly, it's a type of content you can make as often as you want, using the writing skills you learned in high school.
You can't make photos of your building every day, but you can write about your ideas and experiences designing remarkable architecture.
Some architects will write opinion and analysis. Others will find guides, how-to's and information easier to deal with. Some will find value in simply discussing what's going on in their firm, like a diary. Others will thrive from writing about design, and designers whose work they admire. There are many ways to skin the cat here.
But how do you figure out what to write about? I've spoken to architects who can't write to save their lives, and others who take to it like New York Times best sellers - the key difference between the two is that the latter reads every day, and the former doesn't.
In my personal experience, the best way to inspire your writing is to improve the quality of your media diet. Read business, economics and psychology books. Watch TED talks. Read blogs. Listen to smart podcasts. Replace some of your Netflix time with better quality writing and ideas and you'll find yourself overflowing with new thoughts and concepts that could help your audience and directly impact the quality of the work you're doing for your clients.
Baby step 5: Invest in your firm's branding and presentation.
Most architects invest too much money and time in the packaging of their business at the beginning of their marketing journey. They'll focus on the website, the business cards and photography, completely exhausting their marketing budget and mental space, before they've established their audience.
I met with a firm who spent $15,000 on their website - but they only had 35 visitors a month to look at it. Yikes!
The evidence of this type of procrastination and wastefulness is everywhere: there's actually more Google traffic for "How to name an architecture firm" than "How to market an architecture firm".
All of that can come later. An architect who knows their minimum viable audience, has a way to retain them, and lots of high quality content to share with them would not be concerned if their website looked off-trend by a year or two.
Many of the most successful brands, industry leaders and bloggers have terrible websites and branding, and they do just fine as long as their website and service is easy to find and provides an abundance of value.
But, let's say your firm is a little more established: you're out of launch-mode and you're looking to take your firm to the next level. Now the presentation of your firm becomes much more important.
Get a better architectural photographer.
The first priority is working with a reputable, leading architectural photographer. They're expensive but the ROI can be enormous.
Look up the leading architecture magazines, websites and awards programs catering to your market. You'll most likely find the same 10-20 photographers dominating the cover pages, award wins and viral project features.
Hire one of them. Seriously, make a point of picking a photographer who has a demonstrated ability not just to take great photos (in fact, you probably won't even be able to tell the difference between your regular photographer's work and theirs) but they have what your current photographer might not: the connections and brand authority to drastically improve the chances of your projects reaching the people who matter.
Changing up your photographer is a no-brainer, it works nearly every time.
Refresh your branding and website.
Next up, fix your branding. Get a fully customised website design from a highly respected graphic designer.
Don't approach a "SEO company", "digital marketing agency" or "web developer" to design your new website - these companies, in my experience, have a disturbing talent for producing brand new websites that look five years old and function like they're 20 years old.
Instead, look on Behance, Dribbble and Instagram for graphic designers who are doing remarkable work. Check that the companies they're working with are successful, design driven brands, and that people in the design space admire the work of your prospective designer.
Your designer will typically work through your brand strategy with you, develop your brand guidelines (including colours, typefaces and tone of voice) then mock-up a pixel-perfect layout for your website. After that, they will refer you to a trusted, talented web developer to have that website built from scratch to your designer's exact specification.
Your website doesn't have to be big, or complicated. Just keep it simple, and focus the visitor's attention on a handpicked selection of your best work.
Tell your story more clearly.
Lastly, develop a relationship with a talented copywriter who will be responsible for your website copy, newsletters, project case studies and media kits going forward.
This copywriter will be with you for the long haul.
Architects undervalue the writing they put out, but I'd argue that it is almost as important as your project photography.
Portfolios are for architecture students, case studies are for major league architecture firms.
Without a clear story about your projects, your firm and your client, you are leaving the interpretation of your mission, purpose, benefits, passions and process up to the visitor. The purpose of thoughtfully executed copywriting is to leave your visitors with a singular, clear takeaway.
Some architects worry about hiring a copywriter who doesn't have an abundance of experience in the architecture field. What I recommend here is to take a similar process to the one I mentioned above in the section about photography: reverse engineer your selection process from the final outcome you would like to achieve.
Build a shortlist of writers who contribute regularly to the websites and magazines that are relevant to your target audience - they are already vetted by the editors and their approach to architectural storytelling is already honed by the knowledge of their audience. Many of these freelancers and contributors will be working as copywriters in their spare time. Approach them and figure out which writers are likely to stick with you for the long-haul, and will be open to ad-hoc copywriting projects in addition to the kickoff project of re-writing your website copy and project case studies.
Step 6. Invest in your personal brand.
I love this video by Vox called "The formula for selling a million-dollar work of art".
The fine art world is a healthy reminder that a white canvas, a shark in a tank or a shredded portrait can be worth a lot of money if the artist is highly renowned and respected for their ideas, brand, influence or expertise.
The key takeaway? To sell a million dollar work of art, or architecture, you need strong market value and extremely high demand for your work. The biggest variable in achieving that is the reputation of the architect.
The statement is just as true for Damian Hirst as it is for your firm - especially so if you are a small firm.
Too many architecture directors worry about the consequences of stepping out from the shadows to put a face to the brand. We've been brainwashed by design studio coordinators to believe that "the work should speak for itself."
This is true in settings where the audience is trained to understand and interpret the work in a vacuum, but not when you're spreading the word about what you do in the real world, to real people.
It is important to remind ourselves that we are selling a service, not a product - and that means we're selling ourselves.
That service is highly personalised, ongoing, and built on trust, honesty and accountability.
It is vital that you focus on defining, substantiating and nurturing that reputation if you hope to take your firm's marketing to the next level.
It starts with your website, but should also be top of mind when you approach the media, your writing, public speaking and more.
Building a personal brand, and standing up for your ideas and your work doesn't mean that you turn into an egregious show-off. In fact, that's a terrible idea.
Strong personal brands in architecture come in every flavour. Peter Zumthor? Strong personal brand. Bjarke Ingels? Strong personal brand. Sou fujimoto? Strong personal brand.
To be more accurate, we'd at least say that these architects, while vastly different in their approach from one another, are visible. Their reputation establishes a set of expectations about their buildings.
You hear their name, and you can immediately imagine the kind of building they are likely to produce. The recognisability of their work and their ideas are intertwined.
The way these architects have been able to have that effect on us, their audience, is by speaking their minds, explaining their work in understandable ways, exploring their personal beliefs and experiences and not shying away from the public spotlight.
You can watch them speak for hours if you type their names into YouTube. Their quotes carry weight in interviews and features on websites and in magazines. They are industry leaders, sought out for advice and perspective on the issues they spend their lives thinking about.
They got where they are by developing their manifesto, articulating their ideas, and being open to the opportunity to share what they know and care about with audiences who are looking for answers.
Step 7. Offer strategic services.
Finally, it is important to modernise your business model by separating the strategic (thinking) and execution (doing) components that you offer to your clients.
Why? Because you are a unique thinker, not a unique glazing system specifier.
Seriously, most of your job, and what you charge your clients for is work that other firms, or even lesser firms could do to nearly the same standard.
The day to day tasks that make up your service have, to some extent, become commodities - and you've no doubt found yourself pressured to price these services lower and lower to compete with other firms, or to even consider outsourcing them altogether.
Even if you feel like you do that stuff better than anyone else, which I'm sure you do, you'll find the job of persuading prospects that it's true to be almost impossible.
More importantly, you've probably already realised that it's very, very difficult to differentiate your firm in the eyes of your customers in any meaningful way while focusing on the execution side of your business without resorting to boring, unconvincing statements like.
"Our buildings are about people."
"Our spaces are open, warm and inviting."
"We listen to our clients and work with them to build the home of their dreams."
No, we need to do a lot better.
We need to talk about our unique expertise, why our ideas are different, and why our work is for some people and not others. Hopefully, with experience, we'll have unique insights to share.
Then, we need to make sure that we're actually pricing the part of our service that our clients have really come to us for, the strategy and ideas, properly.
Here's a great video by Chris Do on value-based pricing, and pricing creativity in general. Lots of enlightening info in 36 minutes.
But here's another way to look at the split between strategy and execution, with a fantastic visual diagram from David C Baker.
Visualise a floor plan with two rooms. One is strategy, the other is execution.
Each room has a door to the outside world: our prospects can currently enter through whichever door they like.
The problem with most firms is that they weaken their firm's business model and positioning (and ultimately the final building) by communicating, promoting and focusing on their execution - the industry standard services they deliver in the production of a final building - and not their strategy, expertise and ideas, which are unique to their business.
The problem with all of this is threefold:
- The execution is not what attracted the prospect to your firm (it was your ideas).
- The problem the client needs help solving is strategic in nature and must be addressed in a rigorous, thoughtful way before diving into drawing gutter details and lighting plans.
- By offering execution directly to the market we are inviting cost comparison for identical services provided by countless other firms.
Instead of all of this, we solve the problem by shutting the door to the execution room altogether. We take the strategic aspects of our service, break them apart from the implementation, and charge an appropriately high fee based on how highly the solution is valued and demanded by our prospects.
Instead of rushing through the pre-design in a couple of meetings, and the concept in a few weeks - take your time on this stage. Charge more for it than your competitors do. Offer a deeper, and vastly more effective version of this service to your clients.
Most importantly, don't allow your clients to skip it. It's a necessary stage that you and your client will have to go through together for you to have any real hope of providing a meaningful solution to their problems, to provide real value and deliver on the promise and trust you've developed with the prospect through your marketing and reputation.
While you close the door on the execution room, you open up the door between the two. No longer do people approach your firm to buy ideas, or services - but one, then the other. In that order, priced appropriately for the different degree of value that each provides in relation to other firms in your market.
Most of the time, the consulting work I do with architecture firms is focused directly on correcting their weaknesses in the 7 areas discussed in this article.
It's important to get all 7 of these fundamental areas right before re-inventing the wheel in your marketing. As long as you follow the baby steps above, you'll be able to maximise your firm's marketing results over the long term.
Looking for specific marketing advice for your firm? Book a coaching session with me by visiting this link.