Dave Sharp advises architecture firms on social media, communication and marketing strategy. More.
I bet that at some stage in the last twelve months, this thought has gone through your head.
"The copy on our website seems a bit banal and sterile. It doesn't really scream who we are or what we're about. It feels a bit same-same. Maybe we should put our feelers out to speak to a copywriter...."
Let me stop you there. I get a lot of firms asking me for help with this - and I want to write this post so that I can link to it the next time I'm asked.
When it comes to the copy your visitors read when they visit your firm's website for the first time, there's two schools of thought on how you can make substantial improvements.
The first is emotional, and the second is practical. The former has spread like wildfire through our industry of late, but it's the latter that I want you to focus on to crush 2019.
YOU DON'T NEED TO SPICE UP YOUR WEBSITE COPY!
I get why so many architects are focused on this - being undifferentiated in a relatively narrow, highly competitive niche like Architecture In Your City sucks.
Seriously, have you ever got yourself into a funk and wondered privately why anyone would even hire you to begin with when there's a firm down the road with more experience, more Instagram followers, more awards, more magazine covers and worst of all... they charge the same or less than you do!?
I get it. I just wanted to write the post to assure you that jazzing up "Make An Enquiry" into "Say Hi!" and "We design award-winning, sustainable buildings with a unique connection to time, space and light" into "We make cool homes for even cooler peeps." isn't going to move the needle as much as you need it to.
Copywriters specialise in bringing your personality and authentic tone of voice to the fore so that your prospective clients can better understand your human qualities.
Copywriting is usually thought of in this way. It's the How you say what you're trying to say.
This is the friendship factor, and it's really important. What is a website for if not to begin to establish some kind of personal relationship and sense of affinity with your reader?
Tone of voice is the oil of a well-built brand, and brand is everything.
That said, can I butt in as the annoying marketing guy for a second to rain on the parade?
Where I take issue with copywriting in our industry is that it's often espoused as a miracle panacea to a total lack of differentiation. In my opinion, it doesn't really begin to solve that problem.
You have a differentiation problem, and here's why.
Architects aren't undifferentiated because we all speak "archispeak". I'm not going to join the chorus of bloggers bashing archispeak. We're undifferentiated because sometimes we're a bit greedy and impatient when it comes to turning down work that's a bad fit for our business.
We welcome all opportunities regardless of fit, with a bias towards an insufficiency mindset; that paranoid voice in our head telling us that the project we just started could very well be the last one we'll ever get.
We're ambitious (I said greedy earlier, but I meant ambitious, but I'll also throw in overconfident for good measure) in taking every type of job from every type of vertical. Cafe? Sure! Library? Sure! Airport terminal? Why not!
In fact, being a proud generalist and portraying generalism as the future of architecture is so on trend right now. Generalism is apparently "what we do better than anyone else". In reality, savvier professionals are happy to leave generalism to the architects because it's business suicide. We're happily positioning our industry around everyone else's table scraps.
Moving on, the consequence of all of this ambition is that we don't segment our audience demographically, or vertically in any meaningful way because we're conditioned to say yes to every opportunity.
Firms will often pose me a fairly impossible question "How can we segment our website [or worse, Instagram] so that it speaks to both residential clients, and commercial at the same time?".
That isn't actually segmentation. How do you segment red and blue in a paint can so that it doesn't become purple but remains vividly red and blue? You can't, you get purple every time.
True segmentation, true positioning, requires discipline and sacrifice. It's black and white.
It means strategically deciding early on that you do a certain type of work, for certain types of people, and you reject all else. Do that, and re-evaluate each year, or every five. Then, after time, if your positioning isn't working for you you can do something else, it's called a pivot. Just don't try to do both at once.
Why don't architects make these tough rules for themselves and stick to them?
We don't have discipline and we've been brainwashed by design studios into believing that a cacophonous, scattered and unfocused portfolio is demonstrative of talent.
We think novelty is strength. We think that a brief that's radically different from anything we've done in the past is a sign of career progress.
The reality is that we can't see ourselves the way we're seen by everyone else when we act this way: unfocused, desperate, and as the old saying goes, a master of none.
How you can position your firm
When working on this problem with clients in my day-to-day work as an architectural marketing consultant, I like to start with a revenue analysis to find out what's actually driving the business.
We'll start with a hypothetical firm.
House House Architecture's website says that their "industry-leading work spans private residential, multi-residential, commercial and civic projects."
Their revenue break-down tells a different story. They actually generate 80% or more of their revenue from private homes. The other 20% is the result of caving to temptation. They're formidably efficient at those homes, because they've done it so many times, and they invariably lose money on the other stuff.
When asked, "what make-up of your residential clients are owner-occupier as opposed to investors?. The answer is about 80% of the clients are owner occupiers, but the 20% of investors make up about 50% of the firm's revenue considering repeat business.
Now we have boiled down to a number of strategic questions that can drive truly effective positioning and copywriting decisions - if we can bravely take enjoyment and novelty out of the equation for a moment.
"In our business's current position does it make sense to focus on residential clients or commercial/civic clients?" We can't choose both.
"Amongst residential clients, should we position around investors or owner occupiers?" Considering that one is business-to-consumer and the other is business-to-business, either will require drastically different marketing and communications strategies and trying to blend the two can have disastrous consequences. Again, we can't choose both.
Do you see what this process is about?
What does this have to do with copywriting?
I really want to get this point across: you can't effectively market your business, or write good copy if you don't have a watertight boundary around what you do, and what you don't do.
Once you've taken a hedge-trimmer to your business plan, the real fun can begin.
In that hypothetical firm, they may have finally decided on the following as their true positioning.
"We are an architecture firm that specialises in premium residential projects for forward-thinking property investors in New York City."
Boom! Positioned, at last. Isn't it a breath of fresh air to see a firm just being true to what it is? Contentment, confidence and focus leap off the page and smack you right in the face, right?
Duplexes for property speculators may not be your kettle of fish, but don't worry, yours will be totally different and reflect what you're great at.
The best part of all of this? Your copywriter and marketing consultant will finally have something concrete to work with. In fact, because genuine, disciplined strategic positioning is so rare in the architecture profession, I can promise you that they'll both be chomping at the bit to get started.
Why would I be so excited to work with that hypothetical firm? Because I can market the hell out of it.
I know exactly who they're targeting, and I can start to think about how that type of person thinks, their hopes, fears and dreams. I can think about what channels they are active on, and the pages of my growth playbook to bring to the table.
Taking a moment to speak for your copywriter, their next step should involve embellishing that client persona (sometimes known as in ideal client persona), then surveying those ideal clients for real-world insights.
Your copywriter, or you if you're feeling up to it, can study their answers to find out how they describe their needs, your value and what makes you special, in their own words.
Odds are, the clients you're prospecting for look, think and sounds a lot like the clients you already have - if you practice disciplined positioning.
When it comes to copywriting that connects emotionally, prospects ultimately just want to hear their own voice projected back at them.
Let me give you a personal example. When I wrote the intro copy for Vanity Projects, it used to say something like "Helping architects to get their projects noticed online.".
However, after collecting a significant number of survey responses from both existing clients and those who have 'converted' by booking a free consultation, I discovered that not a single one of them mentioned project recognition or awareness as their key concern.
What did they say? They were looking to "... generate project leads" without exception. Happy to handle my own copywriting, without adding too much personality, I changed my headline landing page copy to "We help architecture firms to generate project leads." and my conversion rate skyrocketed. Obvious, right?
At the start of this article, I mentioned practical copywriting, and that example from my own website sums up what I mean by practical. It relates to positioning, and the needs of your clients. It's about having a solution to their problem. It's about answering their question quickly.
It's about having the self-esteem to be okay with being a square peg in a square hole.
More importantly, it's about sacrifice.
The reason my copywriting used to focus on getting projects noticed was that I had heard a lot of prospective clients on calls say things to me like "we're not looking for new project leads, we just want to improve our firm's brand awareness.". Guess what I found out about those firms in hindsight? They don't pay for marketing because they can't see the ROI.
I allowed my positioning and my copywriting to be swayed by directors who were too skeptical of marketing to work with me in the first place.
I was too sensitive to rejection and leaving money on the table. I was too eager to please. I was too greedy and impatient to say no to opportunity, to ignore that voice telling me it was the last one I'll get.
Strict positioning is my only focus for 2019 as I mature in business.
If an architect who gets an icky feeling when she sees the words "generate client leads" ventures onto my site, I'm happy for her to just close the tab. I don't want us to go any further and waste each other's time, time that I could be spending on driving ROI for my clients.
I know what my team and I do extremely well, what works for us financially, and what has the biggest impact in on the health of the architecture profession.
I'm happy to do that over and over again and say no to temptation.