Dave Sharp advises architecture firms on social media, communication and marketing strategy. More.
What do you think the best architecture website is?
It's not this...
Sure, these websites are cool, but they're totally pointless in 2019.
I'll give you a hint...
Architecture firm websites are too complicated.
Architecture firms spread their website out across too many pages.
As a consequence, their homepages, the most important page on their site, turn into the Yellow Pages.
In 2020, people don't need more information or choices, they need simplicity.
An architecture website should only have two things, a homepage and a lead form.
Why do we insist on having more than that?
- 30+ project pages across seven verticals.
- About us.
- Our process.
- Our philosophy.
- Our Team.
This feels familiar.
In design studio, I would print my portfolio across 30+ A3's to make my work look more substantial and impressive.
It didn't fool anyone.
Unfortunately, we tend to do it with our websites as well.
It gets even worse as a firm grows.
Project after project gets added until the portfolio overwhelms the entire website.
The more projects, the poorer the user experience.
Why? The vast majority of these projects, and pages, are dead weight. Distractions.
They're called Zombie pages.
When I review a client's analytics, we hunt down these zombie pages: the 50% or more of pages on their site that receive ZERO VISITORS, EVER.
They exist out of formality, not functionality.
These zombies clog up the homepage, navigation, and only serve to distract visitors away from the places you want them to be spending their precious time: your best work.
You only have a couple of minutes of their time.
It's heart-breaking to delete zombie projects off your website, but you have to sacrifice them for the greater good.
Positioning is not a process of reframing or refreshing, it's deleting.
When you're afraid to kill your darlings, it becomes much harder to position your firm.
It becomes even more important that you make tough choices as your firm grows.
Growing studios suffer from vertical sprawl: dabbling in new areas of business and turning their portfolio from a thoughtfully crafted set-menu to a Sizzler all-you-can-eat.
What I mean by that, is that you can't clearly tell people what you're the best at.
Not just okay at, the best at.
The majority of your expertise will be in a particular vertical.
You want to communicate the core service, what you're the best at, with as few distractions as possible.
To do that, you take your best, or at the most, top three projects in your primary category and only focus on those.
I'm great at talking to architects about marketing. I'm okay at Adwords. You won't see Adwords anywhere on my website, even though it's a service I have been paid for in the past. You see consulting, and just consulting.
The random one-off projects that sit outside of your ballpark make positioning so much harder.
I encourage my clients to keep it simple - one page with everything you need, and a tightly controlled story about what you do.
We want to control the experience, and takeaway, our website offers our visitors.
We don't want a rich diversity of opinions and beliefs about your firm's website and what you're trying to say.
A homepage is the first, and most of the time, the last thing a visitor will see on your website.
As more users are on their phones, and more than 50% of Google searches are mobile (let alone social which is about 95%), it's high-time that you move on from the old-school hierarchy of countless menus and pages.
Complex websites don't work well on mobile devices.
If you can tell your story in one page, then do it.
The job of your homepage is to quickly confirm what you do, who you are and then tell the visitor where to go next.
A really good example of an architecture firm website that keeps it simple is Matt Goodman Architecture Office.
This homepage stands out to me because it doesn't overwhelm the visitor with options.
The menu items are there, but they're discreet.
That's a great, restrained starting point to build from.
There are three projects, followed by contact information.
In short, "I design stuff like this. You can reach me here."
Less is more, and a bit of mystery can be a good thing, depending on where your firm is getting it's traffic from.
Matt's simple website ticks the boxes because his visitors are warmer, and more engaged, than most firms.
He has worked hard over the last few years to build a fantastic brand on Instagram.
His visitors would be made up of people searching for "MGAO" or "Matt Goodman" in Google.
These are called Brand Queries. They represent the results of your brand-building efforts.
The rest would be clicking through from Instagram directly.
Matt doesn't really have to talk about himself very much, or his projects, on his website.
Specifically, he doesn't have to introduce his visitors to his brand.
His visitors have already seen everything they could ever want to know about him and his work on Instagram.
You could argue that his website is of little importance when he has 10.6k followers, a contact button on Instagram, a bio, a location, a phone number and hundreds of beautiful posts.
For firms who are successfully building brands on Instagram, they'll probably agree with me that their websites feel a bit redundant.
So what is Matt's website for? Or what could it be for?
To be exact: why are his visitor's on his website at all? What is going through their head? What do they need?
Social media is confusing, but websites consolidate everything in 90 seconds or less.
There's an app called Blinkist which takes 400-page business books and sums them up in a 10-minute audiobook that you can bang out on the tram home.
Websites, in 2020, are like these 'Blinks' - they just save time and make your studio easier to understand in a quick visit.
It's that simple. Curiosity is driving people to leave the noise of Instagram in search of a digestible, simply-stated story for them to believe in.
That is why we keep things simple and ensure we have answers to these questions:
"What is the best project you've got to show me?"
"How well does what you do overlap with what I need? Is it 50:50? Or is it a 1:1 perfect match?"
"How can I approach you/do you actually want to be approached?"
Another website that does a great job of that is John Ellway.
His one-page website is just about his best project, Terrarium House.
He's 'launching' his firm via this project, the way Steve Jobs launched the iPhone: dramatically.
A less-confident firm would build a Sqarespace site, and start padding their portfolio with little odd-jobs and paper architecture to sit alongside their debut project.
Not John. He has a great project, a defining project.
So he did this. Watch it.
Isn't that the most beautiful video you've ever seen?
It is followed by a vertical gallery, lovely text, and a nicely written about section...
... and contact form.
It's a long page, but it does one thing really well: it celebrates his best work and sets up his unambiguous positioning.
John was also building a personal brand long before he turned any serious attention to his website.
Okay, so Matt and John built brands, and that gave them the rare opportunity to keep their sites brief - what do you do if you don't have a brand yet?
In any other discipline, we'd say something along these lines:
"Okay so your traffic from Brand Queries is low, but you're getting plenty of visitors who are googling "Fitzroy Graphic Designer" so we need to have a lot of copywriting, photography and portfolio to introduce them to you for the first time."
And that would be the typical clunky architecture website!
The problem with that, is that architects don't get much traffic from generic Header queries.
On the contrary, the firms that get all of the cold traffic are also the ones with the strong brands.
Architecture firms with big brands, and lots of Instagram followers, generally crowd out the first, second and third Google search result pages for most generic queries.
Here are the SERP results for "Melbourne Architect".
B.E., Lyons, Bower, Austin Maynard.
The biggest difficulty for these firms is deciding whether or not to focus their website more towards their generic queries or warm Branded queries.
Cold traffic has a specific need, they don't care who does it. Warm traffic knows they want you, they just aren't ready to buy yet.
As an advocate for quality leads over quantity of leads, I'd recommend focusing on the warm audience that's already in love with you - even if they're a minority of your visitors.
But for the firm without a brand, and without a legit social media presence, you're unlikely to have warm or cold traffic.
So what do you do?
My advice to any firm would be to focus on your brand rather than your website, but even more so for pre-emerging (is that a thing?) firms.
Brand is the biggest word of mouth, social media, and SEO factor from now on.
We live in the age of Fake News. Trust is everything.
The internet needs to see you building a brand.
This video from Neil Patel, a leading digital marketer, sums it up perfectly.
So, focus on brand before worrying about your website.
FreadmanWhite, a client of ours, did just that.
This is their website.
Full website launching late 2019.
It has been some variation of a Coming Soon splash page for as long as I can remember - a few years at least.
They used whatever time they had available for marketing to prioritise this:
Want to know the strangest part?
Their website is killing the SEO game.
It doesn't have on-page SEO, or any content for that matter - but look at what they've achieved by focusing on their brand.
These are referring domains: publications, websites, and social media pages linking to their site helping them to build authority.
These are the Google keywords they already rank for.
The dark orange sections are position 1-10.
If you build a brand, you're indestructible.
As soon as they turn their attention to their website, it will flourish.
It will tick every box for Google:
- Content ✅
- Authority (via backlinks) ✅
- Brand Queries ✅
Conventional architecture websites are designed for Desktop-acquired cold traffic from Google.
That audience is getting less and less meaningful with each passing year.
The future of architecture websites are single-page celebrations of a firm's best project, and an approachable next step.
They distill your firm to a brief, digestible story.
By simplifying your website, and culling your zombie content, you'll strengthen your positioning, distill your message and motivate people to take the next step.
Most importantly, you'll save time.
Stop stressing about your website... focus on building your brand elsewhere.
Write a blog. Start a podcast. Make 'How to' videos on YouTube. Document your daily grind on Instagram Stories. Curate the best content on LinkedIn.
The best architectural brands invest their time in building passive relationships at scale with an audience of passionate architecture fans: you can too.