Dave Sharp advises architecture firms on social media, communication and marketing strategy. More.
Something must be happening in the construction market right now, because architects are busy again.
They're flat out with new projects, meetings, deadlines. It's nuts.
On the marketing front, things don't look so rosy. There are signs that with the increased pressure, firms are beginning to slip up. They are losing momentum.
They've been working hard since the start of the year, putting in the hours getting their firms into shape. Now, things are picking up and they're (quite understandably) feeling the temptation to take the foot off the gas and coast while they get cracking on D.A.'s, E.O.I.'s and R.F.I.'s.
This is risky behaviour. I saw it at the highs of the 2017 housing market. Firms got busy, went on what felt like a well-earned marketing sabbatical, and before they knew it they were back at square one.
It's unbelievable how much sentiment has changed from just a few months ago. The market had ground to a halt, and Architects were worried.
I wrote an urgent insight article about short-term marketing thinking during quiet periods in the hope of calming people's nerves. Essentially, it was about how we have a tendency to make poor decisions when we're fearful.
But now, just a bit later in the year, this article is about the other side of the coin - the bad decisions we make when we're busy, and I'll be honest, they're the months where we do the most harm to our firms - so settle in for a bit of tough love prodding.
Are you a YoYo-Marketer?
During quiet times, the bad choices have fairly trivial consequences. At worst, we waste time and money doing things that don't work. During busy times, however, we do nothing, fall back into old habits and risk setting our progress back by months.
If you're wired like me, you're a YoYo-marketer.
We've all tried to improve our diets before, lose weight, and get into shape. Eventually, after noticing some improvement, we get a bit too comfortable and slip back into old habits.
Cheat days multiply. We skip the gym sessions. It starts with one. We were too busy, life got in the way, honest mistake. But then we miss a week, then before we know it, we've gained back all the weight we lost (and often more).
The same thing happens when you're responsible for your own marketing.
We aren't proud of it. We wish we could be more consistent, because frankly, when the chickens come home to roost and the phone isn't ringing, we're kicking ourselves for letting things slide, eroding hard-won progress and not making the most of the opportunities we had.
It's just human nature, the Tortoise and the Hare.
The ability to moderate extremes and maintain balance during trying times is something we all want to be better at. The people we admire the most have that discipline to stay the course. We wonder how they keep so cool under pressure.
This article definitely doesn't apply to those types of people. I'm certainly not one of them. They can get themselves to the gym, make steady progress towards their marketing goals, put their head down and get shit done whether they feel like doing it or not. They just do it.
But for the rest of us, consistency and balance is the biggest obstacle to meaningful progress that sticks.
Busy times can be a blessing. We may not be able to get as much done, but approached the right way, they are always the source of the most meaningful progress.
Here's what to focus on when you're busy.
Take a step back and review strategy.
Remember your mother’s advice not to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry? Well, the same goes for developing a prudent marketing strategy.
When we're hungry for work, our strategy can end up looking like a scene from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. "We've got to get Harry The Hatchet half a million quid in five days or we're dead... any ideas?"
All kinds of sloppy, shortsighted tactics can get thrown into the mix, quickly signed off and actioned. We're in a rush to take action, so we don't really think things through.
When we're busy, the pressure is off. We can take a step back and think about the bigger picture.
- Where do we want to be in five years?
- What type of clients do we want to serve?
- What are the type of projects where we'll have the biggest impact?
- How is our brand reflecting our values?
- How is our marketing going to get us where we want to go?
These are the most valuable discussions you can, and should be having with your team, partner or advisor when you're improving your firm's marketing.
These conversations don't always conclude with a neat TODO list, but they're essential to the process.
Many of us believe that if you're not taking action, you're not moving forward - but that's the wrong way to look at it. Taking action for the sake of taking action without strategy, or purpose, is just busywork. You might get lucky, but the odds are stacked heavily against you. It's better to be patient.
Even if you don't have a professional to talk strategy with, talk to your team, mentors, or people you trust in the architecture community. Use this time to get to the bottom of what you really want for your firm, and question your own assumptions.
Plan for the lean times.
That said, there are times for reflection and time for action.
Quiet times, as I mentioned earlier, can be a bad time for strategic decision making. We just want to get to work. When we're quiet, we have unlimited time and scared-energy (scenergy?) to get stuff done, be productive, and work our way through a mountain of TODO items.
The last thing we want to do is sit down and think about top-level strategy. We want to get our hands dirty!
So, during busy months, I always take advantage of the opportunity to help clients to plan out the year ahead. I'd suggest you do the same.
Set achievable goals for the future, and work backwards to estimate what you'll need to get done month over month to get closer to your goal.
This plan won't be set in stone. Things will change. Who knows what, or how much you'll be able to accomplish in four months time. You don't want to pile pressure, or a feeling of being behind on yourself during this busy period.
Instead, look at this exercise as an opportunity to have a brainstorm. Pin some new ideas up on the wall you may not have been considering. Do some research, reading and most importantly, thinking.
Later on, when you have abundant free time to test out new approaches, you'll have a much better perspective on what's right for you.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of situations where diving in with gusto, improvising and experimenting are the right move, but as Lincoln said, "give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe".
With the pace of change and pressures on architects to do so much, whether it's social media, websites, media, awards and so on - those few times a year to pause, think things through, and discuss options, are rare and valuable.
During busy times, we're better off sharpening the axe and using our scarce marketing time for strategy. We'll start chopping some other time, and we'll be faster, and better when we do. We don't have the luxury to experiment right now.
The most impactful changes you can make during busy months won't be visible to the outside world - they won't be adjustments to your homepage copy or a new YouTube channel. They'll be changes in perspective and understanding, with a focus on personal growth and preparedness.
Later on, when it's time for action, the planning will be done and you'll be setup to do what you do best - crush that TODO list.
Work smarter, not harder.
Busy months are not the right time for investing a lot of time into new marketing activities, because that time doesn't exist. We need to save time, while maintaining progress.
Firstly, do an inventory and breakdown your marketing activities to figure out how much time you'll need to put into them to maintain a sufficient presence and prevent your firm from going backwards.
It's a bit like making a budget. We're going to track where every minute is going and make sure they're all working hard for your firm.
Ideally, you'll still do a little bit of everything, but we'll try to make that investment of time work harder for your firm by asking these questions.
- How can we simplify these marketing tasks and make more effective use of our time?
- Could we batch these jobs together somehow so that we don't have to do them as often?
- Can we minimise the nice-to-have elements (like 300 word captions) so that we can focus on the core value offering (the beautiful photos)?
- Can we make tweaks and changes to improve performance, so that we can get a better output?
- How can we delegate some of these responsibilities to other people in the firm and share the load?
- Is there a way for us to outsource parts of our plan now that we've locked down the strategy?
During a busy month it's vital that you maintain the skeleton of your marketing output. It will be greatly reduced through simplification, and there may even be some latitude for avoiding certain channels altogether - but be careful.
While you may believe that you'll return to a certain responsibility in a couple of weeks when things calm down a little bit, operate on the assumption that the delay could be significantly longer - because it probably will be.
Really think through the consequences of what would happen if it took you far longer than expected to get back to that activity.
If you stopped doing X for three months, who would you risk disappointing? Who would likely forget you exist, or tune out? Who would be considering working with you but end up speaking to someone who is providing more value, more often? Whose trust would you lose, if you didn't turn up when you said you would? How much effort and time would it take to get back to where you are right now?
Architecture firms who achieve their marketing goals are tortoises. They just keep going, slowly making improvement and bringing more people along for the ride month over month, year over year.
They don't always make the best choices, they don't do everything perfectly, but none of that matters - they stick to the plan and turn up when they're supposed to.
Then, at some point, a feedback loop kicks in in their favour. The flywheel starts spinning and the same amount of effort begins to generate big results.
We all want to get there, but sticking to it is hard. As entrepreneurs, we set our own standards for what's acceptable, and lot of the time, we struggle to make ourselves accountable.
To keep myself honest, and on track through months where I don't feel like making the effort - I try to imagine that someone else is managing my marketing and they're reporting to me on what they did, and what they plan to do.
If they told me they planned to do nothing this month because they were too busy, and didn't get around to it last month either, I wouldn't be too happy.
But then, hopefully, I could send them this article and they could focus on these three things to get us back on track:
- Take a step back, review the strategy and assess whether it still makes sense for my goals.
- Breakdown what they'll be doing when their time becomes available again, and prepare with research and discussion.
- Develop a maintenance plan to keep important projects active, and simplify tactics where possible to get better return on investment.
I've learned from my experience working with so many firms, that the biggest improvement anyone can make is improving their thinking about what to do during busy and quiet months.
These months are extremes. They're outliers. Most months of the year are pretty vanilla, but they don't count. The extremes are the ones that throw us off course.
Most of the cases of marketing failure that I encounter in my consulting work are attributable in one way or another to volatility, and how the director handled it.
It's important to expect, plan and prepare for volatility: because it's either happening to you right now, happened recently, or will happen soon.
The beautiful, painful cycle of running an architecture practice.