Marketing your architecture practice during a downturn
At some stage in the life of every architecture practice, you’ll face a challenging economic environment that makes operating and marketing your practice much more difficult.
The economic shock could be isolated to your city, niche, the broader architecture profession, or even the entire global economy. It could feel like it’s happening all at once, as we saw with the sudden arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, or slowly, as it did during the Global Financial Crisis.
Either way, you’re probably here because your practice is in a financial pinch, and as a business person, you’re faced with many tough decisions.
In terms of your marketing, you’ll probably be feeling a mix of emotions. On the one hand, marketing might seem like an unnecessary use of your time, energy and money.
On the other hand, you also understand that there will be some opportunity for change and growth in this new market.
If you’ve been spending money on marketing recently, that recurring monthly investment will look like a really appealing place to free up cash. Even if you haven’t spent a dime, downturns are stressful, and naturally, you’ll be looking to take the pressure off yourself by cutting back on your responsibilities and worries. If you stop marketing your practice, that’s one less thing to think about, one less distraction.
Slamming the brakes on your marketing, in times like these, feels a lot better - but it isn’t better for you. Now - more than ever - you need a marketing strategy and you need to learn the tools necessary to get you there.
Hopefully, you’re here, reading this blog, because you understand that both these things can be true at once. Our strategies can be updated in light of these new developments to be more efficient, and conserve resources, while also allowing us to maintain what we’ve built over time and hopefully come out the other end in an even better position.
In this article, I’ll cover the strategies and ideas you can use to help you make the most of whatever economic situation your practice is facing.
The risk for architects in a downturn
The big risk here is overreacting and damaging whatever hard-earned progress we’ve made over the months, or years, that our firm has slowly been building its position in the market, and peoples’ minds.
We want to take action quickly, in the hope that we can suddenly generate enquiries from new potential clients.
However, effective short-term marketing tactics for architects are extremely limited in their range, and impact. The hardest part of my job, as a marketing consultant, is when architects ask me what they can do in the next month or two to quickly generate new business.
The marketing world tells us about all of these ‘low-hanging fruits’ we can do to make the phone ring, but in my experience, they almost never work.
The easy shortcuts, a little sweat for a lot of reward, an easy opportunity waiting to be seized - might make us feel better because we’re doing something, but at best, they’re stressful distractions for you and your employees, and at worst, they can do damage, if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Architecture is just a slow, patient kind of business. There's no shortcuts. It takes a lot of meaningful effort and really smart choices to get the lead-generation process up and running.
So instead of trying to react to the current situation and focusing every available resource on the short-term, I think you should do the opposite. Seriously, go long-term while everyone else is thinking short-term.
I know, it isn’t easy. In fact, you’ve got to have a lot of courage to be marketing for the long-term when you’re worried about paying your bills in a couple of months time.
But, there’s a few reasons it’s a good idea to try your best to be patient during times like these.
Firstly, you’ll be better prepared than other firms to grow during the inevitable recovery.
Secondly, in my experience, prospects respond much better to quality, brand-focused content than they do to more aggressive short-term sales and marketing tactics. While a Google Ad, in theory, should generate a lead more quickly than say, a blog post, it isn’t usually the case. If you pursue marketing projects that are designed to reward you gradually over a longer time horizon, you shouldn’t be surprised if you also see them having an immediate impact.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, short term marketing tactics generally don’t work for architects and tend to just waste your precious time and money.
Slow down and make a plan.
Let’s start by acknowledging that a reduction in client demand will result in an abundance of available time, for you, and your employees. You need to use this silver lining to your advantage. Through a positive lens, a demand crisis is the best moment to step back and reassess.
Long-term marketing planning, for most firms, will involve a few key elements:
- A clear sense of your message, and brand position in the market that differentiates you from your competitors.
- A website with good-quality copy that successfully articulates that message.
- A plan for creating interesting content that will express that message on social media.
- A simple plan for where that content will live online, and how and when you’ll share it.
I know these are big questions. But I’m not asking you to sleep on it and have the answers ready tomorrow morning. I’m asking you to sleep on it for a month. Behavioural psychology and neuroscience tells us that you make better decisions when you’re relaxed. Take advantage of the pause to think more deeply about your business strategy than you otherwise would be able to, in ‘normal life’.
Figuring out your point of difference
Before worrying about what you should be doing today, tomorrow, and next week, to respond to the current economic downturn - the first thing you need to work on is positioning and differentiation in your business. No exceptions. Nothing else you do will succeed, without that first step.
Firstly, let’s start by thinking about the range of ways you can differentiate ourselves from other firms. Where could you begin? Well, we probably want to focus on your strengths, right? Things you’re good at? What about things you’re passionate about? What about things you do that make clients really happy? What about conscious things you do when we’re designing buildings that make them really, really lovely to be in? These are, broadly speaking, the benefits your business provides its customers.
Within each of those categories, your abilities, the client experience you create, and the buildings you design, there are probably tens, or hundreds of different ways your firm helps to make life better for your clients. Some ways are big, some are small - but they’re all something I’m paying for, from you, when I hire your firm.
The point of starting here is to systematically, steadily work your way through all of these different areas, and keep adding to your list until you absolutely can’t think of anything else. It’ll help to make sure you’re looking beyond the obvious benefits.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that not every business has an obvious, one of a kind, glaring point of difference. For many firms, a few different points may work together in combination; the few key ingredients in what makes your firm great. As long as they’re actually important to you, and benefit the client in a significant way, then they’re good to go. You’ll have something clear to focus your resources and time on.
So, to figure out what those ‘most important’ values are, try to rank your list from mot important, to least important. There is no mathematical formula, or guidebook on how to identify your most viable point of difference. You just have to use your judgment to order your list in a way where each factor has to compete for its position. What, ultimately, defines your practice? What makes you, you? What is the main benefit that your clients experience from working with you? The process of ranking these values will act as a form of self-assessment, and help you to see your practice more objectively.
After having completed this ranking exercise, you’ll hopefully have a much clearer picture of the critical values that you’ll need to begin to emphasise in your marketing and communications.
Improving your online presence
What is the first thing that people do when they hear about a business and they want to know more about it? They Google it.
And when they find the company’s website written in Comic Sans or Papyrus, with the vivid blue background and the pixelated 2008 employee photos? Your potential clients lose trust and possibly even respect. It doesn’t matter if the firm actually offers a great service, and puts out some great work, that crucial first impression has been a negative one.
For any architecture practice, the biggest marketing project they’ll ever spend time on is their website. It’s complicated. It involves big decisions. It takes a hell of a lot of time and attention, from everyone involved.
I’ve met plenty of architecture practices who, so embarrassed by the state of their website, prefer to just avoid the subject altogether and pretend it doesn’t exist. Some practices even sheepishly point potential clients to their Instagram instead, whilst apologising for the state of their outdated site.
If that sounds familiar, then your first priority for this period is your website. When you get busy again, which you will, there’ll be no time to make this project happen. Get started today, before moving onto the other areas of your marketing.
A side-effect of any downturn in the architecture industry is typically a drop-off in new project photography to share online and increase your practice’s presence.
As your projects are postponed, delayed or cancelled, and fewer new projects replace them, it might be some time before you have anything new to put online.
10 to 20 new photos on your Instagram each year is absolutely not enough to effectively market your architecture practice online, in this day and age.
Downturn or no downturn, it’s important for your practice to be producing and sharing a more diverse range of content as often as you can. Finding a creative format to work in that doesn’t depend on a constant output of finished architectural projects is key.
Typically, this means new ways of making content about your ideas, process and projects using video, audio or writing.
While most architects prefer to let the work speak for itself, I think it’s best to approach this subject with an open mind - the best content out there is simple, educational, and interesting. My clients, architects who are just like you - a bit shy, and a little uncomfortable in front of the camera - have still managed to produce interesting digital content that feels natural, and achievable for anyone.
There really is an approach for everyone.
Perhaps you want to make short films about your projects and clients. Taking this approach, one of my clients in Brisbane, Atelier Chen Hung, worked with filmmaker Angela Leonardi to make this short film about a house they designed. It’s beautiful.
Another client of mine, Monique Woodward, was looking to build up interest from clients in Melbourne who could potentially renovate their homes. She made a series of short videos called “If you were mine” where she stood out the front of a stranger’s house, and talked about all the cool things she would do to improve it if it was her house. It was fun, inspiring, and educational as she pointed out each of the unique features of that era and style of home.
You could even focus more on conversations. Personally, this is my favourite approach to producing longer content without investing too much time. These could simply be audio, recorded from Zoom or Skype. You could also record the video of the conversation which would allow you to share it on social media. Recently I tried my hand at livestreaming an interview with Nikita Morell on Linkedin and Youtube.
The great thing about audio content, is that it will often take the form of an interview. Interviews, or just friendly conversations, are an excellent approach if you don’t feel ready to make content on your own.
Video and audio are fantastic for social media, but they aren’t your only choices.You can also write blog posts, sharing your point of view on whichever part of the market you are focused on. This is particularly true for practices who are working in commercial, or business to business sectors.
During a downturn, every sector of the economy goes through a period of upheaval and change. The thoughts, predictions and insights of experts are valued, and sought after, in uncertain times. Writing about your thoughts on the changes that are occurring are a great way to begin to build your reputation as an expert and thought-leader in your niche.
During the last big retail crisis, where Amazon quickly took over market share in the American retail space, people thought bricks and mortar were done for. I worked with NYC designer Sergio Mannino on a series of blog posts expressing his point of view on the long term future of physical retail. These articles were very well received by business people on Linkedin, so much so that Forbes.com invited Sergio to contribute articles about retail design on an ongoing basis.
You can tell from the examples I’ve mentioned that these firms are really embracing the idea of producing content that doesn’t directly tie into finished projects. It frees them up to communicate their firm in unique and interesting ways, as often as they need to throughout the year.
Take advantage of this opportunity to take a step back and assess your firm’s marketing plan and message. Slow things down – avoid the urge to make impulsive, quick decisions in reaction to this downturn. Focus on the long-term, and start building your plan for the recovery.
If you take your time, the results can be transformative.