Architecture Websites Don't Work. Here's Why.
"Look, we've won awards, we're in the press all the time, we have more than ten thousand followers on Instagram and a lot of visitors on our website. You can't tell me that we have a marketing problem..."
This prospective client opened his Google Analytics account on his laptop and showed me these enormous spikes of traffic hitting his firm's website each time a project went viral. Enormous peaks and desperate valleys. He continued:
"... but, we aren't converting any of this stuff into clients. There is a problem with our website. That's our problem. We need to talk about that. What do you recommend? I think that we should..."
I stopped him there.
I've spent a lot of time acting as a sounding board for architects thinking about overhauling their websites.
I get the same question in my inbox every week. "... could you send me a few examples of architect's websites that convert well?".
The truth is that there aren't any. At least not in the way that the question is framed.
There isn't an architecture firm whose website turns a new visitor from the Google search result page into a sophisticated, loyal, like-minded client any faster, or more effectively than any other.
Besides, that isn't even the goal.
The examples that I usually point to have nothing to do with conversion, but they're all highly persuasive.
Austin Maynard's website is highly persuasive in the sense that you can get lost in his press or interviews page for hours, or learn a lot from his project pages which function as mini essays on topics he cares about.
Sisalla's sessions page is highly persuasive in the sense that people love to learn something new, meet like-minded people and have an awesome experience, and if they decide to become a client later, then that's okay - but fine if they don't.
Mihaly Slocombe's blog Panfilo is highly persuasive in the sense that it conveys so much expertise, care, professionalism and diligence to prospective clients looking for the best expert out there.
Conversion happens as part of a comprehensive long-term marketing strategy that is specialised to each firm.
It's part brand building, retention, and a thoughtfully timed nudge.
What this prospective client was missing wasn't an extra button, or a new about page, or a contact form with fewer questions, or bright red buttons instead of black.
It was these:
- Long-form content to establish what this brand is about across a diverse body of topics.
- A sense of what differentiates the service this firm provides.
- A real, personal voice that visitors could trust and learn from.
- A reason to come back.
Feedback loops are the new conversion
Architecture, like any other industry, is a winner-take-all market. A few firms succeed in developing positive feedback loops in their branding and communication, and quickly control the market - picking and choosing the best briefs that extend their lead while less renowned counterparts struggle to make a living.
In Success and Luck, Robert H. Frank explains the self-perpetuating nature of winner take all markets:
Is the Mona Lisa special? Is Kim Kardashian? They’re both famous, but sometimes things are famous just for being famous. Although we often try to explain their success by scrutinising their objective qualities, they are in fact often no more special than many of their less renowned counterparts…Success often results from positive feedback loops that amplify tiny initial variations into enormous differences in final outcomes.
This firm didn't have positive feedback loops in place - initial variations that would allow the outputs to become the inputs.
It was stuck working with clients it didn't want to work with - and projects that wouldn't advance the prestige of the firm.
This firm had no interested in working with clients who decided to Google "Melbourne Architect" today, submit a brief within two minutes, get a quote the next day and sign a contract to begin work on god knows what by next week.
There are firms that work that way, and that's cool, but that isn't what this firm wanted.
It wanted serious, sophisticated clients. Like-minded people who care about the same things as the firm: like the environment, the social impact of the project, the longevity of the program, the artfulness of the design.
You don't get any of that from 'conversion'. That doesn't happen in a 90 second website session. But, out of urgency or desperation, this director was asking me for advice on how to 'close' more of the first type (inadvertently turning away the second type.).
It was time to slow things down, get the basics right and establish a feedback loop.
The journey of conversion
I asked this firm to invest their time to write five 1,500+ word blog posts, three 60-second videos, and to try a totally different concept for their call to action.
For blog posts, I sent them this article from my blog. For video I directed them to Austin Maynard and WOWOWA's Youtube channels. For structuring an innovative nudge/call-to-action I had them take a look at Nightingale Housing's Purchaser survey page where it instructs (emphasis mine)...
"If you would like to register as an interested Nightingale Purchaser or just want to stay in the loop, please fill in our Purchaser Survey...
...this will automatically place you on our purchaser list. When a Nightingale building arises in your preferred area we will notify you, provide you with all the relevant information and invite you to attend an information session."
They now had the three key elements to fix their conversion problem.
- Informative long-form content that will help visitors to understand what the firm believes in, what they do, and the type of clients and projects they're the best at.
- Personal brand building videos that distinguish the firm from it's competition by building trust and likability.
- A waitlist nudge that matches the timing of the offer with the right type of visitor, the one who is prepared (and expects) to wait - allowing the firm build demand in excess of supply and control their lead selection.
This firm now had a positive feedback loop
The videos attract new website visitors. Those visitors are retained and educated by a series of lengthy blog posts. As their waiting list grows, they get more control over who they work with, leading to better projects, and more profitability that allows for more investment in content, research, photography and reach.
The firm is building a defensible moat that will take monumental effort for the average firm to compete with - and all it took was a few simple variations in their strategy.