[This article was originally published in the Synergy2015 conference magazine in March 2015.]
Social media offers a series of potentially powerful communications channels for small to medium businesses. As part of a broader communications strategy it can help a company listen to its industry and environment, engage with its community, promote products and services, develop an expert position, drive website traffic and search rankings and, overall, can be valuable in building and maintaining a favourable corporate reputation.
Despite these benefits, social media is not a widely developed business communication strategy in the Australian AEC industry. At Total Synergy we monitor the social media activity of our clients – which channels our clients use, their growth in adoption, and activity on each one. It was through this monitoring we noticed a Synergy client – structural, remedial and events engineering firm Partridge – tweeting from a social media conference about what they were learning and why it was good. So we arranged to catch up for a chat about what they learned, and why social media was becoming important to the business.
Handling social media for Partridge is structural principal Andrew Derbidge. He says Partridge is quieter than it should be on social media, but he wants to do more and feels there are definite benefits to be gained.
“I think if we dedicated even a part time resource to social media we’d see an increase in traffic to the website,” Andrew says.
“A social media conference I attended last year was a wake up call and demonstrated that we should be far more diligent, active and have a presence in several areas. I think the reality is if you don’t do something in this area you’ll be left far behind.”
The conference covered social media for marketing and business.
“It drove home the fact that these are real business and marketing tools, not fads for younger generations,” Andrew says.
“Partridge has been around for 33 years. I remember when we used to panic about getting the right 30 words in our Yellow Pages ad. Then you had to go out and get a web page and they used to look so amateurish. Now we’re posting on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and we also have a blog.”
Social media insights
So what insights came as a result of the conference?
“The key insight was that it’s your customers that can do your promotion for you… social platforms can drive that engagement and it’s often free. The key is to be able to track your reach, which you can do visibly through likes, shares, retweets and analytics.
“Another big realisation from the day was the importance of Facebook. I previously wasn’t a big fan of Facebook… I was guilty of branding it as being for younger people. The conference showed it as a massive business tool and asset. They demonstrated some of the plugins and third party apps that can drive traffic to your page and how you can track traffic and get people to pass it on, which was a real eye opener. Now I’m a huge user.”
Gap in the plan
When we got together for this interview in the second half of 2014, Andrew said the main gap in the social media and communications plan for Partridge was not having a blog on the website. The blog has since been implemented with the first post going up in December  and several more since.
A blog is now an essential part of corporate and marketing communications, but creating the content is the main challenge faced by most SMEs. Fortunately for Partridge, Andrew has been writing professionally for over 20 years, albeit mostly about his other passion, whisky. As director and cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia, Andrew is editor of its quarterly magazine and also blogs regularly. A highlight of the social media conference, he says, revealed how to amplify one of his own blogs and the potential value in blogging for the business.
“I have a whisky blog and usually post an article around every two to three weeks,” Andrew says.
“The social media conference suggested doing some ‘top list’ articles to generate higher traffic. My articles generally get around 300 to 400 page views, but when I posted an article titled ‘5 things whisky drinkers are doing wrong’, it had around 2500 page views in a couple of hours. This spike lasted for days, not just the usual few hours.
“The challenge is now to apply this understanding to our engineering blog. This is tricky as structural engineering is not a well known or popular topic outside the industry. Around 60 per cent of smaller structural engineering firms are probably working on residential houses and the reality is that homeowners more often engage an architect who then hires the engineer and asks for the fee proposal. The end client doesn’t necessarily understand what we do and the value we offer.
“This is where a good blog can help us create our point of difference and expertise among the 500-odd firms in this city. Our fees can sometimes be at the upper end of the scale and we specifically work on very technical, high-end residential projects for precise and discerning architects. Our challenge is getting across to people why spending a bit more with us will add value in the long run – shave a bit of cost out of the end job; produce more drawings so the builder makes fewer errors in the build; not compromise the architect’s vision and intentions, etc. This is hard to communicate in fee proposals without sounding like you’re pushing it on them or sounding corny.
“It’s become clear to us that a blog and social strategy means you can get customers telling this story themselves – a simple positive message in a conversation on Facebook can make an enormous difference, or partner architects sharing your content online and engaging in positive Twitter activity.”
Andrew suggests it’s this kind of communication that helps to highlight and explain premium quality and value adding, as opposed to just submitting a straight fee.
“A large percentage of our work [approximately 75 per cent] is repeat business from architects, so if we were just a higher fee firm without delivering that value-add, we wouldn’t see that repeat business,” he said.
“Our partner architects are the best marketers for us, and our best sounding board. A lot of the architects we work with are on Twitter, which is another reason to engage on that channel.
“At the end of the day, it’s a medium and a forum we enjoy being active in… social media is allowing us to explain who and what we are a lot better than we could have 10 years ago.”