YouTube advocacy

Emoji; Emoticon; Dislike; Red

Late on Wednesday night, a colleague alerted me to a perturbing YouTube video uploaded by the Association of Professional Builders.

Despite its official-sounding name, APB is in fact a marketing agency that “specialises in helping building companies to increase their leads, sales, profits and professionalism.” Its goal is to assist builders to stay in business, which it facilitates through online training, blog articles, sales tools and video content.

Most of the videos focus on the owner / builder relationship, and leave architects out of the discussion entirely. The most recent offering breaks this mould however, and is entitled Why you shouldn’t use an architect to design your new home.

With an opening like that, you can see why I was unsettled.

The video has so far amassed just over 200 views, and has earned two thumbs up and nine thumbs down. These statistics are hardly evidence of an earth-shattering audience, but on principle I felt compelled to respond to the false claims made by the presenter and APB co-founder, Sky Stephens.

So instead of going to bed I wrote a characteristically lengthy rebuttal, which I hope will give some much needed perspective to any future viewers that happen to stop by. I consider this an act of minor advocacy on behalf of the architecture profession, and have decided to reproduce my comments here on the off chance APB decides to delete the video.

Dear Sky,

I am an architect and I’d like to challenge three misleading and unsubstantiated claims made in your video:

  1. That “80% of all architectural plans never come to fruition”
  2. That architects only focus “on what a home will look like”
  3. That architects “rarely factor in the cost” of construction

Let me unpack these claims in order:

  1. How do you know that 80% of architect-designed houses don’t get built? I strongly doubt that you can provide the research paper that supports this claim. Even if it were true, how can you possibly assert that the only reason projects fail is because of cost? Common sense and my own experience suggest that there are many causes for a stopped project: the owner might receive a job offer overseas, she might decide to move closer to her children’s school, she might use her savings to open up a business instead, her parents might get sick, she might not receive town planning approval, she might want a large four bedroom house but can only afford a small two bedroom one. The design and construction of a house is a complex undertaking, with many factors influencing a successful outcome.
  2. You infer that the definition of design is restricted to what a house looks like. This misses the much broader reality of architecture, and unhelpfully diminishes the rich and complex truth of the design process. Architects are indeed lovers of beauty, but this is in no way the only driving force behind good design. Design includes working out how a house functions, how it suits her client’s lifestyle, how it performs thermally in summer and winter, how it addresses town planning and building code requirements, how durable it is, how well it will adapt to the changing needs of her client’s family, how it addresses the history and culture of its place, how sustainably it sources materials, how well it opens up to the back garden, how soundproof it is, how watertight it is… The list is endless, and an architect addresses each and every item in the pursuit of good design.
  3. An essential part of the architectural process is the management of an owner’s budget. An architect is trained to understand what it costs to build, and provide reliable financial advice to her client. This regularly involves seeking input from either a quantity surveyor or a friendly builder, and designing in accordance both with what her client can afford and what the construction industry charges. This approach is not only ethically non-negotiable, it makes good business sense: an architect cares deeply about her client and about the house she designs for her, why would she jeopardise this by ignoring the budget? She is also invested in the future success of her architectural business, which she can best safeguard by helping her client build a house she loves and can afford.

I’d like to challenge you about the motive behind this video. Advocating for the value of builders is a wonderful thing, and worthy of doing. I have worked with many good builders, and would happily recommend the experience. Surely you can find a way of promoting builders without having to defame an entire profession of intelligent, hard-working, creative and valuable individuals?

Your advice sounds counter-intuitive because it is. Let me ask you this: would you choose your medical specialist before you know which illness needs curing? Would you head straight to the cardiovascular surgeon before confirming that you actually have a problem with your heart? Going to an architect first is the best decision an owner can make, because it’s the architect who will interpret her unique brief and transform it into a place to call home.

I offer these comments in the spirit of constructive criticism. Everyone deserves to get out there and advocate for the things they believe in, and I have no interest in preventing you from doing this. I’d welcome the chance to discuss any of my comments further with you, and hopefully help you offer more thoroughly researched content to your audience.

Let me finish on a more positive note, and mention a piece of your advice I support wholeheartedly. I agree that an architect can achieve the best design outcome for her client only when she collaborates with a great builder. A successful collaboration between architect and builder from early on in the design process is an essential ingredient to an excellent outcome. Yes, the primary goal of the architect is to provide creative vision, but this job is actually shared by the builder. Likewise, both builder and architect have important roles to play in ensuring a house is practical to build.

My philosophy is this: design doesn’t stop at sketch design, it continues all the way up until the moment the builder hands the keys back to the owner. I regularly find myself sketching details on timber stud offcuts, and watching on while builders do the same. An open and inclusive mind is the secret to this success, and why I love being an architect.

Regards,
Warwick.

I invite all my readers to head over to the video and add your own thoughts in the comments section, or just voice your disquiet via a cheeky click on the thumbs down button.

One last thing. When I woke up this morning, I thought of a better analogy than my cardiovascular surgeon reference. I’d hate for it to sink without a trace, so here it is:

Game of Thrones; King's Road; Northern Ireland; Ireland; Forest; Road; Analogy; Movie; Film; Television

The analogy of the forest

A team of builders are laying a new road through a forest. The tradies are the people pulling up trees, flattening earth and pouring asphalt. The builder is the person coordinating the tradies and making sure the road is straight. The architect is the person who arrives on site a week into construction and says, “You’re building in the wrong forest.”


Image sources:

  1. Thumbs down, author’s own image.
  2. Game of Thrones King’s Road, sourced from Tourism Northern Ireland.

The challenges of geography

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography

There are many residential architecture studios in Melbourne whose portfolios are concentrated within specific geographical regions: the south-eastern suburbs, the inner-north, bayside, the Mornington Peninsula, Ballarat. I live in Carlton North and seem to see Robert Simeoni signs on front fences everywhere. Zen Architects does a lot of work in and around Northcote. Jolson Architects has nailed the Toorak market.

I don’t believe there’s any data quantifying the prevalence of this phenomenon, but common sense would suggest it’s widespread.

Architecture is a physical act: it leaves a mark on the built environment that acts as a type of calling card for future clients. Locals walk past a construction site, come across an ad in the local paper, or see the architect’s studio on a Google Maps search, and are pulled into the architect’s orbit. Each project develops its own powerful gravitational field that inevitably leads to more local enquiries than those from further away. The enquiries become projects, they produce new gravitational fields, and so on.

This chain reaction is useful for an architect, it’s a reliable pipeline of familiar projects that help establish a strong local presence and consistent portfolio. But what happens when the snowball never gets started in the first place?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; Data

A geographically dispersed practice

For reasons unknown to me, both the enquiries and commissions of Mihaly Slocombe are and have always been widely dispersed across Melbourne and rural Victoria.

Our studio is located in Brunswick East, and while we have a growing number of projects scattered across the inner-north, we are also working on or have completed projects in Albert Park, Ashburton, Bentleigh, Brighton, Broadmeadows, Camberwell, Caulfield, Collingwood, Doncaster, Eaglemont, Frankston, Hawthorn, Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Keilor, Kensington, Kew, Malvern, Melbourne CBD, Moonee Ponds, Richmond and Rosanna.

Our version of local therefore is a sprawling 300 or so square kilometres, and that’s just our work in and around Melbourne.

Each blue dot on the map above represents one of our current or past projects. They tell an interesting story in and of themselves, most importantly this surprising insight:

  • Excluding two projects in Frankston, all of our urban commissions have been less than 20km from the city.

But what about enquiries that never get off the ground? And how do they relate to the ones that do? What else might a thorough mapping of all 160 of the enquiries we’ve received to date reveal?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Mapping our enquiries

We divide project enquiries into four categories: projects are commissions we win, with signed fee proposals; declined are fee proposals that are declined by the client; aborted are enquiries that never get so far as a fee proposal; and rejected are enquiries that are declined by us.

Overlaying the map for each category reveals a number of interesting things:

  • The pattern of our enquiries is reflected in the pattern of our commissions. In other words, there is no bias towards a certain part of Melbourne whose enquiries generate a disproportionately high or low number of commissions.
  • Of the four project categories, aborted has the highest density outside the 10km and 20km rings.
  • Excluding one project in Keilor, all of our urban enquiries (and commissions) have been from the northern, eastern and southern suburbs.
  • Our rural enquiries have been dispersed across much of Victoria, but our rural commissions have been mostly concentrated on the two peninsulas, Mornington and Bellarine.

These observations corroborate what was previously a set of educated intuitions about the pattern of our enquiries. They provide specificity too – We previously had no idea that the 20km ring is so important, nor that the western suburbs are so underrepresented amongst our enquiries. Most actionably, they have given us firm metrics to assess the likelihood of a project proceeding based on geography and other factors, and have helped us flesh out what we now call the three hurdles.

The hurdles are simple really: when a potential client first makes contact, we aim to discover as much as we can about her and her project. In particular, we want to know three things:

  • Where is the project located?
  • What is the broad scope of the project and what is the budget?
  • What are the client’s design ambitions?

The answers to these questions help us be pragmatic about our enquiries. We know statistically that enquiries outside the 20km ring are almost always non-starters. We also happen to know that projects with lower budgets are expensive for us to take on (more on this in a future blog post). And we know that clients who have strong preconceptions about their design outcome aren’t well suited to our openly creative design process.

If the client stumbles on two of the three hurdles, we can be confident that the project is likely to end up a yellow dot. Asking the hard questions early, and knowing the geographic shape of our portfolio, help us spend less time on projects that don’t lead anywhere, and more time on projects that do.

Victoria; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Challenges and opportunities

Our dispersed portfolio has meant a few challenges for our growing practice, some of which are only just becoming apparent as we hit our seventh year in business:

  • We are less visible. Our fragmented street presence across Melbourne means we are much less likely to make serendipitous connections with passersby.
  • Our portfolio is less coherent. If all of our projects were renovations to terrace houses in the inner-north, clients with that sort of project would be able to easily understand what we do. For us, a new house on a vineyard, a small sleeping pavilion and a renovation to a 1977 Kevin Borland house are too unrelated to paint a comprehensive picture of who we are and what we do.
  • Our growth curve is slower. The key quality of a localised portfolio is that it generates momentum. For us, we are only just beginning to return to suburbs where we’ve worked previously. In the meantime, all of those missed enquiries in far flung places were commissions that a localised practice might have won.

It’s not all bad news though, far from it. A dispersed portfolio has a number of benefits that I think will begin to matter more and more the longer we’re in business:

  • We have broad expertise. Having worked across many parts of Melbourne, we have developed an appreciation of unique topographies, prevailing weather patterns, demographics, histories, building stock, culture, and local council requirements. This makes us better placed to keep working across Melbourne, including into new suburbs.
  • We are hard to pigeonhole. Our well-rounded experience resists the pigeonholing that goes hand-in-hand with a localised portfolio. Our portfolio is full of unusual projects, and is only becoming more so. I expect this will open future doors for us that would be shut to a more homogenous practice, including assisting us to diversify into new project typologies.
  • We don’t get bored. Perhaps most importantly, the diversity in the locations and clients of our projects make our work more intellectually stimulating, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Evening
Hill House, 2006
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Renovation; Kevin Borland; Evening
Chamfer House, 2015

Reflection

Understanding why our practice has evolved this way is difficult. Architecture is largely opportunistic. Clients approach us, not the other way around, so we work on whatever the world brings us. This leads to all sorts of unpredictable connections with potential clients.

Let me illustrate:

Our Hill House project led to the commission for Chamfer House despite the former finishing five years before the latter starting, the two sites being located 30km apart, and the two clients never having met. How can they possibly be linked? Well, in 2006 Hill House was completed, then in 2008 longlisted for the WAN House of the Year award. The longlisted entries were exhibited online. A television scout for Canadian television programme, World’s Greenest Homes, discovered the project and got in contact. In 2009, the house was filmed and the show aired in Australia on the ABC. Then in 2011, the show aired again on repeat, and our soon-to-be Chamfer House clients saw Hill House, liked it, and tracked us down.

The important thing to acknowledge here is that we had zero control over all of these steps. What’s more, I’m sure many of our projects would reveal similar stories if probed.

Twenty one years ago, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[1]

Negroponte’s argument centred around the death of cities, which of course has proven not to be true. But there is nevertheless a profound realisation in his prediction. Our cities may be thriving more now than ever before, but they’re not what they used to be. As Carlo Ratti has observed, “the digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[2]

The layering of the digital world over the physical has, for us, allowed us to make connections in new and geographically diverse ways. I can’t explain the spread of our early projects, but more recently our strong digital presence on Houzz has untethered us somewhat from the limitations of geography. Reviewing our last five projects won from online enquiries proves this point:

  • Ivanhoe East – AIA find an architect service
  • Princes Hill – Google
  • Northcote – Houzz
  • Kew – Houzz
  • Murrindindi – Houzz

In past generations, it was perhaps more difficult for an architect to develop a portfolio without relying on local personal networks and word of mouth. The Internet has by no means replaced these pathways to new projects, but they have certainly increased the chance of chance encounters. Now there are two worlds to navigate, the physical and digital, and in each there are opportunities for an architecture practice willing to master them.


Footnotes:

  1. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  2. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban designWired; 2nd October 2009

Images sources:

  1. Map of Melbourne, author’s own image
  2. Melbourne data: project category, author’s own image
  3. Melbourne data: all categories, author’s own image
  4. Victoria project data: all categories, author’s own image
  5. Hill House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Emma Cross
  6. Chamfer House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Andrew Latreille

Houzz Pro membership

Social media, Houzz, Database, Photos, Logo
Houzz, pronounced /howz/

In August last year, Erica and I signed Mihaly Slocombe up to the Houzz Pro membership programme. This placed our sponsored project photos into the organic search streams of local audiences, increasing the visibility of our business in and around Melbourne.

We were required to commit to the programme for twelve months, a huge financial leap for us considering our marketing budget had previously been $0. When our membership expired recently, we took the opportunity to ask ourselves whether it has been worth our while. Has it increased the number of leads coming into our studio? Have the leads been qualified? Have they resulted in any commissions? Ultimately, we needed to work out whether we should opt in for another twelve months.

The Houzz platform is one I’ve discussed before, though I’ve not explored the membership programme, nor analysed the benefits and challenges it has brought to Mihaly Slocombe. The following discusses our history with the platform, our reasons for joining the paid programme, and the results we’ve seen from our investment.

Let me start at the beginning.

Houzz, Mihaly Slocombe, Homepage, Profile, Houses, Residential design, Architecture, Photos

The beginning

I created a Houzz profile for Mihaly Slocombe in October 2013. It had been three years since we formed our studio and I was eager to increase our presence online. Even then, Houzz had a database of photos well into the millions. I had the feeling that we were hitching our wagon to the Amazon of residential architecture and figured it was better to be flying along with them than left behind in their dust.

At that stage, Houzz was based only in the US. It would be another year until the launch of a dedicated .com.au site, so the majority of our early traffic came from overseas – the US primarily, but plenty of European countries too.[1]

During this period, our profile developed some very strong organic traction. Amongst our two dozen or so project photos, it was the Basser House walk-in-wardrobe that attracted the most attention. To date, a whopping 18,000 people have added it to an ideabook (the Houzz equivalent of an Instagram like). It has also led to us winning the Houzz design award three years in a row.

The popularity of this and other photos earned us a constant presence. Like Google, the Houzz search algorithms reward popularity with more of the same. Despite the youth of our studio and small collection of photos, we were beginning to pop up everywhere.

Houzz; Melbourne; Launch; Party; Architects

Houzz in Australia

In August 2014, Houzz spread its wings and officially launched its Australian domain. I attended the Melbourne launch party, and watched during the presentations (with some pride) as the Houzz staff used our profile as a case study.

During the drinks and canapés that followed, I met an architect whom I knew was enjoying just us much organic traffic as we were. I was curious to discover how she was going with her profile, and whether she’d won any projects through it.

Up until this point, our popularity on Houzz had not converted into any paid work. I had dedicated countless hours to answering technical questions from Houzz users, and even fielded a modest number of project enquiries that went nowhere, but I was just spending a lot of time selling our services to people who weren’t really buying.

I assumed my new friend would have had a similar experience, but discovered instead that she’d won sizeable projects with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. I was amazed. What was she doing that we weren’t? And what was it about our profile that attracted people with unreasonable expectations about the architectural process? We discussed this divergence for most of the night, but I left without any real understanding of why her success was translating into fee-earning commissions and ours was not.

Houzz project, West Brunswick, Renovation, House

If at first you don’t succeed…

In May 2015, we received our first commission through Houzz. An Italian couple were returning to Melbourne after many years living abroad and wanted to renovate their family home in Brunswick West. It struck me when they got in contact that this was one of the marvels of Houzz: a couple flicking through pictures on their laptop in Rome could discover us on the other side of the planet, and then commission us for a project located just around the corner from our studio.

Still, it was tough going. By this point we had racked up a total of 14 enquiries through Houzz (including a couple of exciting calls from interstate), but only one commission. Not a good success rate. I realised then that the risk of the Houzz platform was that it replaced our relationship-based marketing approach with one more akin to internet shopping: high volume, low conversion.

So we were still spending a lot of time on our Houzz enquiries without much to show for it. In 2015, Houzz accounted for 43% of our enquiries, but only 14% of our commissions. It was the age-old business conundrum: we were spending the majority of our time on the minority of our clients. Something needed to change.

Houzz, Melbourne, Map

The programme

In August 2015, we received a call from Houzz. With the dedicated .com.au website now a year old, the Houzz Pro programme was being introduced to Australia. The call didn’t surprise me. I had wondered a number of times when Houzz would monetise its platform. With over 35 million unique visitors each month, professional users were getting access to an enormous audience for free.[2]

The deal was intriguing and came at just the right time for us. We were enjoying great organic traffic to our profile, but in contrast to my launch friend, the vast majority of it was international and of no real value to our business. Our photos were appearing on someone’s screen around 300,000 times every month, but only getting clicked around 90 times. A lot of people were seeing our work, but a tiny .03% were engaging with it.

The Houzz Pro programme proposed to change this model. It would guarantee our appearance on the first page of photo and profile searches for any user within the Melbourne CBD and immediately surrounding suburbs, and thus push us in front of many more local eyes.

Our hope was that more local connections would be the ingredient we were missing, the thing that would convert all my effort engaging with the Houzz community into paying projects. We still thought long and hard about it though – as I said, it was a big commitment for us. In the end, we figured a year of membership fees wouldn’t kill us, and our business needed to take a risk to continue to grow. We set a KPI for ourselves: an acceptable payoff would be one substantial commission, or two smaller ones.

We were the first architecture studio in Melbourne to sign on.

Houzz; Houzz Pro; Advertising

Our decision to join

Residential clients are notoriously difficult to connect with, particularly for younger practices without the reputation and bag of awards enjoyed by established studios. If our portfolio were centred around restaurant fitouts, we could probably work out ways to connect with restaurateurs. But houses are hard. Our clients are everyone and no one.

Houzz provides this connection. Better yet, the Houzz Pro programme provides a local connection, one that is based on images of our design work. In late 2015, our organic traffic was already excellent, but unproductive. The programme promised to top up our organic international audience with a far more engaged Melbourne one.

We also felt that Houzz was a safer bet than Google or Facebook advertising. Houzz users are a subset of the general population, a pool of people already interested in residential architecture. In marketing terms, this meant the leads we hoped to get through Houzz would be more likely qualified.

Finally, we sensed that Houzz is an unstoppable train rolling out across the planet. The Internet is hardly growing less connected to our daily lives: Houzz is a part of this trend, a huge marketplace we’d be foolish to ignore.

Bangkok; Chatuchak; night market; market; colour; night

What happened next?

In August 2015, we paid for our first month of membership to the Houzz Pro programme. The good news was that we didn’t have to wait long for leads to come knocking: we received 3 enquiries that month. The bad news was that none of them turned into a project. And neither did the next 10. It wasn’t until March 2016, and our 14th Houzz enquiry since joining the programme, that a lead converted.

Five more leads rolled in without result, but in July our 20th enquiry came good too. Exactly as we’d hoped, both projects are sizeable, with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. We’re working on sketch design for them as I write.

When our membership came up for renewal in August, we did so without hesitation. We had expected the slow start, had even been warned about it by our Houzz account manager, but it seemed now that we had gathered a bit of momentum.

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Some data please

Since our renewal three month ago, the enquiries have continued to arrive. Two more have converted into commissions in just the last couple of weeks.

Examining the 14 months of our Houzz Pro membership, I calculate that 50% of all enquiries, and 20% of all new projects, have come through Houzz. These figures are both improvements on our pre-membership results, particularly the gross number of enquiries. Pre-membership, we received one enquiry through Houzz every 55 days. Post-membership, we’ve received one every 12 days.[3]

The main downer is that Houzz leads continue to convert less often than our other marketing activities. 20% of projects from 50% of enquiries is much better than it was previously, but still not great.

I think there are two reasons for this: first is the varied nature of the leads we receive – many have unrealistic budgets and come from people curiously not that interested in good design. We’ve realised that we can’t do much to stop these enquiries, but have at least worked out how to politely decline poorly matched commissions. Second, there’s the issue of trust, or more pointedly, the lack of trust. While a potential client recommended by a mutual friend tends to inherently trust our expertise and creativity, someone contacting us via Houzz can’t tell us apart from a bar of soap. The Internet makes it too easy to get in contact, and thus too easy to never return a phone call. Building trust with a stranger takes time, something we don’t typically have when we’re trying to win a project.

That said, the projects we’re now winning through Houzz are very exciting. Exactly as we had hoped, they’re for clients interested in design, with decent scopes and realistic budgets. Qualitatively, the projects have the same spread as those that arrive through other means: they vary in size and budget, in geography, client and design ambition. For me, they prove that Houzz offers a viable model for lead procurement.

Has the number of leads coming into our studio increased? Yes
Have the leads been qualified? Yes (well, at least more often than before)
Have they resulted in any commissions? Yes.

So, we had to wait patiently in the beginning for our membership to reap a reward, and both then and now must spend a lot of time fielding tyre-kickers. But I am in no doubt that the Houzz Pro membership has helped our business grow. For the success we’re seeing thus far, it’s worth it.


Footnotes:

  1. I know this because occasionally we receive a comment like this: “Die fensterläden sind ein echoer hingucker!”
  2. Houzz Facts; Houzz; 2015
  3. It’s important to note that this success isn’t just due to upgrading to the Houzz Pro programme. We put constant work into our profile, uploading new projects, managing photo metadata, answering user questions, contributing to discussions etc. The programme puts us in front of more eyes, but we’ve made sure what they see is worthwhile

Image sources:

  1. Houzz logo; copyright Houzz
  2. Mihaly Slocombe Houzz profile; copyright Houzz and Mihaly Slocombe
  3. Houzz Melbourne launch at Meizai; August 2014; copyright Sushii Photo
  4. View from street of Mihaly Slocombe’s first real commission sourced through Houzz; author’s own image
  5. Houzz Pro programme, Melbourne CBD coverage; copyright Houzz
  6. Houzz Pro programme; copyright Houzz
  7. Chatuchak night market in Bangkok; sourced from Shop JJ; author unknown
  8. Project leads through Houzz; author’s own image
  9. Projects through Houzz; author’s own image

The mystery of marketing

Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.

I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:

The outcome of good marketing
=
More clients

In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.

The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.

According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.

So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?

Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times.[1] And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:

  1. When each prospect made contact
  2. How she found out about us
  3. Whether we submitted a fee proposal
  4. Whether we won the commission

Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):

  • She reads this blog
  • She is a family or friend
  • She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
  • She discovered us via online media
  • She is a past client
  • She visited a past project
  • She discovered us via printed media
  • She discovered us via television media
  • She came across our website
  • She discovered us via word of mouth

I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.

What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:

Suspect to prospect

As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.

Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram, FacebookPinterestHouzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.

But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25%), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (5%). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19%), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73%). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only 2% of our prospects and 0% of our clients.

lead origins

For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:

A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.

Prospect to client

From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:

Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = 2 years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = 4

My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56% of the leads we receive, and 59% of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33% of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:

For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.

lead conversion

If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:

We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
Or
We win five new projects every year.

Growth

This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?

All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.

Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.

Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.

overall growth

Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:

More enquiries
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money

This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.

Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.

Good luck.


Footnotes:

  1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.

Image sources:

  1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
  2. Lead conversion.
  3. Overall growth.

Marketing 101

marketing magic

What was it?

Part one of an all-day seminar we attended late last month, presented by marketing guru Winston Marsh and held at the State Library for a group of 20 – 30 architects, mostly small practitioners. Beginning with the plain-spoken promise that good marketing will help us earn lots and lots of money, the seminar provided a series of challenging ideas for connecting with new clients. We will discuss part two of the seminar, Cost Planning 101 presented by quantity surveyor Geoffrey Moyle, tomorrow.

Marsh was an entertaining as well as informative public speaker. He dangled alluring tales of explosive business success, the pots of gold tantalisingly real, then dissected the marketing strategies that underpinned them. He advocated a significant paradigm shift from the way architectural services are typically sold, his entire presentation underpinned by a single concept:

Marketing is not about you, it’s about your client.

What was discussed?

Marsh introduced the concept of the loyalty ladder, a marketing tool invented by Neil and Murray Raphel in 1995 that identifies the importance of relationships in the growth of a business. It recognises that any stranger thinking about commencing a building project has the potential to develop into a client, or even better, an evangelist who works to seek out further clients on our behalf:

Everyone

Suspect

Prospect

Client

Advocate

Evangelist

The purpose of marketing is not just to attract new clients, but to assist in the advancement from any and to any rung of the ladder. Marsh distilled this process into the three devices we’ll need to create, maintain and improve relationships with our clients:

three devices

A device to generate an endless supply of prospects

Let’s say we do most of our work within a particular municipality. In the City of Yarra there are around 80,000 residents or 30,000 households[1]. Based on our empirical observations from living and working in Carlton North, we would say that 1 in 100 of these are at any given time building or renovating. This means there are 300 suspects within spitting distance of our studio who might benefit from our input.

Thus the first task of marketing is to turn suspects into qualified prospects, that is, people who want what we do, have the authority to make decisions and the money to spend on our services. As Marsh pointed out, the biggest impediment to achieving this transition is awareness: most people don’t know who we are. Having marketing material like a website, business cards, site banners, advertisements etc. is not enough, we need to target them. To unravel how we might go about doing this, we should start by asking ourselves three key questions:

Who are our ideal clients?

Why should they choose us, rather than choose our competitors, do it themselves or do nothing?

How can they find out about us?

Understanding the characteristics of our ideal client is essential. Marsh encouraged us to be specific: gender, age, family situation, car ownership, business position, personal wealth, location. The more we know about our target audience (or suspects), the better we’ll be at focussing our efforts on their specific situation. Here Marsh introduced the principles of AIDA:

Attention
Interest
Desire
Action

If we were to analyse the way most architects structure their marketing material, we would quickly discover that they ignore at least three of these principles. Marsh furnished examples that were instead driven by them, including advertisements in local papers, websites and business cards. All demonstrated the ability to:

Grab a suspect’s attention. Marsh suggested we use a headline that speaks about our target suspects, not us, for instance, Thinking about renovating? or If you need help designing your dream home, you’ve come to the right place!

Develop the suspect’s interest. In an advertisement, this might be three or four paragraphs that amplify the headline. They should tell a story, be written like we talk and, again, be about our audience, not us.

Create desire. This could be images of our work, sexy spaces that make the suspect want one of their own. They key here is to understand that like breeds like: we shouldn’t use images of libraries to win cafe projects.

Establish a direct course of action. Here, Marsh advised that we “offer something of compelling interest and value”, for example, Call now for The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Renovating.

A device to make and maximise the sale

Once we have a suspect on the phone, they’re officially a prospect and we must now begin the delicate work of advancing them yet further up the ladder into a client. Marsh made a few phlegmatic recommendations, things like having a script to follow and a checklist of information to obtain. More instructively though, this is where understanding both our strengths and weaknesses, and being able to articulate the answer to, Why should our ideal client choose us? is critical.

Once again, Marsh encouraged client-focussed specificity. Instead of,

We’re great designers.

We’re award winning architects.

We should say things like,

We are a small design studio that listens to our clients. You will always be able to get one of the principals on the line.

We have many years experience in the Carlton North area and know everything there is to know about its town planning requirements.

We need to go a step beyond grabbing the attention of the prospect, we need to provide “meaningful propositions and specific examples.”

As important as understanding our virtues is to understand our weaknesses. Here Marsh asked us to consider negative aspects of the architectural profession’s collective reputation, perceptions like how expensive we are, or how our building projects run over time. Instead of ignoring this herd of elephants in the room, Marsh endorsed facing it head on:

Prospect: Your fee proposal is very expensive. We’ve received a much cheaper price from a draftsperson.

Architect: Is cheap [pause] important to you?

Prospect: Well… I just don’t understand how you can be so expensive.

Architect: Of course, you get what you pay for, so let me explain what our service includes.

The message here was clear: there are many options for a prospect to consider as an alternative to engaging our services. We are competing against builders, building designers and draftspeople. We are also competing against the prospect taking the project on herself or, most commonly, deciding that it’s all too difficult and not doing anything at all.

Luckily, when someone wants something, she becomes “a ferret for facts and conscious of detail.” It’s our job therefore to educate, inform, explain and lead: in effect, craft our message so in the eyes of the prospect, we are not just a service provider, but an expert in our field. We need to communicate the benefits of using an architect, the value a client receives by deciding to engage us, the expert. We can do this via offers of compelling interest and value, addressing the elephant in the room and the use of testimonials.

A device to maintain and build the lifetime relationship

The final step of Marsh’s marketing strategy relates to how we engage with our clients once their projects are underway and / or complete. We’re not sure where he obtained the figure, but Marsh noted that 92% of any professional’s clients come via word of mouth, making it important we push those we have up the final one or two rungs of the loyalty ladder, into advocate or evangelist territory.

Essentially, this means maintaining a database and staying contact. A newsletter that shows past and potential clients what we’re up to, updates on new content added to our website, and Christmas cards are all good examples of nurturing the lifetime relationship. Marsh discussed a few ways that generating referrals can be achieved:

Ask a client for a referral

Offer a reward e.g. a discount on future services

Make the client say, Wow!

Marsh suggested getting in contact every couple of months, a piece of advice echoed by Moyle, who maintains that the more often someone receives an invitation or piece of information, the more likely they are to act on it.

What did we learn?

In short, a great deal. We took pages of notes during Marsh’s presentation, and have only been able to capture a fraction of it here. Marsh made a number of challenging suggestions, many of which will require considerable effort to execute. His appeal to the attendees was that we undertake at least one of them, make at least one change. Reflecting on his list of suggested actions, we hope to achieve at least a few, including new site banners, business cards, a newsletter and a database.

It’s important to acknowledge that the examples of Marsh’s recommendations were not pretty. They might have been suitable for a local plumber in the days of the Yellow Pages, but for design-literate architects in the information age, they were cheesy and unappealing. According to Marsh however, they were extremely effective. He noted that slick and stripped-back websites are fine if what we’re after is a bit of professional masturbation, but if what we want is to win clients and earn money, we need to change gear. His marketing strategies talk to, not at, the people who might be thinking about paying us to work for them. For residential clients in particular, who have typically never worked with an architect before, this conversation must be framed in language with which they can identify. By definition, it will be language far removed from the sort we use with one another.

Thus we arrived at the following epiphany:

How we think about our work and how we sell our work are two separate issues.

We encourage you to attend the next instalment of Marketing 101 yourself, particularly if you’re interested in learning about the reams of additional advice not covered here. Moyle and Marsh are planning new seminars for 2014. They will repeat those discussed here, plus add Marketing 102 to continue the discussion and address topics not already covered. Once confirmed, details can be found on Moyle‘s website.


Footnotes:

[1] Based on research we recently completed for an unsolicited urban design project we’re undertaking, Streets Without Cars, which found the average household size in Carlton North to be 2.8 people.

Image sources:

  1. The magic of marketing, Winston Marsh’s Ideas Emporium. Author unknown
  2. Three devices for good marketing. Author’s own image