Brett Ryder

If you’ve pinned or “liked” a building lately, it’s easy to forget that architecture is physical: bodies in space, steel, stone, wood, weight loads, forms, rooms, light, and site. It used to be that, half a century ago, short of leading a tour, architects had to rely on getting their work in the latest Architectural Forum or publishing a monograph in order to relay how the plan worked with the section—next to a Stollerized photograph, naturally.

Today, of course, architects rely on shares, badges, and tweets (as well as pins and likes) to make a digital case for their work. Looking at Web analytics on click-throughs, and as the multiplier effect takes hold, you can see in great detail how far that work has reached. Anyone, anywhere, can call a building a “favorite” without ever actually visiting it, and in albums or newsfeeds, they can share and re-share it. And, to that end, our image-obsessed digital lives present new business opportunities for architects.

“A quality image can be a direct link to business,” says Steven Thomson, Architizer’s content director. “Nothing can beat quality architecture—and that’s not just an image, obviously, but an image can draw potential clients’ attention.” Architizer and other community-driven sites (like Houzz, Archinect, or ARCHITECT’s Project Gallery) have in many ways replaced the hard-to-secure magazine spread or costly monograph by offering a platform to architects to self-publish. Not quite arbiters of taste in the traditional publisher sense, they retain the gatekeeper role reserved for magazines and books.

It’s a gate that Jane Frederick, FAIA, a founding principal at the Beaufort, S.C., firm Frederick + Frederick, finds useful not just in how easy it is to publicize the residential work of her firm but in what it signifies to potential clients.

“These sites prequalify us in the eyes of clients—and the metric for social media success is about jobs coming through the door,” she says. “We’ve found a lot of clients this way. There’s value in the context an image depicts because you, as the architect, want to make sure people can picture themselves in those spaces.”

Frederick notes, however, that the value of the image as intellectual property should not be ignored. Publishing work to community-driven sites as a business development tactic may yield clients, but—as Frederick and others find—it may also yield surprises when you find your images on a far-flung blog, butchered through resizing or cropping.

Beyond the potential quality-control issues surrounding images that leave your custody, another peril that some architects report is that the quality of your architectural ideas can be stolen by enterprising DIYers. If they have the idea, then surely they don’t need an architect, right?

Jeff Echols, AIA, who runs the blog, disagrees. “Social media is a new value proposition for architects,” he says, “which I’d characterize as, ‘Look, I’m not afraid to give you this information about how I work or what I do, but at the end of the day I’m the only person that can do it for you the right way.’ ”

“The metric for success in social media is a strategy question. I think ROI is misleading here, because your return is about more than a financial investment,” he says. “If your objective is to bring clients to your door, then you have to engage them with the work that you do best on the basis that you are the best at what you do.”

Analytical tools to measure raw engagement numbers are easy to use, and even without them, basic statistics such as the number of times one of your posts or projects has been shared can give you a good indication of what grabs attention and what doesn’t.

Paying attention to those distinct levels of engagement, says Thomson, can help you form objectives for your firm. “When you tweet,” he says, “who is responding? What companies do they work for? Are you cultivating conversations with your posts, or just throwing your work out there?”

Echols urges architects to think critically about their strengths as a firm. Based on that, he says, identifying the right audience will lead you to identifying the right social media platform. “Sure, Facebook versus Pinterest is a fine debate,” he says, “but it has to be driven by where your audience resides. If it’s homeowners, maybe Houzz. If it’s local school boards, maybe LinkedIn.”

In cultivating conversations on community, the image is also an opportunity to cultivate the architect. “Communicating that there are real people behind the firm’s work is essential,” says Thomson. “People view architects as inherently savvy people. It only makes sense that they would embrace social media.”