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    Credit: Eli Kaplan

    Sylvia Montgomery, senior parter at Hinge Marketing

You can find just about anything online. So why don’t architects use online marketing for branding and business development? Reliance on more-traditional methods (schmoozing, word of mouth) has until recently trumped social media. But that is changing, according to Sylvia Montgomery, senior partner at Hinge Marketing, a professional services marketing and branding firm in Reston, Va., that caters to architecture, engineering, and construction firms. Montgomery, 45, says that the industry is slowly embracing online marketing. She talked to about how to use the Web—from blogs to webinars to Twitter—to broaden your firm’s business opportunities.

Take a swing.
“Until a few years ago, many architects would tell me that online marketing ‘wasn’t for us,’ because the usual way to build a design business was by word of mouth and developing relationships”—perhaps at the golf course, Montgomery says. It’s easy to say that the design industries are so unique that they don’t need online marketing. “Yet the reality is that marketing is done the same way now as before, except that the client gets to know you online, rather than while golfing,” she says.

Cast a wider net.
People go online to find information about everything. So if you’re looking to grow your business, you have to be online to move beyond the immediate radius of who you know. “You can strengthen your firm’s brand and reputation and reach a much wider audience,” Montgomery says. “Every blog post, video case study, and white paper deepens a level of familiarity and visibility.” If clients need special expertise in, say, historical preservation or sustainability, online marketing can help them find you and narrow the field.

Start with strategy.
“Before creating a Web presence, start with a marketing and business strategy to know where you want to go with the content,” she says. If your firm works in healthcare but wants to move into education, for example—or if you want to expand geographically—you can include these components in the website design. And great design is not enough. Content should speak to how you want to position the firm and what you do well. The value proposition, she explains, is how well you differentiate your firm from the pack.

Find a partner.
There are different levels of involvement for online marketing, and each depends on your cost threshold. Even if you have a marketing staff at the firm, you might want to engage an outside professional and have them collaborate, which will cut down on costs. If you want the outside person to take on more responsibility while the architects and staff do less, this will cost more. “One method isn’t better than the other. It all depends on what suits the firm,” Montgomery says.

Content is king.
Content drives everything, especially fresh content that’s accessible, relatable, and valuable to viewers—but nobody wants to read dense content. Blogs provide great content and can showcase your ideas and designs and the culture of the firm. Blogs and Twitter are a great platform to share buzzworthy content (and follow Montgomery herself on @BrandStrong for ongoing tips). If you go to a conference or an AIA meeting, tweet about it. Blog about the white paper you posted on your website. “In every case, write about things that dovetail with your firm’s services and also what’s of interest to you,” she says. And remember that everything you do or think about can be repurposed in a different format.

Video is the new lunch.
Video is becoming a much more central medium for content because you can ask past clients to talk about your expertise and how you solve problems—and thereby introduce yourself to new clients. Using video can position you as an expert: It lets potential clients get to see you and experience a connection with the person or firm with whom they are considering partnering. “It’s better than a photograph,” Montgomery says.

Welcome to the webinar.
Today, the Web can offer users a free education in all kinds of subjects. “A webinar is a way to quickly share your knowledge with a busy, time-pressed audience, while a white paper is a bit more serious and academic,” Montgomery says. A webinar lets you tackle a topic such as the latest trends in sustainable design—and weave in your own buildings. Look for topics and hot-button issues that people will find useful. “You can demonstrate that you are a specialist in a certain field and show the projects you have done,” she says. “In the process, you get an email from the viewer and can follow up and say, ‘Hey, let’s continue the conversation.’ ”

Get engaged.
Architects are slowly coming around to online marketing. The explosion in new architecture websites and related blogs is just one indication that users are doing more talking to one another online. “Designers realize that by not engaging online, they are pushing away potential clients,” she says. “You won’t see them—and they won’t see you.”