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Devotees of social media, especially Millennials, have not been shy in proselytizing about how Facebook and Twitter will change business forever. Yet many companies—and architecture firms, especially—struggle to justify the investment that social media requires in staff training and time, and they question its capacity to improve the bottom line. We conducted an informal investigation, using SurveyMonkey, that asked firms how they use social media and other communications technologies (see the results on the facing page). The answers supplied by the 301 respondents indicate that while some firms have readily embraced blogging and tweeting, and even in some cases can boast of new clients as a result, just as many architects either admitted uncertainty about how these technologies could benefit their practice, or downplayed the significance. (Wrote one respondent: “Social media has distracted our competition into wasting enormous amounts of time and has allowed us to be more productive and efficient than they are.”)

Tami Hausman, a New York–based marketing and communications consultant for designers, thinks that architecture firms on average have been slower than other industries to embrace social media. Yet she also doesn’t champion sites such as Facebook and YouTube as some kind of magical elixir that will increase firm profits by 20 percent. Rather, Hausman says, social media should be an integral part of an overall communications and marketing strategy.

Even though the return on investment remains difficult to discern, Hausman predicts that architects will eventually use social media as commonly as they do email, and firms would be wise to explore how best to exploit the various platforms: “In this economy,” she says, “if you’re not visible, people will wonder if you still exist.”

Large firms such as HOK naturally have marketing departments that spearhead social-media use, and they use such tools in part to attract talented younger employees who are natural users of the technology. But small firms have also seen success. Andrew van Leeuwen, AIA, 39, one of the partners of Build, a Seattle-based residential firm, helped start a blog with his partner almost five years ago. Today, the blog gets about 10,000 estimated views per day and boasts 60,100 subscribers to its RSS feed.

Van Leeuwen spends about 10 hours a week on average blogging, time he might have otherwise devoted to applying for awards for his firm’s projects. “The blog’s a powerful tool to bring jobs into the pipeline,” he says, and it helps potential clients gain confidence in the firm’s expertise. “When potential clients have seen the projects we’ve done, someone has referred them to us, and when they’ve seen the blog, we rarely lose the project.”

Van Leeuwen’s blog does more than promote the firm’s work. Posts such as “Top 10 Things You Should Know About Drywall” use terms someone might Google if they’re considering doing a home renovation. “The best strategy is putting up valuable and honest information people will find useful, rather than employing some sort of strategy or spin or marketing techniques,” he says.