I was having a conversation over lunch today which reminded me that the more I refine my practice of AEC marketing, the more it requires me to venture into subject areas that were previously thought to be outside of my purview or pay grade. Let me illustrate:
Let’s say I’m charged with charting a course that will get my firm to a determined revenue goal within a determined amount of time. Among the considerations I look at under the circumstances is how profitable we are with certain types of clients or market verticals. While gathering such information, I may learn that, for example, we tend to do civic work more profitably than healthcare. I may also learn that, within the civic realm, we are more likely to be profitable when working with client A vs. client B. I may also learn that profitability within this sector is much more dependent on which project manager/supervisor is leading the work than on type of project or the client. Each of these outcomes requires a different response.
If I know we are more profitable with civic than healthcare, my response may be to work on lowering opportunity costs for healthcare pursuits. Many of the steps that can be taken toward this end are in marketing’s wheelhouse. If I learn that we’re more profitable working for client A than client B, I can gather and share this information to help make informed decisions about who we want to pursue and how much we want to spend pursuing them. Some of this is in marketing’s wheelhouse too. If, however, I learn that the real difference is based on which employee manages the job, most of the solutions that need to be employed to address the problem are not traditionally in marketing’s “lane”. However, in my opinion, they are still marketing’s business.
Marketing has historically been an amplifier, not a creator of the firm’s “brand” – which is the cumulative perception of all the various experiences those inside and outside the firm have in their interactions with you – something we now call “human experience”. What marketing communicates becomes what potential clients/employees/project partners expect. Unless our billable colleagues can consistently deliver on what marketing promises, we set ourselves up to fail. Thus, in the age of instant, on-line ratings posted on, Glassdoor, Yelp and the like, the days of “staying in my lane” are, by necessity, over.
So, how do I broach the subject when I see a marketing problem that’s not really mine to fix? I believe the correct course of action is to present the challenge to my firm leaders with enough data to demonstrate why it’s a marketing problem. I ask them to fix it and to keep me in the loop as they do. I then try to focus my marketing efforts on the areas when I know we can deliver on our promise. I also trust my firm leaders to keep me posted as they fix any problems that compromise a complete and positive customer experience.
In the not quite so new anymore world of marketing, we’ve come to realize that savvy B2B customers want to find us more than they want us to find them. Oddly enough, the world of inbound marketing has both helped and exacerbated the problem. Like all great inventions, we start with a startling new premise, based on true insight (in this case, the idea of a “pull” strategy that is content-focused being more effective than a “push” strategy that is close-focused), that is executed expertly and achieves remarkable enough results that the rest of us are compelled to jump on the bandwagon. What follows is a mass need to ramp up, to demonstrate that we too know enough to be able to do this innovative thing for our customers, and mixed results as to how well we execute it based on how close or far away we are from understanding the original premise. Those of us who watched the metamorphosis from innovative open plan workspace to Dilbert-esque cube farm have seen this trajectory bear “fruit”.
In the case of inbound marketing, this has led to some excellent consequences as well as some maddening ones. On the maddening side, today I deleted the 11th (yes, 11th) automated voicemail from my local pharmacy chain in the past 2 weeks telling me it’s time to renew a prescription. (Seriously? Do I seem so feeble that you need to remind me every day?) I also deleted 123 (yes really) e-mails I got last month from a professional organization I belong to, all of which were either encouraging me to attend a webinar, reminding me that they provide me with good service (they don’t) or telling me why I need to be professionally certified (at a net cost to me of upwards of $4000 in coursework, test-taking and certification fees.)
What these examples tell me is that folks are applying a logic to their inbound marketing strategy that says more is always better. This strategy didn’t work well in person-to-person cold calling. Why would it work in this arena? Persistence is admirable, relentlessness is not.
On the excellent side, there are those blogs and websites that offer me content to help me get up to speed on a subject and the opportunity to talk with someone, presented either while I’m browsing the content or at reasonable intervals (which for me is no more often than monthly) without cluttering up my inbox with so many e-mails that I miss the one or two that might really be relevant. These are the ones that recognize that when I trade my contact information for content, it’s to open a dialogue with a hope for real, measurable intelligence, not an invitation to cyber-stalk me. So yes, let’s practice inbound marketing, but let’s focus on quality, not quantity.
Ask a marketing person at an architecture firm what four words are most likely to elicit a sound akin to a cat spitting up a hairball and I suspect they’ll repeat the sentence, “It’s just a proposal.” These words are usually spoken by a principal in a down market with a utilization rate that’s too low for comfort or a go-getter new business developer anxious to get a mark, any mark, in the win column.
I understand why this makes sense to the person saying it. They need a win; they have this marketing staff they call overhead, and they want to make sure they’re getting enough output to justify those salaries. The lion’s share of the work to be done on proposals is done by those overhead folks, so the commitment on the part of the principal or business developer is relatively small until they are shortlisted. For introverts writing a proposal is way easier than picking up the phone and reaching out to someone for new business, plus it gives them something to design. Finally and most maddeningly, everybody has a story about how one time this strategy netted them an interview and/or a project. They just forget to mention that they only have one such story.
I find it important to reframe the issue for the “It’s just a proposal” chorus and instead talk about the cost of a win. Let’s say for example that it takes you about $5000 worth of people time to put out a proposal. That doesn’t seem like much, right? However, if your shortlist rate on proposals is 25% because you’re going after work you are unlikely to get, it actually costs you $20,000 to get an interview. Plus you’ve burned out those marketing overhead folks who have been at the office until midnight for three weeks straight with not a glimmer of success to show for it. Spontaneously bursting into tears is not an unreasonable reaction at that juncture.
So, my dear marketing colleagues, when you hear “it’s just a proposal”, instead of picking up the letter opener you were just about to wave around wild-eyed, calmly challenge your principals and business developers to walk you through the go/no-go decision on this one. If you want to be a respected strategic resource instead of an overhead cost, you have to behave like one.