Social Media for Construction Firms

Greg Schoppman

Making Strategic Sense of Tweets, Posts and the World of Social Media

by Gregg M. Schoppman

Websites are so 2004.  Email is passé. Cell phones that simply make calls are the eight tracks in this telecommunications world. Networking means so much more than it did a decade ago. Sound bites via Twitter or instant messaging have made verbal communication obsolete. Within the myriad of technological changes, contractors wrestle with the right vehicle to establish their brand and publicize their message. With finite resources in a volatile and turbulent world, choosing a Twitter handle comes in a distant second to maintaining a strong backlog. The true challenge lies in how a construction firm effectively uses these social media outlets and finds the right tool for the job.

Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, MySpace, YouTube and Foursquare are some of the highest profile social networking tools available. People of all ages are constantly “updating” their status, posting pictures and postulations and using these forums to find other similar minded friends and colleagues. Businesses view these sites as a veritable gold mine of customers for two reasons. Traditional media outlets such as television, print and radio have fallen out of favor particularly with younger audiences. Secondly, consumers have demonstrated fierce loyalty to certain brands (i.e. Apple, Coca Cola) and by using this non-traditional marketing, companies are hoping to reinforce brand loyalty through viral communication. The challenge lies in business-to-business sales and is particularly evident in a construction firm’s utilization of such tools. Is the hype over the social media craze warranted or is it simply impractical for a construction firm or trade contractor to make use of this new media? It depends on one’s perspective.

To provide clarity, it is first important to define what social media is by explaining what it is not. First, it is not a replacement for the firm’s overarching strategy. Brands such as Apple and Starbucks may utilize social media but their firms still have a vision, mission and strategic plan. In essence, they use these tools just as a pipefitter uses a wrench.

 

Figure 1 Context Driving Strategy

Consider the illustration in Figure 1. The context is defined as the world in which the contractor lives. The 4 Cs – Company, Competition, Customer, and Climate – represent the internal and external machinations that surround, envelop and comprise the firm. Whether it is the new rules a municipality may enforce (“Climate”) or the way an end user buys its services (“Customer”), a firm creates a strategy to position itself and develop a proactive response. Strategic vehicles such as social media provide a mechanism to reinforce their brand. So often firms rush to these new outlets because it represents the bright shiny object or the “gotta have it toy” of the year” when in reality there is little to no alignment. For example, a firm will invest the energy to create a Facebook page and routinely update it with progress photos of jobsites. However, key customers and accounts are not viewing this site nor are they apt to in the future. It is reminiscent of the early days of the fax machines – to be truly effective there had to be someone to receive the fax being sent. As with most technological innovations there are phases of adoption and in time, communicating thru social media will continue to gain acceptance just as the world accepted the phone, faxes and emails. No one should be dissuaded firm from establishing a presence in the digital world. More importantly, it is to make sure a firm adequately addresses their strategy first and then determining which tool will provide them the most impact long term with the scarce resources that exist within these firms.

The second thing to recognize about social media is that it is not a replacement for marketing and traditional business development. Social media may help business development efforts – assuming the customer base recognizes its importance within their context – but it is so much more than a billboard or mailing campaign used to sell a project. One of the shortsighted perspectives on social media is the belief that its value can be measured in the bottom line of a firm or that there is a direct return on investment just as one would measure the return on a piece of equipment. Consider the roll of websites in the business world. In the late 1990s firms questioned the legitimacy of websites and often posed the question of “will this make us money?” Today, firms without websites tend to lack legitimacy. However, websites quickly evolved from simple ad space to employment sites, company message boards, blog space and portals for employees to access internal software. Simply put, social media enables firms to communicate with customers, employees, potential employees and the community.

Tool usa and value chain

Figure 2 is a practical application of how firms are realizing the value of social media. For instance, once the strategic direction is codified and the trajectory defined, it may determine that Linked In provides them the greatest resource to find new associates through its networking applications. Additionally, it may determine that the president should post private monthly video feeds on YouTube sharing the company’s vision and progress on the annual business plan. By no means should any of these tools be viewed as a substitute for human contact, but as firms expand – in niche, geography or size – maintaining communication to the office and field associates is imperative. Best of all these tools are predominantly free or require very little investment. How often are multi-faceted tools offered to a business with such a low price tag?

Lastly, it is important to recognize that social media is NOT a fad. One of the greatest misconceptions is that social media is simply for the young people. So many businesses are riding this out in the hopes that Twitter and Linked In will go the way of the dinosaur. In fact, in a year that saw social media enable the reshaping of world governments, it is more likely that this form of social media is simply a step in the technology evolutionary cycle. Think Facebook 2.0 rather than a world without Facebook.

Firms must expand their thinking relative to the value of social media. The return on investment is measured in far greater terms than sales leads. Some of the practical applications for specific social media outlets are as follows:

Linked In

  • Creating a network of trade contractors to share leads and technologies
  • Utilize the advanced features to recruit other professionals

YouTube

  • Develop and deliver low cost training videos (internal) for local and remote associates
  • Publish “state of the firm” messages

Twitter

  • Publish key firm “successes” such as a project award – Link all firm associates so they can see the “scoreboard” and pending backlog
  • Link to key customer accounts to serve as an early warning system for projects and firm happenings

As stated previously, each of these tactics should be tied to specific firm-wide strategies. For instance, customers that are technologically sophisticated may require for more robust processes such as completed integrated project delivery. On the other hand, customers that have limited connectivity probably do not require communiqués via Twitter. Alignment of the tactics and strategies is essential.

The rise of social media is not without its risks. If you are not considering social media as an enhancement to your business, your competition is more than likely using one of these tools to provide a comparative advantage in these tight economic times. As you search Linked In for potential candidates, always consider that your own employees are at risk. Employee poaching is not a new phenomenon but with new tools come new challenges. Your competition will covet every aspect of your business especially if it’s right in front of them via a search engine.

An additional risk is brought about by the expediency and accuracy – often in direct opposition -  with which information is posted on the Internet. As with anything, practical controls need to be in place to ensure the content being posted is within acceptable company standards. Posting pictures of flagrant safety hazards or inappropriate acts paint a poor company image whether it is on Facebook or the nightly news. It is important to recognize that whatever appears on the Internet is permanent. Additionally, customers, potential employees and the community at large use these tools to garner information about your firm. What is your digital footprint telling the world about you?

The transformation of technology and communication continues to morph at a meteoric pace. In a relatively short time, businesses have had to learn new processes and implement new tools to maintain competitiveness all while running a business. Social media is no different but simply requires the appropriate coordination to support the business and its overall strategic direction. Twitter and Facebook are not to be feared but utilized as tools to enable construction moving at the speed of thought.

This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of New England Construction

 

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