Narrowing Down to Level Up: How Specializing Can Help Architects
Sometimes, as architects, we feel like we have to do everything to be successful. But as it turns out, making certain sacrifices can actually make us better at our jobs.
We’re talking about getting specific and specializing — which means giving up certain projects and clients, yes, but also reaping the benefits of niche focus and expertise. It starts by carving out a specific offering and target market.
How Federal Express Scored with a Specific Offering
Some of you might remember Emery Air Freight. Anything you wanted to ship you could ship with Emery. They offered small packages, large packages, overnight service, and more.
So what did Emery’s main competitor, Federal Express, do? It concentrated on one service: small packages overnight.
The power of this strategy is that instead of doing everything, they made it more specific — and did one thing really well.
If have a package that has to get there ASAP, you call Federal Express. After all, they’re the ones who specialize in exactly that: getting a package to its destination overnight.
We’re all inclined to think that the more we have to sell, the more we will sell.
But marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products or services.
In the mind of the prospect, Federal Express owned the overnight position.
How Pepsi-Cola Scored by Focusing on a Specific Target Market.
In the early sixties, Pepsi-Cola used this strategy to compete with Coca-Cola. It sacrificed everything except the teenage market. Then it exploited this market by hiring teenage icons: Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Don Johnson. Within one generation, Pepsi closed the gap.
And you know what’s the best thing? The target market is not the market. That is, the apparent target market of your marketing campaign is not the same as the pool of people who will actually buy your product or services.
Even though Pepsi Cola’s target was the teenager, the market was everybody. The 60-year-old guy who wants to think he’s 26 will drink the Pepsi.
How Would You Select a Designer for Your Website?
Think about how you – as an architect – would search for and select someone to help you with your website.
Suppose you have the choice between two website designers.
There’s Designer A, whose website headline says Professional Websites. If you go to her website and check out her portfolio you see references to an e-commerce shop and a car dealer, and you read a testimonial from an accountant.
And there’s Designer B, whose website headline says Professional Websites and Portfolios for Architects. On his website, you see samples of websites built for other architects. All the sample websites are custom designed for architects, and all the positive testimonials and reviews are from architects just like you. When exploring his services, you even notice he has methodologies and templates specific to the needs of architects – which makes the process really efficient.
It hits you: this is exactly what you need. By working with this guy, you’ll tap into years of focused, concentrated web design experience in your specific field.
And oh, before I forget: the hourly rate of Designer B is twice the hourly rate of Designer A.
Which one would you choose?
Just like most teenagers will go for Pepsi, you’ll likely go for Designer B’s made-for-you service over generalist Designer A… even if the hourly rate is twice as high.
Thus, marketing to a specific niche does not limit you. Rather, it makes your marketing messages more relevant and attractive to your ideal prospect. It connects your work with the people who need it most.
Applying This as an Architect
For architects too, offering more services to more target markets won’t result in more sales.
On the contrary, the most successful architects I know focus on specialized services or building types, like:
- green construction
- modern construction
- wood skeleton construction
- historic homes
- home design transformation
- urban design
Or they focus on specialized target markets, like
- high-end private real estate
- industry projects
- government projects
Very few architects niche their offerings like this for fear that it will cause them to lose business.
But the opposite is true. By making your offering more specific, you will attract more – and more qualified – prospects.
Architects that Specialize Will Generate More Qualified Prospects
Focusing on a specific target market (such as hospitals, schools, or high-end real estate) or a specialized offering (like green construction, historic homes, or wood skeleton construction) will give you a big advantage. Prospects in your niche will be much more attracted to your offering than that of generalist competitors.
To illustrate this, let’s look at how your potential prospects go about searching for and selecting an architect.
Imagine you’re an architect in New York, focusing on high-end modern residential projects.
And imagine someone — let’s call her Patty, from New York — is looking for an architect to design her high-end modern residential project.
In fact, Patty represents “the market” of potential clients currently looking for an architect to manage their high-end modern residential project in New York.
In order for you to be successful, three things need to happen:
- First, Patty needs to find you.
- Next, Patty needs to be convinced that you are a perfect fit for her project…
- … so much so that she is willing to pay you (a lot) more than generalist architects in New York.
Let’s see how focusing on a niche will make this possible.
1 – Get potential clients to find you.
If Patty doesn’t know an architect in her network of friends and family, one of the first things she’ll do is search for something like architect modern residential projects New York.
Given your focus on this type of project and the fact that your website, content, and portfolio clearly mention this, chances are high you will rank well for that specific Google search.
Where ranking highly for the more specific search architect modern residential projects New York is feasible, I wish you good luck with ranking on the first page for architects New York.
In SEO language, this tactic is called working with long-tail keywords.
Working with these specific search variations, or long-tail keywords, has an important advantage: there’s way less competition for these more specialized searches, which makes it easier to rank well.
It will be much easier to rank first for a specific search than a general one.
Psst: Here are 5 tips to help you with this ranking high on Google as an architect.
Alright, so thanks to your specialization, Patty found you via a Google search.
Let’s move on to the second step.
2 – Convince your website visitors that you are a perfect fit.
Now Patty clicks through to your website and goes straight to your portfolio, where she sees beautiful photos of modern residential projects, some of them close to what she has in mind for her own project.
She’s excited, but before contacting you, she checks out some other things on your website.
First, she checks out your about page, where she reads that you’ve been focusing on modern residential projects for 10 years already and that you’re really passionate about this work. She also reads that you are constantly learning, creating new best practices, and staying up-to-date in the field of modern residential projects.
She reads about your methodology, using a five-step process specific to modern residential projects, which helps a lot with translating your requirements and expectations to a design in a very efficient and detailed way. Using this methodology you eliminate misunderstandings and time-consuming iterations in the design process. The combination of your experience in the field of modern residential projects and this methodology makes the process time-efficient and effective.
Next, she checks your website, Google, and Facebook for reviews and testimonials where she reads how happy your clients are with the work you did for them for their modern residential projects.
Before Patty even emailed or called you for an appointment, she already made her decision. She wants to work with you. This project is so important to her, she’s been preparing it for years, so she only wants the best architect, someone with the right skills and lots of experience in exactly this type of work.
In SEO language, they’d say your conversion rate is much higher. Given the specific search architect modern residential projects New York, your specific website, portfolio, and content will be closely aligned with what the people that land on your website are actually looking for.
The search traffic will be targeted and engaged: people in the New York area who have indicated a specific interest in modern residential projects.
That’s exactly the demographic you’re looking for, and that audience will likely, given their specific search terms and given that your website demonstrates your expertise in exactly this kind of project, be interested in making an appointment with you.
On to the third and final step.
3 – Charge higher fees.
Your specialization in modern residential projects is of great value to Patty. After seeing your website, portfolio, methodology, content, and reviews, she scheduled an appointment with you.
During this meeting, you were able to demonstrate your expertise by sharing what you did for other clients, by mentioning how important it is to take specific factors into account, and so on. During this conversation, you proved your knowledge and professionalism — and in Patty’s mind, moved from vendor to expert practitioner.
So now she’s 100% convinced she wants you to do this project.
She’s attracted to your specific expertise and approach, and she’s willing to pay more for it.
And this, my dearest architects, is where we need to arrive … we need our potential clients to see our value.
If you can get Patty to focus on the potential value of your work, the price becomes less and less important. If she doesn’t focus on value, the only thing you can talk about is the price.
So if you charge 50% or even 100% more than the average of the generalist architects in New York, chances are high she will still agree to it.
General practice, full-service firms on the other hand, face increasing competition and must compete on price, often attracting lower-quality clients who view them as replaceable vendors. Believe me, that’s not the kind of race you want to run. Working for the wrong customers at a low rate downsizes your value, your investments, and your general worth.
Clients are always willing to pay more for specialized knowledge, and that’s another huge advantage of focusing on a niche.
That’s why you would be willing to pay more for the designer that specializes in professional websites for architects than for the professional websites designer.
In this article, you’ll learn more about pricing techniques that will increase your revenue without requiring you to put in more hours.
Two Other Advantages of Going Niche
1 – You’ll get really good at what you do.
It is difficult to design all building types well, particularly those that require in-depth research.
Specialization gives you an elevated knowledge base, making your intelligence worth paying for.
Specialization can make project execution more efficient. The more you focus on a certain type of construction, the better you become at working in that specific niche.
Knowing which questions to ask, what pitfalls to watch out for, and drawing from plenty of experience allows you to be smarter about managing time and money.
You start to learn what works and what doesn’t. You get good at quickly parsing and prioritizing the issues and recognizing opportunities others would miss. You start to build a process or methodology that makes you more efficient compared to a generalist who lacks your specific experience and knowledge.
Think about making an offer, understanding the client’s requirements, selecting contractors, choosing materials and technologies, estimating budgets… it’s all much easier if you’re doing it for the same kind of projects all the time.
This simple fact adds a great deal to a client’s confidence in their selection. For instance, even a private sector commercial office park developer will often be reluctant to hire a firm that hasn’t done a lot of that type of work. It’s a kind of risk aversion: clients want architects to have already made past mistakes and know how to avoid them.
2 – You’ll create more effective marketing materials.
Marketing is about communicating your offering to your potential clients.
It’s not only what you communicate; it’s also about ensuring potential clients can see and hear that communication in the first place.
Let’s take a look at how specialization can help drive potential clients to your business and website.
Ranking Well on Google
In the example above, we explained how specializing will help you rank highly on Google because your potential clients use so-called long-tail keywords, like architect modern residential projects, for which it’s much easier to rank on the first page of results.
One of the best techniques for ranking well is to write super in-depth blog posts about your business and your expertise. Google’s algorithms are set up such that content marketing done well is, by far, the very best way to achieve a high ranking.
So create useful, helpful, evergreen content. In Google’s eyes, users are the priority. That means if readers find your content valuable, Google will find it valuable, too.
Given your experience and expertise, writing about your specialization should be relatively easy and your content will be very relevant.
Whether your specialization is sustainable construction, public projects, industry projects, wood framing construction, home remodeling, or anything else under the sun, writing in-depth content on anything related to your expertise is a great strategy to help you rank on top.
Write about your projects. What makes them successful? What challenges have helped you learn? Write about how you’re tackling certain problems, or about mistakes you’ve seen your peers make and learned to avoid.
Another advantage of blogging about your niche is that you’ll be perceived as an expert in this area.
Pretty soon, people will come to your blog to learn valuable tips, tricks, and resources from you!
Apart from ranking well on Google, specializing in a specific target market also offers other effective marketing options that generalist architects don’t have.
Marketing can only be effective if you can communicate about your offering to a well-defined target market.
So specialization will make it possible for you to do effective marketing in the sense that you can address potential clients in your target market, and drive them to your website.
Suppose your target market is schools. Here are some things you could do:
- Make a list of all schools in your region, and send them an email or catalog.
- Participate in events that deal with construction projects for schools, and start building a useful network
- Write content on construction projects for schools: describe examples you’ve worked on, what you learned from them, dos and don’ts; over time, sharing your knowledge and experience will establish you as an expert in the field.
- Offer quality to your clients and always do a good job, and the facility director of school X will recommend you to the facility director of school Y next time they meet at a conference.
If you’re not specializing and you’re doing everything (green construction, modern construction, wood skeleton construction) for everyone (industry projects, hospitals, schools), it’s very difficult to reach your potential clients. Unless you’re Coca Cola, how can you possibly do effective marketing if your market is everyone and everything? It’s almost impossible.
Maybe this tactic of giving up some generalities to focus on specifics sounds interesting… but you need some real-world examples of architects going niche. Here are a few stories to consider.
Here is an article about an architect, Co Govers of ZEST architecture, that managed to make the switch.
Three takeaways of the article:
- ZEST focuses on modern sustainable design.
- It’s not easy in the beginning: “It felt like narrowing myself down to the opposite of what I had dreamed of doing. Would I never do a mosque or a museum?”
- Clients find ZEST via web searches rather than referrals. They are active online, for example, browsing through photos on Pinterest.
Check out their website, and how it attracts potential clients in the market for a modern sustainable design project.
On the homepage, it says “Modern Sustainable Design”, together with a beautiful project photo to illustrate this:
The about page radiates a passion for sustainable design:
The portfolio page, no explanation required:
Finally, the many publications show that by focussing on a niche, over time it’s possible to become an expert in your domain. People are always interested in what experts have to say, and that’s why the content of experts will be more likely to be read, shared, and mentioned.
And in this article, you can read all about how James Hundt began working in the area of religious buildings in 1980, designing churches and other religious facilities.
- The firm has worked on a broad spectrum of projects within its narrow niche, including new churches, additions, renovations to historic structures, and even a private chapel.
- His specialized focus provided James with expert knowledge of buildings for religious institutions. This sets his firm apart from others that are equally competent but work on a variety of different types of projects.
- “It’s easy to be better at what you do if you specialize because you put all of your focus on a particular type of work. It helps in competition because you have something to offer that other firms do not.”
In the same article, Butler, of Butler Rowland Mays, describes how they specialize in libraries and museums.
- He found that his company developed an “encyclopedia of knowledge” through its specialization.
- The firm became widely known in library circles through word-of-mouth.
Just Do It
And now, let’s get going niche.
Be smart about choosing a specialty.
Take an honest, unbiased look at your past projects. Think about what projects you feel most confident executing. Consider what types of projects are actually profitable and which are in growth sectors. Look for specializations that are not readily apparent or that may be untapped in the market.
And remember from the Pepsi example: the target market is not necessarily or exclusively the actual market. The 60-year-old guy who wants to think he’s 26 will drink the Pepsi.
So don’t be too afraid that specialization might result in losing out on other revenue opportunities. Many architecture firms that are thriving as specialty firms accept projects outside their specialty.
By positioning and marketing yourself as a niche player, you will be able to benefit from the advantages described in this article:
- Attracting more potential clients
- Charging higher fees
- Working with clients who focus on value rather than cost
- Getting super-efficient in project execution
Specialization, and focusing your marketing and communications activities toward key audiences, is a smart strategic choice for architects — and all entrepreneurs.
That’s it for today!
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