Hands On Online Marketing to Boost your AEC Business - with Hope Williams

Hands On Online Marketing to Boost your AEC Business – with Hope Williams

Hope Williams (http://hopeworksdesign.com/) is giving professional advice on online marketing for Architects and Engineers. We did interview her during a full 1 hour and 22 minutes (to be precise) on the best ways AEC firms can market their businesses online in such a way that they will:

  • get more leads,
  • get better leads,
  • get the kind of projects they actually want,
  • get the kind of clients that they actually want,
  • all in a way that is semi-automated via online marketing!

In this blogpost we will share the most valuable things learned during the interview, and some specific hands on tips on how to get started.

The number one mistake in online marketing.

The biggest mistake in online marketing is … just ignoring it.

Just imagine. The first thing a potential client does before even contacting you, is… indeed: to check out your website and your online profile. That might be your profile picture on Facebook. Your twitter account. Your online portfolio. Or your blog.

But people will check you out online. All the time. Think about what you would do when you would need to hire a webdesigner. Or a new employee. Or if you are looking to book a place for your next holidays.

Exactly: you check those things out online before getting in touch!

Whatever online profile seems old, ugly and dusty immediately gets dismissed from your list.

So before even contacting you as a potential service provider, people might already have scratched your name from their list (!), based on your empty Facebook timeline or out dated blogposts.

Not putting any effort in online marketing is like going for a new job vacancy in your pyjamas, without first brushing your teeth, and 2 different socks. It results in a very bad first impression.

You already lost the game when you enter that door.


I know. Of course you are all busy. Busy busy busy. You don’t have time for marketing. You need to make deadlines, you need to pick up the phone, to please clients and their last minute mind changes, and your accountant is reminding you for the third time about your taxes. On top of that your better half complains about the fact that you work too much.

Hope: “I tell my clients to treat their online marketing as one of their most important clients, and to make it a weekly habit to work on it. If you never make time for marketing, you will keep on attracting the wrong type of clients and the wrong type of projects, and it’s like a vicious circle. You’ll have even less time for marketing since bad projects are eating your time and energy. If you decide upfront to spend let’s say 4 hours a week on online marketing, with a clear marketing strategy and target client in mind, you will start attracting the right type of clients and projects. The projects you really want to do. This little shift in mindset can make a whole difference for your business on the long term. Obviously, it takes time, effort and patience. Like with anything good in life.

If prospects check you out online, and they see a website where the latest blogpost dates from April 2009 (OMG!), they will start doubting if you are still in business. Make sure you present yourself as active, up to date, interested and alive and kicking!

This does not have to cost you a lot of time. If you don’t have time to blog, then keep it simple. Make a Facebook page where you regularly share information from others or share pictures of the progress of your projects. Just make sure that people regularly see that you are still alive. The day they need an architect, chances are very high that they’ll first reach out to YOU, since you are at the top of their mind.

Hope: “Here is a small tip for people that have good content on their blog, but do not have time to blog that regularly (or stopped blogging some time ago). Although the blog content of those older posts might be very interesting and relevant, and even be a lead magnet for future clients, people will often look at the blogpost date and conclude the information is out of date. In that case, just remove the date from the articles (this is easy to do in most blogging platforms like WordPress). Your blogposts will never look out of date, and you don’t have the constant pressure to blog weekly or monthly anymore.

Bottom line: Get started with online marketing. Just do it!

When the Marketing Magic starts happening.

The difference between running a company not marketing at all, and running a company doing it the right way is HUGE.

In the first case (doing no marketing at all), “chance” and “luck” are probably your strategies to get leads. In other words: you have no control at all over who would be your next client, when he or she would arrive, and how you would find them. This obviously gives some kind of background stress that never disappears. Also, if someone shows up, you are very likely to accept the project (even if you don’t feel at ease with this person and if the kind of project is not really interesting you). You are also more likely to accept lower fees out of fear to not have projects at all.

In the worst case, you work for lower fees, on projects that are not really exciting you, for people you don’t really like. This sounds a lot like an ordinary boring job, isn’t it? This is not the reason why you did found your own architecture studio.

Let’s look at what happens when you implement a clear online marketing strategy.

AEC firms with a well working online marketing strategy set up and running (later in this blogpost we’ll talk about how to do this) are attracting the type of clients they want, and doing the type of projects they really enjoy. This is because all their online marketing is targeted towards their ideal client.

Hope: “I always tell my clients to first come up with a clear idea of who their target client is. Who do they want to work for? What kind of projects do they want to do? What is interesting them? I ask them to make this very specific. Think about an age, a mindset, a way of living, maybe even a gender or religion so to speak, of your ideal target client. The type of person you WANT to work for. Think about the typical projects you would like to do. The more specific you make this, the more targeted (and effective) your marketing will be. And the more of these projects and clients you will start attracting.

If you market towards your target client, obviously, you will start attracting those clients. It might not happen overnight, but it WILL happen. The result is that you do work you like, for people you like.

Nice, eh?

Moreover, you are much less likely to accept just any project for just any price. Why? Because a well done online marketing machine is a constant magnet for interesting leads. That means, if Mr Irritating Client with Project Dull shows up, you will just kindly reply that your agenda is full of projects for the next year. Because your online marketing machine is offering you various interesting leads and opportunities, month after month.

The beauty of an online marketing machine is that once it kicks off and the initial big setup work is done, it keeps on running in the background without too much day in day out effort. The big work is all upfront. Thereafter, your blogposts stay online, your Facebook Likes will not disappear, and your LinkedIn profile stays as beautiful as you last did put it in place. Obviously, as with anything in life, you still need to maintain it, but it is not that expensive and time consuming anymore. Your webserver (and Facebooks servers) will do the heavy lifting for you and showcase your content, profile pages and information to potential leads, 7/7, 24h a day.

An effective online marketing strategy put in place is a cheap way (you can do it yourself) to set up a predictable stream of interesting leads and projects without you chasing or “hoping” for good deals.

Some ways to do online marketing (and some real life examples!).

There are one million ways to do online marketing. Nothing is “wrong” or “right”. The definition of “right” online marketing would be: the one that brings in good leads with little effort. Nevertheless, there are strategies that have proven to work, and they are great places to start in the first place.

Upfront warning: none of the strategies are “quickfixes” and can be set up overnight. They all need some time to kick off. But once they kick off, you bet they do work. And keep on doing so!

1/ Blogging.

By blogging regularly, you show a lot of things to the online community, including your future clients.

First of all, you show that you are still in business. You show that you are passionate about your business (why would you blog about something you are not passionate about). And you show that you take your business serious.

Next, and very important, you show your expertise in certain domains to your (future) clients. If you blog with your target client in mind, you will probably write content that interests them. Try to teach them useful information with your blogposts. When people learn something useful from a stranger (for free!), all of a sudden you are seen as “an expert” in that area.

Think about the last time you stumbled upon on a very interesting blogpost (on whatever subject) that really learned you something useful or opened your eyes.

Maybe you did immediately subscribe to the newsletter? Maybe you checked out the Twitter or Facebook profile of that person or company? Maybe that company will be the first one to talk to when you need the kind of services they offer? Maybe (even without realising it) you would be willing to pay 20% more when hiring this company compared to market average prices – since in the end they are the experts, right?

If you don’t know what to blog about, don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Covering your whole portfolio in different blogposts can be a very good way to kill two birds (portfolio pages and blog pages) with one stone.

Have a look at swallowtailarchitecture.com – The project portfolio structure is unique, but what’s great is the amount of text on the project pages. This not only is great for SEO reasons (Google loves text and keywords) but also treats each project as a blog post. You get great stories about the projects that prospects can relate to and see themselves in.

Or just blog about topics that are so obvious and normal for you, but not for your target audience. Like basic things that every architect knows. You know why it is cost saving to isolate your buildings the right way, but maybe your prospects not. You don’t need rocket science blogposts. Just simple blogposts that help your future clients in your service area. By covering basic architectural knowledge in your blogposts, you will still teach 99% of the population something useful, since most of us are NOT AN ARCHITECT.

Also real life and background stories or (funny) facts about your company are a great thing to share on your blog. People love to work with people, not with big anonymous enterprises. Show your real face and the “behind the scenes” of your company. Moving to a new office? Write a blogpost! Hiring a new person? There you go. Your company exists for 3 years now? Put the anniversary pictures of the cake on your blog! How silly it might seem, people loooove this, really. They start seeing you as a person or online friend, rather than “an architectural service provider who wants their money”.

No time for blogging. No problem, read on…

2/ Quick and easy Facebook updates

You really have no excuse for this one.

Let me tell you the work involved:

  • ONE TIME: Set up a Facebook Page (20 minutes, of which 15 minutes will go to searching for the best version of your logo on your hard disk).
  • DAILY: 10 minutes of content sharing, liking, and tagging.

That’s it peeps, really.

If you commit to take 10 minutes a day to just post ANYTHING on your Facebook page, people see that you are alive. That “things are happening”. Moreover, since it is on Facebook, they can like and share this content. Even if you get no likes and shares at all, you can be a 100% sure that many people have seen your small updates. On Facebook, many of us are spies. On a single day, people are spending nearly an hour every day scrolling through Facebook status updates, liking Instagram posts, or chatting on Messenger. Make sure you join the party!

A daily picture of your current project (don’t bother about the perfect one, done is better than perfect), an interesting blogpost you have seen (like this one perhaps :-) ), something funny that happened in the office (Joe came to work on his slippers). Just share it. Don’t worry what people will think about it. Don’t fear negative reactions.

Are you blogging as well? Great. Share each one of them on Facebook!

Check out the Facebook page of http://swallowtailarchitecture.com/ (sorry to mention them again, but they really master online marketing I think). The day of drafting this blogpost was the 5th of December 2016. Their latest Facebook update was the 3rd of December, so 2 days ago. They are not dead! This status update didn’t take them much effort, they just clicked the “share” link on the bottom of an article they have seen somewhere online. 5 seconds. But still… they appear in the timeline of many people, and they show they are active and alive and kicking.

Small effort, big win. This is really low hanging online marketing fruit you could should implement TODAY.


3/ Help your future clients with a free download (in exchange for an email address)

I’m not sure if you are familiar with “Inbound Marketing“. It is just the opposite of “Outbound Marketing“. “Outbound marketing” is: companies chasing clients with ads, promos, flashy messages and interruption marketing (the typical phone call from the sales guy that no one is expecting). Inbound marketing is the opposite. You PULL clients towards you by doing things they like, want to read or want to know. THEY find YOU. Not the other way round.

Of course, in the end, you still have the goal of making them clients, but not the “hard” salesy and cheesy way, but the soft, informational and gentle way by GIVING FIRST. Then the karma of receiving back comes secondary.

People are getting immune for ads. They just skip them on television, or made it a habit to avoid clicking on the ads they see everywhere online.

Inbound marketing works better these days. Build a relationship with your (future) clients by providing useful information for free. This gives you a permission to get in touch with them later. You are not “a stranger selling them stuff” anymore. You are that one person who did provide exactly what they were looking for, for free, in a great information guide.

A free download of a guide or white paper is a great example of “inbound marketing”. Obviously, the information you share in there would be information that your target audience is looking for online. Just like a blog, this makes you a MUCH more interesting service provider then all your competitors. If you did provide the exact information that a prospect was looking for, you will be the first one they will call when they need AEC services.

Let’s have a look at some examples.

swallowtailarchitecture.com is nailing it again, so I’ll use them again as an example :-)

Let us first check who is their target client. From their website:

We specialize in architecture on Sullivan’s Island, Kiawah Island, Summerville and in the Lowcountry around Charleston, South Carolina. Our familiarity with the Zoning Ordinances and proven experience with creating designs that win approval from the local Boards of Design Review, means you get the best advice and best design solution so you can build a beautiful and functional home, exactly as you dreamed.

Now, what would be one of the things that EVERY single person that would like to build a home on the Kiawah Island would need to do? Indeed, make sure that his/her project gets approved for building. The last thing you want is to face is multiple rejections and adaptions which will delay your project, cost more, and result in overall stress and frustration.

Let’s check what Rachel Burton (owner of Swallowtail Architecture) provides as a download on her site:


If you want to build your (next) home on Kiawah Island… who you gonna call?

Indeed: Ghostbusters. Rachel!

Here is the thing. If you focus on a niche market (in this case: people who want to live on Kiawah Island), it is always more easy to position yourself as THE reference for that small niche. If you do everything for everyone, in fact you are really doing nothing for no one. No one will feel attracted to an architect who claims to be specialized in everything. Lazer focus on a niche, and it is very easy to become number one in that specific niche.

Another example I really love is http://sellarslathrop.com/, and more specifically this page http://sellarslathrop.com/how-to-hire-an-architect/ with it’s downloadable guide “How to Hire an Architect“:


I guess this guide would be of interest for anyone who is about to hire his or her first architect for their first or their next project.

Hope: “http://sellarslathrop.com/ has a great portfolio and went from 0% of getting projects online to 25% of their workload coming from their website due to having a free download offer + sign up form and an automated way of delivering the free download.

Hope also mentioned modative.com:

modative.com – The way they have a resources section and the types of free downloads they offer is something other architects should and could replicate for themselves. Their free offers are for a very specific niche and are providing exactly what that niche wants/needs. Because of that, many leads turn into clients.”

4/ Newsletters – keep the interaction flow going.

Newsletters are a follow up on the previous point, the downloadable free resources. By asking an email address in exchange for useful information bundled in a nice guide, you have very a important detail of a potential client: their email address.

Access to a prospects mailbox can be pure gold. By nurturing his or her mailbox with regular small updates on your company, little by little you become a “virtual friend”, rather than a stranger. Obviously, the goal is not to start spamming. Nobody likes spam. But if someone did download your guide, then most of the times they would appreciate small updates and newsletters in their mailbox on your behalf every now and then.

Even just a small monthly newsletter with some facts and figures could be enough to become the number one choice the day they need to hire an architect or engineer. You would not need to compete anymore with all the other firms. You have a big advantage over all the rest.

Don’t be afraid about unsubscribes and don’t worry about what people would think about your newsletters. Just do it. If people unsubscribe, that’s fine. They are probably not interested in the first place, and that way you know you are not wasting your time on leads who are not going to convert anyhow.

If you have no downloadable guide to “sell” in exchange for an email address and you have no idea where to start building your email list, then you can as well just gather the names and emails of good friends and business contacts in an excel sheet. Think about it, I’m 100% sure you have at least 25 names that could go straight on the list (and I didn’t even count your mother and uncle, so that would make 27 already!).

That is 27 people who will regularly be reminded that you are running an AEC business. They all have at least a 100 contacts they see regularly. Guess what might happen when someone of their contacts is looking for an architect?

PS: In order to send your emails, you can use free online software for your mailings, like http://mailchimp.com/

5/ Great Portfolio Pages and References

One of the questions that every single client will have is: “Alright, cool, but did you do something like this before? I don’t want to be your laboratory rabbit on which you experiment.

In other words: they want to be reassured, not by theory and sales talk, but by a real life cases.

This is what we all know as a portfolio and references.

You have ‘portfolios’ and ‘Portfolios‘.

What do you think a prospect would do when they arrive on your website and they see the latest project in your portfolio are some fuzzy pictures and a bit of text, dating from September 2011?

Exactly: they will close the browser.

One Shall Not Neglect Their Portfolio Pages.

It is SOOOOO important to take that portfolio page serious.

Typical things that make a good portfolio page are:

  • quality pictures: try to avoid darker, unclear pictures. Some extra attention is needed for quality pictures
  • authentic pictures: quality is fine, but don’t make them unrealistic with Photoshop – clients need to be able to relate with the pictures!
  • progress pictures: before and after photos are really great for transformations and renovations. It makes people dream of what they could achieve with their project.
  • stories: tell about the clients, their cases, their story. People really love this! From a very young age, each one of us likes stories. So if you add a story next to the photos, you’ll have more chance of grabbing the attention of the visitor.
  • details and numbers: tell the visitor about the duration of the project, the materials used, the parties involved, and even an indication of the cost maybe. That makes it very specific for visitors. If they see a project like theirs, you can be sure they’ll keep on reading. Especially if you include cost related information :-)
  • and remember: done is better than perfect. Better to have something online, and then finetune it little by little, than working for years on the perfect portfolio page, but never shipping it online.

Next to a great portfolio, and even more powerful, are references.

Think about it. What do you think people will think when you say them you are the prefect architect for their next project?

“Yeah, right… I’ll judge by myself. Of course you say you are the best – you want my money!”

But what do they think when SOMEONE ELSE tells them about how good you are?

“So you worked with an architect and you are very happy about that person? Tell me more!”

References are OTHER PEOPLE telling how good you are. Just imagine how powerful that is.

Think about the last time you did want to book a good restaurant, or you did look around for your next holiday destination. Chances are VERY high that your final decision was strongly influenced by a good recommendation from a friend.

Before we throw several thousands of dollars over the table, we want to be reassured by others that our dollars will be well spent.

After you did a project (and obviously if the project went OK), always ask for a reference. That could be a review on Facebook, a Tweet, or a quote for on your website. But always ASK it. Most clients will not start writing quotes for your website out of the blue. They are too busy for that, just like you are.

Asking a reference takes you literally ONE minute, and most people are kind and want to help others. So in most of the cases, you’ll have a nice quote for on your website, or a 5 star review on Facebook.

Just make it a habit to ASK for it!

Check this out – yes, this is again Swallowtail Architecture – https://www.facebook.com/Swallowtail.Architecture:

Did they use rocket science Nasa technology? No. They just asked for reviews :-)


Help. This is overwhelming! Where to start?

As you can see, none of those 5 strategies is a best kept secret. They are obvious and easy to do. You just need to spend the time on it, and actually DO IT.

There is always a reason to not spend time on marketing. It seems a privilege for the bigger, already established and well organised bigger firms. But think about it. How do you think they became like that in the first place.

Marketing is all about self fulfilling prophecy. Act like if you are bigger, and you will become bigger. It is a circle. The more time you spend on marketing and the better you nail it, the better the projects and clients you will attract, and the less you will have to deal with activities that add no value to your business (like accepting a bad project out of fear for not having work).

If you are serious about getting started, I would definitely advice to check out Hope Williams site (http://hopeworksdesign.com/), and just get in touch with her if you have any additional questions. She is a very friendly person and she won’t bite (I think :-).

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