Forward-thinking AEC firms are institutionalizing the best of the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic forced on the business world and our industry. In this issue of The Friedman File, we detail how one firm effectively adapted its marketing and business development strategy to align with the realities of the post-COVID market.
Adapting to a Pandemic
The larger lessons of the pandemic can’t be overstated. As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been to the planet, it has also underscored the adaptability and resilience of the human race. While fatalities mounted and economies crumbled, individuals and communities found a way to move forward.
Within this profound setting, we find many examples of this determination to keep on keeping on. In the narrower context of The Friedman File, the strategic decisions and bold steps taken by AEC firms to counter the effects of the pandemic are instructional.
For example, Boulder Associates, a 140-person healthcare architecture and interior design firm based in Colorado, responded to the challenges of the pandemic by completely revamping its approach to marketing and business development. The overdue decision to move away from printed marketing collateral was made easy by the effects of the pandemic, replaced instead by user-friendly technology that is efficient, immediate and far more customizable. In business development, the loss of in-person interaction birthed a renewed emphasis on interpersonal relationship-building that is enabled and cultivated through the sudden ubiquity of video conferencing.
Paperless Marketing — Finally
Until recently, and like most AEC firms, Boulder’s marketing materials were stacked on shelves full of hard-copy brochures. The firm snail-mailed postcards and a year-end holiday greeting card to the hundreds of contacts in its customer database. One simple question asked during a pandemic-driven shutdown ended it all: “Where do we send it?”
The company jettisoned its quarterly postcard mailing in favor of electronic communications using the software platform Flipping Book. Initiated by former Marketing Director Chin Goh, who recently changed careers, the Flipping Book format has been a game changer in the pandemic.
Jenny Hastings is a Principal and interior designer who recently moved into the position of Director of Business Development for the firm’s eight offices. In August 2021, she took on the marketing director role as well. She says that Flipping Book is an example of the firm’s stated strategy to be more targeted in the way it markets to clients.
“We want to give clients the information that they’re looking for, not just tell them who we are,” says Hastings. “They know who we are. They need to know what we can do for them.”
Flipping Book (flippingbook.com) allows its users to convert a pdf into the kind of electronic magazine format popularized by online publications, or alternatively, into slide format. A firm can then send it directly to recipients via email, text or even social networks. In addition to the ease of use this brings, and the easy customization it allows the sender, the program offers a much more comprehensive ability than many other distribution programs to track the recipients’ engagement with the piece.
“If someone makes a connection, we use Flipping Book to get information into their hands immediately without having to send massive files over email,” says Hastings. “Our clients have only a finite amount of time, and with our specialization in healthcare and senior living, we can zero in on specific areas of expertise, with active links and up-to-date information. We don’t have to print it and send it to them, where they’re not going to get it for a week, if at all. Or wait until the next time we see them.”
Flipping Book subscription plans start at a few hundred dollars per year and, if limited to only a few users, cost less than $5,000 annually.
Hastings adds that a positive side effect of the departure from printed materials is that it improves the firm’s sustainability performance. By not sending hundreds of postcards a year – especially at a time of uncertainty as to when and whether they’ll be received – the firm contributes less to the overburdened waste stream.
Relationship-Building by Video
In distinguishing between marketing and business development, Hastings considers the former as the firm’s “message to the world,” while the latter is about “forging and continuing relationships.”
In that spirit, she and Boulder have focused their pandemic-era business development efforts on retaining the personal touch, even if the parties are physically miles apart and connecting by video or phone.
“We had many discussions about what business development was going to look like in a pandemic,” says Hastings. “Early on, we weren’t sure if we could make meaningful connections virtually, but we have. The virtual platform has allowed us to meet with more people than we did when we were trying to set up a lunch or dinner. Now it’s ‘Hey, can we do a quick 30-mimute Zoom.’ Everyone was stuck at home, trying to make human connections, and we made a lot of meaningful connections because everyone is in the same situation.”
In fact, on some levels, video interactions can allow for faster and deeper relationship-building than in-person meetings because participants are not only unencumbered by the potentially self-conscious aspects of face-to-face gatherings, but video meeting attendees are typically situated in comfortable, familiar surroundings. When dogs start barking, children interrupt or some other revealing bit of their non-working persona is on display, it is much easier for people to let their guard down and show their true self.
“Seeing everyone in their own space gives you a different context,” says Hastings. “There are a lot of people that I met first or only on a video chat, and there is an immediate connection due to the fact that we’re all dealing with extraordinary circumstances.”
Hastings says that the increased acceptance of video conferencing amid the pandemic has improved the flow of communications both from the firm to its client base and from office to office within the firm. For this reason, she established a schedule of regular office check-ins.
“Part of my work is to keep our BD teams more connected,” she says. “We have 8 offices with 140 people trying to stay connected, and if one office is chasing a project, they might be leveraging the expertise in another. It’s not that we didn’t share that information before, but it wasn’t as intentional or deliberate.”
Video conferencing’s evolution in the pandemic has improved Boulder’s ability to stay in frequent contact internally, Hastings says. But also, because “clients move the system,” the firm is engaging more successfully externally as well.
“What has shaped a lot of what we’re doing is that relationships are king,” she says. “Internal, external with clients, with contractor partners…everything about the work we do is relationship-driven. We’re 100% healthcare and senior living, so we eat, sleep and breathe these projects. Everything hinges on the relationships we make and foster.”
To that end, Boulder is amplifying the role of its “BA/Science” group, which is a group of internal professionals with expertise in research, lean design and construction, process improvement and sustainability. Each of its members assesses all major projects to determine if they can – individually or collectively – offer specialized insight that will substantially improve the outcome.
Hastings says that the approach is yet another way that Boulder emphasizes relationships by focusing on client needs and acting as an invested partner. “It’s a way to bring a different lens to a project,” she says.
What steps has your firm taken to accommodate marketing and business development in this pandemic era? I’d love to hear from you, so please write me with your thoughts and experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (508) 276-1101.