Increasingly, architects are tapping into social media to connect with peers and promote their work.

Eric Liebmann (left) and John Lowe (right)
Illustration © Otto Steininger

A Social Media Primer

Blogs: Firms can use blogs to regularly deliver information about projects, personnel changes, publications, and other news. Posts can include photos and videos. Dialogue is further enhanced through readers’ comments.

Microblogs: Sites such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Plurk allow architects to network and quickly communicate bits of information. A Twitterer sets up an account and publishes “tweets” (posts of 140 characters or less) that are broadcast to followers. A few firms have Twitter accounts, including Gensler (700 followers) and LPA (2,280 followers).

Social networking sites: While interaction is always the goal, the various social networking sites have different purposes. At LinkedIn, for instance, members set up profiles that resemble résumés, link to other professionals, and join discussion groups. Facebook is more casual. These types of sites can help architects gain exposure and connect with their peers and the public.

Social bookmarking sites: Digg, Stumbleupon, and Delicious are among the sites that allow users to temporarily “store” bookmarked Web pages. The links may be tagged, saved, managed, and shared with others.

Video- and photo-sharing sites: These sites are tailor-made for a profession focused on visuals. Through posting images and videos on sites like Flickr and YouTube, architects can showcase their work — whether it’s in progress or completed — to a large audience for free. Some firms also post interviews with principals, employees, and clients.

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It seems like everyone these days is constantly plugged into their technological devices, tweeting their whereabouts, Facebooking their statuses, and publicizing anything and everything about themselves. Companies are even engaged in the phenomenon, using social media tools to market their products and services. But for architects, do these online pursuits pay off?

Design firms that have integrated social media into their practices report a spike in interest in their work — particularly from journalists, publishers, and other architects. However, few can say their efforts have directly led to new projects … yet. Social media is so new to the profession that it may take a few years before the benefits can be measured, but some firms are investing now with high hopes for future rewards.

The definition of social media is nebulous. While it can be characterized as an online tool that allows users to interact — and generally is free or low-cost — new forms of social media are continuously being introduced. Social media has existed since the dawn of the Internet, when news groups such as Usenet (1979) were developed to track server-to-server news feeds, and became more prominent with the debut of blogging in 1997. In recent years, it has become even more multifaceted and ubiquitous, with sites such as LinkedIn (2003), YouTube (2005), Facebook (which went mainstream in 2006), and Twitter (2006) redefining the online experience. How social media will evolve is difficult to predict, but no doubt it is changing how people do business.

Recently, the AIA New York Chapter’s marketing and public relations committee presented a series of discussions dubbed “Why to Blog, Text, and Tweet.” By inviting panelists in the design industry who are engaged in social media, the committee hoped to encourage other architects to try it, explains Tami Hausman, president of the public relations firm Hausman and one of the event organizers. “While the design community may not be using social media as a tool,” she says, “other companies, especially those that produce consumer goods, are using it effectively.” She adds, however, that architecture is a business based in service, which is often a more difficult sell. “In general, firms are sticking with what they know, and what they know works, particularly in this difficult economy.”

For her part, Hausman is a social media proponent. “The problem with social media is that people see it as a ‘thing,’ when it is actually more of a tool,” she says. “Instead, it needs to be integrated into current marketing efforts, not separate from them.”

By far the most active adopter of social media at a firmwide scale is HOK. With the launch of Life at HOK (hoklife.com) in October 2008, the firm made public the people and process behind the projects. The Web site — a supplement to the company’s main site, HOK, at hok.com — is essentially a blog where approximately 35 employees around the country post an assortment of musings, from opinions on current events to features on firm leaders. Included are links to YouTube videos, Facebook profiles, Delicious bookmarks, and Flickr images, among other Web pages.

As opposed to traditional firms where public relations is controlled by principals and marketing professionals, HOK has staff members at all experience levels publicizing the company. “Traditional media is mostly produced from the top down, whereas social media is the opposite,” according to Mike Plotnick, HOK’s media relations manager. “Because it is produced from the bottom, it depends on and encourages feedback and interplay among people. It really broadens our ability to reach out and talk about ourselves and be a part of the dialogue about design and architecture.” Life at HOK is also fulfilling its original intent: to aid in job recruitment. “Recently, we have filled three principal-level positions,” Plotnick says, “and all of the new employees said that our blog was a significant way they researched HOK and learned about its culture, to see if it’s the place for them.”

Increasingly, architects are tapping into social media to connect with peers and promote their work.

Although the number of social media sites continues to grow, one of the latest additions was created specifically for architects. Architizer (www.architizer.com) was launched in November 2009 and within three months grew to include more than 5,000 personal profiles, 3,500 projects, and 1,000 firm bios. Nicknamed “Facebook for Architecture,” the site was developed to provide exposure and networking opportunities for designers. “People don’t know where to go to find architects other than the Yellow Pages,” states Marc Kushner, site founder and principal of the emerging firm HWKN. “We need to carve out space and get architecture into the game. Potential clients are surfing the Internet, and we need to sit at the table, too.”

Moreover, the Architizer team — four founders and two full-time staff members — actively promotes the site’s content. For example, when one of their contributing editors posted a blog about kids’ play spaces, Architizer e-mailed, tweeted, and Facebooked the link to contacts in the “Mommy blog world.” Consequently, a number of bloggers and Twitterers linked to the story, helping create buzz about the projects. “Architects have a tendency to speak to each other about architecture rather than to those who would be interested in it,” says Kushner.

Social media is not without its pitfalls. In addition to information overload, it can be tough to know when to clock out. “The line between my personal life and work are so blurred these days,” says Kimberly Dowdell, one of HOK’s bloggers, who splits her time between an HOK-issued iPhone and a personal BlackBerry. Many architects are turned off by the energy required to keep current on social media sites. Some see it as time taken away from billable hours for an effort that has yet to generate monetary results. “Online there is so much information, I don’t think people completely trust what they read,” says Jing Liu, principal of Brooklyn-based Solid Objectives—Idenburg Liu (SO-IL). “They need to get to know you personally before they give you a project.”

That’s not to say the firm isn’t benefiting from social media tools. Liu and partner Florian Idenburg are able to update their site (www.so-il.org) regularly because it runs off of the free, easy-to-use blog sof­t- ware WordPress. “We didn’t want anyone who is checking our site to be presented with a static image,” Liu says. Moreover, WordPress automatically sets up an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed, allowing individuals to subscribe and receive SO-IL news alerts. “There is a freshness to the site,” Liu says, “ and that is why people find it interesting, why they are believing in what we do, and, hopefully, how we will affect the profession.”

Liu thinks social media will gain momentum over time, noting that “the younger people who are in their 20s are very much in touch with the technology.” For now, the bottom line is that social media helps connect architects with the public and can lead to new collaborations and clients. Yet the jury is still out on whether it generates real, billable projects. “It has opened a whole new world for me,” affirms Plotnick. “A year from now, I hope we will have tangible evidence that social media has put us in the position to get more work.” Stay logged on.

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