While movie stars and athletes have made Twitter famous, it isn’t simply a pastime for the young, rich, and famous. In the AEC industry, the “micro-blogging” site has made great inroads. In fact, many of the departments of transportation and other public entities throughout the United States are using Twitter as a means to update the public about roadway and bridge projects, road closures, and even traffic and snow removal.
Twitter crosses the line between social networking and blogs. The web-based social messaging network originated as a means for users to answer, in 140 characters or less, the question, “What are you doing?” However, the use of Twitter as a business marketing tool for engineering firms has grown significantly.
Like other social networking tools, Twitter began as a way for people to keep up with each other. Today, there is an estimated 100 million people using Twitter. As a social networking tool, Twitter ranks just behind Facebook and MySpace. Known as “tweets,” Twitter postings typically are short messages and conversations about topics, products, and companies. These messages can be sent to a large group of people or to individuals publicly or privately. People can sign up to be “followers” of people and companies.
What is significant from a marketer’s perspective is the fact that Twitter has quickly gained acceptance as a marketing tool. While this doesn’t seem cutting-edge, it is an easy and effective way for marketers to reach their target audiences and engage their customers. However, it’s important to remember that social-networking tools such as Twitter are ways to help build and enhance relationships, not just another vehicle for press releases.
In business-to-business marketing, there is a misconception that businesses buy from businesses. However, it is the people in those businesses who are making decisions — thus, people at one business buy from people at another business. Tools such as Twitter can be effective methods to engage prospective customers and current clients, and offer information, resources, and advice. Twitter can have even more value in the business-to-business world than in the business-to-consumer world because it allows users to tweet very specific, and sometimes very technical, messages about their products or services.
As a professional services firm, you are selling your firm’s expertise and experience. Twitter can be a great tool to expand your thought leadership by communicating information about your firm’s white papers, blog posts, podcasts, and other news. Twitter can also be an effective way to share relevant or interesting information and trends impacting the markets you serve.
Another part of the Twitter strategy is to engage the community. For AEC firms, this involves gaining followers in your relevant target audiences by posting content relevant to them. “Twitter is like trying to yell at someone traveling past you on a bullet train,” said Jeff Anderson, president of Anderson Consulting Engineers as well as California Stormwater Advisors, Inc., who has been tweeting about his company since May 2009 under the name www.twitter.com/ExpertCivl “To circumvent this, I started by selecting a couple of key people to follow and then tweeted them specifically to say ‘Thought you’d like to see this news item,’ or ‘Have you heard this news?’ If they respond positively, usually they will follow, and that leads to a ton of people.”
Twitter can be a very effective tool for building the personal brands of your partners or practice leaders. For the most part, design firms have partners that are active in the business. They typically are the face of the firm, and are also the key thought leaders. Consider setting up separate Twitter accounts for key partners and practice leaders so they can share information and news.
Twitter is also a great tool for public relations. Because of its level of immediacy, Twitter can be an ideal way to deliver messages to writers and editors. You can start this process by following key trade publications and their editors and writers (see “CE News Twitter handles” below). By following their tweets, you gain a good sense of what is important to them. Many editors have started to tweet about editorial opportunities. Sending a direct message to an editor through Twitter is a more casual approach than a call or e-mail.
Twitter in practice
Civil engineer M. Damon Weiss, P.E., of Pennoni Associates Inc., a Philadelphia-based firm that specializes in civil engineering and infrastructure management, started using Twitter (www.twitter.com/damonweiss) in February 2009. Today, 380 followers later, he is using Twitter to help market his expertise in advanced infrastructure systems — an exciting discipline that combines civil engineering with information technology, sensors, databases, and machine learning as a way to help create more sustainable, “smart” infrastructure.
“In order to promote this new way of thinking, I started a blog (http://advanced-infrastructure.com) and used Twitter and other social media outlets to help distribute content and other information related to advanced infrastructure,” Weiss said. “It has been a very successful marketing tool, in my opinion. Social media has allowed me to broaden my audience considerably more than had I relied entirely on word-of-mouth and search engine hits on my blog.”
Weiss said that for the first month, he tried to tweet about whatever conventional civil engineering projects he was working on, in addition to the advanced infrastructure topics featured in his blog. However, he quickly realized that this was watering down his base message.
“I like to think that people follow me because they appreciate the stream of information about cutting-edge breakthroughs and trends in civil engineering, not because they want to hear about the conventional highway culvert or detention pond I am designing,” he said. “Eventually, I may start posting again about specific projects, perhaps as a way to broaden my audience. For now, however, I am content to stick with the industry topic of advanced infrastructure.”
However, he has always stayed away from one topic on Twitter: his personal life.
“With Twitter and other social media tools, you really are selling yourself in many ways. However, I don’t think it furthers my particular goals to tweet about what I’m having for dinner tonight or where I’m going tomorrow, unless it is related to my purpose,” Weiss said. “I also try not to mix topics too much. In addition to advanced infrastructure, for example, I am also a big proponent of green infrastructure. If I someday decide to start tweeting regularly about that topic, it may very well be under a different Twitter account, so as to better tailor the content to the audience.”
In addition to Weiss’ efforts, the engineering company he works for, Pennoni Associates, has its own Twitter account (www.twitter.com/pennoni) and posts regular tweets about various accomplishments and projects. The firm’s is a team-based direct marketing strategy intended to help bring in new clients.
Moody Nolan, a national architecture, civil engineering, and interior design firm (www.twitter.com/MoodyNolan), also has its marketing department run the company’s Twitter feed, which has been going since October 2009. However, according to Marketing Director Lindsey Grant, “Engineers and architects often send suggestions for tweets if they come across an article or piece of information that they think may be of interest to others in the industry.”
Most of Moody Nolan’s tweets, Grant said, are geared toward key topics in the industry, rather than promotion of the company. “We tend to tweet about trends we know a great deal about, such as sustainable design or BIM,” she said. “Some tweets are company-oriented, but even then, we try not to be overly self-promotional. Our project tweets may be case studies, or we may include an article authored by one of our employees that we think others may find beneficial. In order to truly benefit from Twitter, it is important to engage your followers, post interesting content, and not focus solely on self-promotion.”
Weiss echoed the need for businesses to give their Twitter correspondence a personal touch. “A brief direct message or tweet to new followers to thank them for noticing you can go a long way,” he said. “If you are tactful about it, you can even send them a quick link to your website — almost like a business card — and engage them in back and forth discussions. These are the basics of conventional business networking — tweets can be a lot like small talk, in that respect.”
John Kissinger, P.E., COO for GRAEF, an engineering consulting and planning design firm that tweets as www.twitter.com/_GRAEF_, said approximately 80 percent of their tweets are focused on relevant trends and articles in the industry, with the balance comprised of activities from the firm itself. Kissinger tweets under www.twitter.com/johnkissinger.
“Like most firms, we are waiting for Twitter to gain wider acceptance within our industry. When it does, we believe it has the potential to be a vital part of any firm’s marketing plan,” Kissinger said. “Twitter is a useful tool to build relationships. We’ve gotten to know our clients better and vice versa and it has allowed us to share our insights, which supports our reputation as a trusted advisor.”
In the simplest terms, Twitter is just a new way to connect with potential customers. “Unlike a website or our other marketing materials, Twitter allows for two-way communication and interaction,” Grant said, “and creates a unique opportunity to connect with peers and clients in an informal environment.”
In this respect, Twitter can be a powerful marketing tool — but a thorough understanding of its ebbs and flows is essential to making it work for your business. “It’s not about finding new clients,” Anderson observed. “It’s about finding peers who will help you find clients or key information. Getting potential clients is a bonus.”
|AEC firms can use Twitter to:
Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, CSI, and Brian Gallagher are co-authors of Leading with Marketing (visitwww.leadingwithmarketing.com for more information). Follow Kayler atwww.twitter.com/kimberlykayler, and Gallagher at www.twitter.com/bgallagher13. For marketing tips, follow www.twitter.com/leadwithmktg.