March 1, 2015 by Jacob Stoller
Social media, we are told, is a tool that marketers ignore at their peril. “Social media now holds a place alongside print and broadcast as a major, essential marketing channel for businesses,” says a post by Evan LePage on the website of Hootsuite, a widely-used social media tool. “As such, social media should be held to the same standard as those channels.”
Contractors looking for quick ROI to justify social-media expenditures, however, are likely to be disappointed, explains Ben Dickie, senior manager of enterprise collaboration and digital marketing at London-based Info-Tech Research.
“That immediate demand-generation angle just doesn’t exist in industries like construction, with typically longer and more complex selling cycles,” he says.
Much of this is due to the way customer relationships are formed in the industry. “The industry has deep-rooted customer relationships that are built on face-to-face interactions,” says Joe Jagodich, vice president and CIO at EllisDon Corp. Jagodich notes that even CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems, which predate social media by a generation, are not effectively used in construction.
“It’s about building relationships and helping people,” says Toronto-based digital communications guru Martin Waxman. “This has been around for a long, long time. There were people, like used-car salesmen, who pushed something on you whether you wanted or needed it or not. And then you had the other type, who really were there to sell and cultivate a relationship.”
The key to making social media work with this latter group, therefore, is to drop the expectation that you’re going to attract, nurture, and convert leads in a predictable way. Instead, you extend the relationship-building dialogue. “What social media lets us do, and it takes a lot of time, is continue those conversations across different platforms,” says Waxman. “So we’re not necessarily always meeting face-to-face – sometimes it’s face-to-face, sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s a combination.”
Dickie, who recommends LinkedIn and Twitter as the primary social media tools for contractors, cites several areas unrelated to lead generation where contractors can derive value from social media. “Joining discussion groups on LinkedIn or Facebook pages for professional associations are two ways to keep track of what peers are up to.”
“The second major piece is what I would call the social listening, or the social-analytics piece. This helps contractors keep in touch with larger trends, such as legislation that might impact the construction industry, what’s going on with engineering current best practices, what’s going on in the construction labour markets, and things of that nature.”
This second category is key for EllisDon. “Social media is just one tool used to collaborate and ask questions about interesting and creative things,” says Jagodich. “Many AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) experts use this forum to communicate what they have read about and been made aware of through their network of communities – be it an university, technical association, Internet group, or experienced at a construction conference or on the job.”
Dickie sees recruitment as the third category. As part of their networking activity, contractors can get to know candidates over time who they might someday hire.
Part of the magic of social media is that it is a two-way medium, meaning contractors can share and learn using the same forums. “With LinkedIn, one of the value propositions is establishing yourself as a credible thought leader in the industry,” says Dickie, “using LinkedIn to communicate interesting projects that you are working on, sharing new best practices, or tips and tricks that your company is propagating.”
One famous example is swimming pool contractor Marcus Sheridan of River Pools, who began offering posts and videos to help buyers decide between fibreglass and concrete pools. He became so popular as an information source that he not only grew his business but eventually established a company that provides social media consulting to other companies.
So if the bad news is that it is a mushy business case for social media, the good news is that there is plenty of synergy. By networking with a select group of people, a firm can derive multiple benefits – up-to-date information on the latest practices, materials and trends, relationships with potential partners and employees and establishment of a thought-leadership position in the industry.
“The first step is getting up and running with your dedicated LinkedIn company page, and getting someone internal to manage it – that is update it on a regular basis, that is ensuring that content is accurate and up to date,” says Dickie.
Jacob Stoller is a principal of Toronto-based consultancy StollerStrategies.