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Digital Business – the value of social media for AEC firms

Author: Jamie Millar
In professional services marketing social media has been a buzz topic for many years. The reality is, though, in the professional services industry of architecture, engineering and construction design (AEC), social media adoption for businesses is relatively low.

We’ve been building a social activity map of our clients and, while the initial results are encouraging, it’s a case in point.

Regardless of opinion, social media is now permanently established as a strategic component of a broader marketing and communications plan. So why should professional services industries get involved?

Businesses that cultivate digital social communities will create meaningful and lasting social connections. Engaged social communities bring participation and interaction around relevant topics of conversation. This ultimately leads to loyalty.

The critical component of any successful community is engagement. Time spent interacting with your digital communications channels, and the community members engaged in these channels, leads to more fruitful relationships whether as clients, users, partners, employees or any other stakeholder. Conversations are happening about your area of interest – you can either choose to be involved or let others own the conversation and leave you behind.



Total Synergy client social media breakdown 2013

In building a social activity map of Synergy's clients we've been able to visualise some early data on the number of client businesses using social media.

The graphic above shows the breakdown of users and which networks they're on - we'll report more insights into activity and engagement in the near future when we've finished the activity map.

Walker says social media is just where people are nowadays – it’s accepted that they’ll talk about a product or service online and ask the opinions of their peers when it comes to choosing something new.

“If you want to hear what people are saying or hearing about you, or defend it, being there is part of it.”


One professional services area that's getting stuck-in to digital engagement is the accounting industry. Leading the charge in cloud accounting is Xero, a cloud accounting software business that is expanding globally, very quickly. As a platform born online, in the cloud, it has always lived in a digital world, one before the likes of Twitter.

As a result, Xero has a full-time community manager – Catherine Walker – tasked with managing engagement with the many thousands of people talking about, asking about and generally engaging with Xero across a range of social media networks and forums.

Catherine says the benefits of engaging in social and digital communication is not really different for professional services than any other business.

“Speaking of our approach to Xero’s community, social media allows us to position the brand as a trusted leader in our niche and have direct conversations with our customers,” she says.

“When people are searching for professional services, your business or brand can float to the top because of that engagement.

“We’ve found it’s very important to build and keep the network – to give back to it. Success in social media points to engagement… it’s not about shouting the loudest, having the most followers or having a cat sitting on an automatic vacuum cleaner for five minutes of fame, you have to know what you’re talking about and engage with a relevant audience.”


Walker says social media is just where people are nowadays – it’s accepted that they’ll talk about a product or service online and ask the opinions of their peers when it comes to choosing something new.

“If you want to hear what people are saying or hearing about you, or defend it, being there is part of it.”


According to a digital survey earlier this year (USA), 90 per cent of respondents who recalled reading online reviews claimed positive reviews influenced buying decisions, while 86 per cent said buying decisions were influenced by negative online reviews.

No matter what service your business offers, your stakeholders will do some, if not all, research online. If your brand and service is not there – and not just there, but engaged – they will read about and engage with a competitor. It’s that simple.

Catherine Walker says Xero focused on being available to its online community from the beginning.

“Growth in engagement has been tremendous,” she says.

“The first tool in our social media toolbox was our blog and we made sure we had comments turned on from the beginning.

“Back then people were concerned about what to do with negative feedback… our view is that we can learn a lot from any feedback, positive and negative. We’re a design-led, user focused business, why would we not want to have a conversation with our users.”

Another area where Xero has benefited is through its strong partner relationships. These have continued into an online space where partners become advocates and ‘evangelists’ about the brand, adding huge value to the online reputation. These 'evangelists' are increasingly helping new customers and partners with the product, and even small business issues in general.

This is a key point for professional services that collaborate with other businesses and practices – something architecture practices and construction engineering businesses do regularly, for example.

If a community of complimentary service providers are all engaged with their own communities online, as well as with each other, it becomes a self-perpetuating growth in reputation. 

Even under negative circumstances, advocacy from supporting groups will help balance negative comments and put perspective on situations where things are represented from narrow or singular perspectives.

social media engagement for professional services


Design, whether for function or form, or both, is a very subjective field. In order to be a designer you must have training, an eye for it and strong beliefs in what works and what looks good. Designers draw influence from the world around them, from their peer communities and, in general, always have an opinion (about lots of things).

These opinions, especially when from a group of like-minded individuals sharing a philosophy or process, can form part of a business’ personality and identity, which in turn informs its external image. This is a voice and a voice can relate to people, a community, a market place. These voices exist and can be the foundation of a digital communications strategy by being written down in a blog, for example. A simple and concise blog can be a central hub that feeds other digital channels of social media.

Catherine Walker offers some tips to bear in mind when getting involved. It’s important, she says, to know your audience.

“In Xero’s case we target a lot of accountants as well as SMEs,” she says.

“Accountants can be very scrupulous, straight-laced [though not when they hit the dance floor, apparently, as she’s seen firsthand at the Xerocon conferences], have attention to detail and are trusted business advisors, so it’s important to keep the messages relevant for that audience and to be a brand that aligns to those qualities.

“It’s also important to put some personality into the content, too – something about what makes your brand tick… you have to be real and care about the engagement while also having a business conversation that’s designed to build trust.”

As far as blogging goes, Walker says Xero has always used a blog at the core of its online and social engagement strategy.

“The blog is where we share our business – who we are – and can feed all of the networks we’re connected to from that… it’s where we can develop thought leader positioning.

“We’re also seeing an uptake in blogging in our own professional services community. They’re using it for expertise positioning, client testimonials, showing their awareness of industry and community trends and as a platform to talk about where they see things in the future.”


The conversation is happening, whether you like it or not. The question is can you afford to ignore it.

Synergy’s Digital Business series of blogs will expand on individual components of digital communications, social media and digital marketing in future posts, covering topics like blogging, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook as well as some of the visual social media channels.

We’re also interested in your feedback on what you’re learning and what you’re trying so we can continue to build our social map which we hope will act as a small sample of Australia’s AEC industry and its online engagement. 

Sounds like an interesting topic of conversation!

To follow Total Synergy on social media, check-out our social channels page and join in the conversation following the #moretimefordesign hashtag.

Jamie is Total Synergy’s corporate communications manager, responsible for digital communications amongst many other things. Jamie was formerly director of a full-service PR agency working with niche professional services where he consulted on all forms of digital and marketing communications.