Websites are so 2004. Email is passé.
Cellphones that only make calls are the eight-tracks in this telecommunications world.
Networking means so much more than it did a decade ago. Sound bites via Twitter or instant messaging have made verbal communication virtually obsolete. In the face of these technological changes, contractors wrestle with the right vehicle to establish their brand and publicize their message. With finite resources in a volatile marketplace, choosing a Twitter handle comes in a distant second to maintaining a strong backlog. The true challenge lies in how a construction firm effectively uses these social media outlets and finds the right tool for the job.
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Foursquare are some of the highest profile social networking tools available. People of all ages are constantly updating their statuses, posting pictures and postulations and using these forums to find other similar-minded friends and colleagues. Businesses view these sites as a veritable gold mine of customers for two reasons. First, traditional media outlets such as television, print and radio have fallen out of favor, particularly with younger audiences. Second, consumers have demonstrated fierce loyalty to certain brands (i.e. Apple, Coca-Cola), and by using this non-traditional marketing, companies are hoping to reinforce brand loyalty through viral communication. The challenge lies in business-to-business sales and is particularly evident in a construction firm’s utilization of such tools. Is the hype over social media warranted, or is using this new media impractical for a construction firm or trade contractor? The answer depends on one’s perspective.
Social Media in Your Context
To provide clarity, it is first important to define what social media is by explaining what it is not. First, it is not a replacement for the firm’s overarching strategy. Brands such as Apple and Starbucks may utilize social media, but their firms still have a vision, mission and strategic plan. In essence, they use these tools just as a pipefitter uses a wrench.
Consider the illustration in Figure 1. The context is defined as the world in which the contractor lives. The four Cs—company, competition, customer and climate—represent the internal and external machinations that surround and comprise the firm. Whether the context includes new rules a municipality may enforce (“climate”) or the way an end user buys its services (“customer”), a firm creates a strategy to position itself and develop a proactive response. Strategic vehicles such as social media provide a mechanism to reinforce a company’s brand. So often firms rush to these new outlets because they represent the bright shiny object or the “gotta-have-it toy of the year,” when in reality, there is little to no alignment.
For example, a firm will invest the energy to create a Facebook page and routinely update it with progress photos of jobsites. However, important customers and accounts are not viewing this site nor are they likely to in the future. This situation is reminiscent of the early days of the fax machine—to be truly effective, someone had to be at the machine to receive the fax being sent. As with most technological innovations, adoption comes in phases, and in time, communicating through social media will continue to gain acceptance just as the world accepted the phone, faxes and emails. No one should be dissuaded from establishing a presence in the digital world. More importantly, a firm should adequately address their strategy first and then determine which tool will provide the most long-term impact with the scarce resources that exist within the firm.
Social Media as a Business Tool
The second aspect of social media to recognize is that it is not a replacement for marketing and traditional business development. Social media may help business development efforts—assuming the customer base recognizes its importance within their context—but it is much more than a billboard or mailing campaign used to sell a project.
One of the shortsighted perspectives of social media is that its value can be measured in a firm’s bottom line or that it will lead to a direct return on investment. Consider the role of websites in the business world: In the late 1990s, firms questioned the legitimacy of websites and often posed the question, “Will this make us money?” Today, firms without websites tend to lack legitimacy. However, websites quickly evolved from simple ad space to employment sites, company message boards, blog space and portals for employees to access internal software. Simply put, social media enables firms to communicate with customers, employees, potential employees and the community.
Figure 2 represents a practical application of how firms are realizing the value of social media. For instance, once a company codifies the strategic direction and defines the trajectory, it may determine that LinkedIn will be the best resource to find new associates through its networking applications. Additionally, it may determine that the president should post private monthly video feeds on YouTube to share the company’s vision and progress on the annual business plan. By no means should any of these tools be viewed as a substitute for human contact, but as firms expand—in niche, geography or size—maintaining communication with the office and field associates is imperative. Best of all, these tools are predominantly free or require little investment. How often are multi-faceted tools offered to a business with such a low price tag?
Lastly, social media is not a fad. One of the greatest misconceptions is that social media is simply for young people. Many businesses are hoping that Twitter and LinkedIn will fade in popularity. In fact, in a year that saw social media enable the reshaping of world governments, this form of social media is more likely a step in the technology evolutionary cycle. Think Facebook 2.0 rather than a world without Facebook.
Firms must expand their thinking about the value of social media. The return on investment is measured in far greater terms than sales leads. Some of the practical applications for specific social media outlets are as follows:
- Create a network of trade contractors to share leads and technologies.
- Utilize the advanced features to recruit other professionals.
- Develop and deliver low-cost training videos (internal) for local and remote associates.
- Publish “state of the firm” messages.
- Publish key firm successes such as a project award. Link all firm associates so they can see the “scoreboard” and pending backlog.
- Link to key customer accounts to serve as an early warning system for projects and firm happenings.
As stated previously, each of these tactics should be tied to specific firm-wide strategies. For instance, customers who are technologically sophisticated may require more robust processes such as completed integrated project delivery. On the other hand, customers who have limited connectivity probably do not require communiqués via Twitter. Alignment of tactics and strategies is essential.
Social Media Risks
The rise of social media is not without its risks. If you are not considering social media as an enhancement to your business, your competition is more than likely using one of these tools to provide a comparative advantage in these tight economic times. As you search LinkedIn for potential candidates, always consider that your own employees are at risk. Employee poaching is not a new phenomenon, but with new tools come new challenges. Your competition will covet every aspect of your business, especially if these business aspects are displayed right in front of them via a search engine.
An additional risk is brought about by the expediency and accuracy—often in direct opposition—with which information is posted on the Internet. As with anything, practical controls need to be in place to ensure the content being posted is within acceptable company standards.
Posting pictures of flagrant safety hazards or inappropriate acts paints a poor company image, whether on Facebook or the nightly news. Whatever appears on the Internet is permanent. Customers, potential employees and the community at large use these tools to garner information about your firm. What is your digital footprint telling the world about you?
Adapting to Change
The transformation of technology and communication continues to morph at a meteoric pace. In a relatively short time, businesses have had to learn new processes and implement new tools to maintain competitiveness, all while running a business. Social media is no different but simply requires the appropriate coordination to support the business and its overall strategic direction. Twitter and Facebook are not to be feared but utilized as tools to enable construction moving at the speed of thought.