Ten things to cut in the recession, before you cut your marketing, no. 6 – IT

As a subscriber to Construction News‘ marketing e-newsletter, I have been enjoying Ross Sturley’s series of articles on preserving your construction marketing spend in a recession by cutting other things (Chart Lane’s Ross also spoke about this at the recent CIMCIG conference). His latest article focuses on IT.

The objective here, according to Ross, is to preserve your marketing budget by avoiding unnecessary expenditure on new software and faster-running hardware and telecoms.

“… when it really comes down to the crunch, a lot of IT projects are conducted because the geek entrusted with running the service (because the management team can’t be bothered with understanding it properly) draws his motivation from running as near perfect a system as he can manage. Cutting-edge is his middle name.

“Bleeding edge, is of course how it feels for the company. Top class IT systems cost money. So if you can get by with a second rate system while winning more work, and having more operational staff, then please do.”

I tend to agree with Ross, but there are alternative strategies that businesses can apply when it comes to their ICT expenditure, and they can also have a positive marketing or PR impact too.

Let’s get SaaS-y

If he or she is worthy of their “geek” status, the in-house ICT manager should be aware of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). For some applications that have traditionally been run from servers inside the organisation, there are now reliable, even sometimes superior (certainly not “second-rate”) alternatives that are hosted externally by SaaS vendors and which require little or no in-house hardware or support. Moreover, they tend to be paid for by regular, predictable subscriptions, not a huge up-front license fee.

For example, the SaaS revolution has extended to standard office applications. Some firms no longer have to maintain expensive Microsoft Office installations, but instead use web-based applications such as Google Apps for email, word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations (contractor Taylor Woodrow was one of the notable construction firms to take this step last year, and the Telegraph and Guardian media groups have both recently followed suit).

And within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector, many firms will already be aware of ‘extranets’ or collaboration systems that can be used for drawing and document management and process support (I have written extensively on these, of course, over on ExtranetEvolution.com). In most projects, these systems also:

  • reduce the amount of paper produced, distributed and stored
  • reduce time wasted searching for the most up-to-date information, or working on outdated information necessitating rework
  • improve individual productivity by automating many standard processes, and
  • eliminate many potentially costly disputes (secure audit trails detail who did what and when, creating a single version of the truth)

All of these benefits can be translated into time and cost savings and quality improvements that can help AEC firms deliver better services to their customers. In short, such SaaS technologies can help make firms appear more innovative and more competitive, and can deliver real project cost savings to their customers – all powerful PR and marketing messages during a recession.

G4C (or Targeting early career professionals, pt 2)

Today, I headed into London to attend a Constructing Excellence BE (Building and Estates) Members forum (the morning was actually a joint event with the Construction Products Association‘s Network Club on the theme of Early involvement of the supply chain). I found myself sitting next to David Whysall of Turner & Townsend who has recently been elected co-chair of G4C, or Generation for Collaboration, part of Constructing Excellence and (I quote) “the place for newcomers to the construction industry to collaborate, develop and promote best practice.” David gave a short presentation about G4C’s plans for 2009 after lunch.

Late last year I had a couple of conversations with David’s predecessors in G4C about helping the group improve its communications and extend its social networking capabilities, and the happy accident of us sitting next to each other quickly rekindled those discussions (as a result, David mentioned the opportunities made available by social media when he gave his talk). I will be meeting up with G4C shortly to discuss the next steps in an integrated Web 2.0 PR and marketing campaign aimed at helping them raise their profile, increase their membership, and extend their reach beyond London and the south-east.

I am excited about the possibilities. As I said to David, quoting yesterday’s blog post, their membership target closely fits the demographic profile of many social media users,  and this is the generation of construction professionals that will (I hope) play a key part in introducing and developing the construction industry’s use of Web 2.0 tools, techniques, behaviours and attitudes to improve communication and collaboration – two of G4C’s key themes for 2009.

Targeting early career professionals

I like Twitter and so, it seems, do a lot of other people, but take-up of this micro-blogging service is by no means widespread even among bloggers. I attended my first London Bloggers Meet-up last night and talked to several experienced bloggers who were not convinced about the value of Twitter, despite apparently fitting the demographic profile of typical Twitter users.

According to a Pew Internet study on “Twitter and Status Updating”, American Twitter users tend to be younger and more mobile than most internet users, though – reports Tim Leberecht in Webware – the average age of a Twitter user (31) is slightly higher than users of other social-networking services such as Facebook (26). Use of Twitter and similar services drops off steadily after age 35, but is also strongly associated with the use of other social media and of wireless technologies.

Looking at the profile of a typical Twitter user, it strikes me that Twitter could be an excellent channel for organisations to build conversations with early career professionals (particularly ones with good networking and technology skills). We have already seen some UK construction organisations use social networks such as Bebo or Facebook as recruitment tools. Construction News reported last year on how ConstructionSkills used a Bebo profile called ‘ConstructionGirl121‘ to encourage teenage girls to consider careers in construction, gaining 100,000 extra hits to its careers website; and Building magazine has run online careers fairs and other virtual exhibitions (eg: Sustainability Now), patronised by firms such as Atkins.

The knack, of course, is to look at what media are more likely to be used by your target audience. For many young people, instant messaging, MSN and Facebook are more likely to be used than email to chat, swap news or organise social events. Even conventional websites won’t necessarily attract visitors unless they provide Web 2.0  tools that allow content to be found and shared quickly with networks of friends and followers.

Will new CE blog prompt Tweet change?

The UK’s main pan-industry membership body for the construction industry, Constructing Excellence, has gradually been embracing Web 2.0 approaches. Last year, some staff started posting updates from Twitter and the CE website began offering RSS feeds. It has now just started its own blog (thanks to Su Butcher for the alert – via Twitter).

This has given me chance to politely request (via a comment to the first post) a couple of changes to CE’s approach to Twitter.

  • First, could we have some individual Tweeters at CE, rather than several different people all using the same @Constructingexc Twitter ID? This would make it easier for us followers to understand who attended/chaired a meeting, visited a site, etc. You are individual people after all, not a faceless corporate monolith.
  • Second, it is good Tw-ettiquette to ‘listen’ to your Twitter followers. On occasion, you may find that people have replied to your Tweets, perhaps asking a question, but they can get discouraged if you don’t respond.

Perhaps I should explain…. At the moment, I believe most CE Tweets are posted using a texting service [actually, Twittermail] that is shared by several members of CE staff. This makes it difficult to work out exactly who is doing the Twitter update, and – to me – defeats the Web 2.0 objective of helping people have conversations online. And, by not interfacing direct with Twitter via the Twitter website or one of the various Twitter clients (whether on a PC – eg: Tweetdeck, Twhirl, etc – or on a mobile phone or Blackberry – eg: Twitterberry), CE people are potentially missing out on replies to their updates. Thus, CE runs the risk of engaging in a broadcast-only monologue, not the dialogue they clearly want to encourage.

Nonetheless, I welcome Don, Pete, Jon, Zoe and the rest of the Constructing Excellence team to the blogosphere and will add the blog to my RSS reader, etc.

Blogging and project management

I met yesterday with a friend – let’s call him ‘Glenn’ – who works for one of the UK’s leading construction contractors. We talked a bit about social media and its take-up in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector, and he described how his organisation had experimented internally with blogs.

The initial explosion of blogs saw dozens started on the company’s intranet (a few withered and died after the early excitement wore off). However, Glenn said, some directors began to get a bit worried about the implications of allowing project managers to write blogs about their day-to-day work on site, and having all the entries searchable. For example, he explained, what if a project manager’s blog posts included notes about poor health and safety practices by a subcontractor that then led to an accident or, worse still, a site fatality. Any ensuing investigation might identify that the project manager had been lax in his duties, leaving the contractor liable to prosecution. As a result, the firm decided to ban all staff blogs below C-level directors and business unit heads.

In my experience in the UK construction sector, such action is typical of the risk-averse attitudes that prevail in many AEC organisations, particularly when it comes to transparency of information. It seems to be tackling the symptoms of a problem not the cause.

I see little difference between our hypothetical project manager jotting something down in a blog posting and the same person scribbling a hand-written note in a note-book. The issue here should not be about the blog, about how the note was written, but about how the project manager enforces good health and safety discipline on site. Better still, if the subcontractor (and other project team members) could read the project manager’s blog – perhaps it could feature as part of the scheme’s collaboration platform – the health and safety issue would be public knowledge within the project team and might prompt rapid remedial action. Or am I being over-optimistic?

If anyone has some examples (good or bad) of how blogs have been used by project managers, I would be interested to know.

Value your Web 2.0 guerillas

On a train journey to Manchester today, I read Information Age‘s Effective IT 2009 report and focused on its section on communications and collaboration, including an article, Social understanding, mulling over the slow adoption of Web 2.0 technologies within enterprises.

This article underlines that social computing can create new dynamics of information and knowledge transfer among employees (interactions often stifled by formal knowledge management systems and procedures). It cites Proctor & Gamble’s experience of creating a social network site, BeingGirl, as part of its marketing strategy to target teenage girls. And, facing an acceleration in the proportion of its workforce retiring each year, US high street bank Wachovia used blogs and wikis to capture company knowledge before it walked out the door.

Such examples help show that the ‘soft’ benefits of social media – enhanced communication, engagement, identity – can also be matched by solid returns on investment that justify management backing. However, the magazine’s survey data showed that businesses planning to deploy Web 2.0 technologies in the next 12 months were actually slightly down on 2008, from 20% to 18% – possibly because IT budgets are being cut, or because “most companies are fearful or flippant of social computing” (to quote Gartner).

Nonetheless, the social computing revolution may already be happening unofficially within organisations. From my own experience within the UK construction industry, employees across numerous well-known firms – including architects, consulting engineers, contractors and materials suppliers – are already using blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social applications that aren’t (yet) officially sanctioned by their IT departments.

In other industries (as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams point out in their book Wikinomics), such “guerilla adoption” (or “shadow” IT), often by a minority, can rapidly deliver demonstrable business benefits (eg: more responsive customer service, faster new product development). Moreover, such early adopters can also:

  • provide useful feedback on what social media tools work best
  • help persuade their colleagues about the virtues of the different approaches they use
  • having gone through the learning curve themselves, gently introduce colleagues to the (n)etiquette of using the tools efficiently and effectively.

But not always. For some Web 2.0 guerillas, the attraction of doing something unofficial is, well, doing something unofficial. As soon as it is legitimised, it may no longer be attractive and they could well discontinue their activities. In worse cases, they may even resent being ‘outed’ and start using Web 2.0 techniques in a more malign fashion. This is where having appropriate corporate policies on use (and abuse) of social media become important. In my view, while a ‘light touch’ approach is always preferable, there may be times when you need to clamp down on potential sources of internet-delivered internal dissent.

Will the future of events be virtual?

Phil Clark has just blogged about the potential impact of virtual worlds such as Second Life on the management of conferences and other events. He believes that we will see “an amalgam of live and online events” begin to develop, where a live event coincides with a virtual one and the two feed off each other. He mentions Be2camp in this context – which I co-organised (Phil attended Be2camp 2008 and was instrumental in the event being sponsored by Building magazine):

“combining audiences and speakers from the two spaces can create a real buzz and exchange of ideas. So you have questions, comment, links and ideas ping-ponging between real and virtual conference room.”

However, I think we are still some way from such events becoming normal in the architecture, engineering and construction sector (though some Be2camp people are already planning further Web 2.0 events; I am considering a joint Be2camp/CIMCIG event in September, for example). Even an enthusiastic technophile like Phil admits to feeling “swamped” by the normal web stuff, let alone catapulting himself into another world. And non-geek construction professionals will find the transition even more challenging. But it may yet become a necessary transition.

Only yesterday I wrote on ExtranetEvolution.com about a new type of construction collaboration platform that combines file-sharing with an information-rich multimedia communication environment incorporating online meetings with chat, voice over IP, webcam and screen-sharing support. This product, Kalexo, is expressly aimed at managing construction tasks between distributed members of a project team, and is – in my view – likely to be just the first of a string of products incorporating richer and richer levels of collaborative functionality around the creation, sharing and management of construction project information. While Kalexo doesn’t (at least not currently) expressly support building information modelling (BIM), it may only be a matter of time before industry professionals will routinely be able to hold virtual meetings inside a model of the latest iteration of the facility they are working on (such interactions are already possible in Second Life, of course, but are not yet part of normal project delivery).

Blog as self or company?

After my presentation at the CIMCIG event on Wednesday, I was asked if people in the social media world would welcome someone writing from a corporate perspective.

Drawing on my own experience of corporate blogging, I emphasised that social media was really about people having conversations online. As such, it made sense to make sure that readers could see who was talking – having a name, job title and a photograph of the blogger certainly helps people understand a bit about your role and associate your views with an individual rather than a faceless legal entity.

I have been blogging at ExtranetEvolution.com for nearly four years but have always used my own name to blog, even though it was common knowledge that I was working for a particular company. This has a benefit in that it immediately gives me some authority as ‘an industry insider’ to talk about developments in the sector. I think this is a common experience for many corporate bloggers.

However, it is vital not just to talk about your company. I went out of my way to comment upon developments affecting all the main players in the UK collaboration market, while also keeping an occasional eye on events in the US, Australasia, mainland Europe, etc, and talking about wider developments (publishing, Constructing Excellence, telecoms, Web 2.0, BIM, SaaS, etc, etc). The comments I receive via the blog and through emails confirm that readers appreciated the breadth of coverage, and it had an indirect benefit to BIW in that the blog research and writing process also gave me a good insight into trends in the sector, competitor activity and so on.

I think corporate blogging also helps give a company more of a ‘personality’. Readers have told me that I was/am one of the faces of BIW, and that they feel they already know a bit about what I and/or BIW, stand for before they meet me. It certainly helps to get conversations going and has led to some invitations to speak at industry events – all good for corporate marketing.

Mission-crittall

 

No, the title’s not a typo – it reflects an interesting part of my presentation at today’s CIMCIG conference at the Building Centre in London. As outlined on Monday, I was down to talk about the rise of online communications as part of the marketing mix, particularly during a construction recession.

Last week I asked the organisers (Ross Sturley and Chris Ashworth) if they could let me have a list of delegates, and – almost randomly – I selected a business from the among the organisations attending. I wanted to illustrate some points I was making about Web 2.0 by looking at the online ‘buzz’ that might exist about a business. I picked out Crittall Windows. I say “almost” randomly as I wanted a firm I knew almost nothing about (which ruled out several well-known construction names) and which would be relatively straightforward to find (some brand names have numerous doppelgangers on the web).

The presentation was going OK, but when I suddenly unveiled my slides about ‘Crittall’ (and ‘Crittal’ – I also searched for the misspelt version of their name), people suddenly sat up and took notice. Here was a business/product whose online presence included:

  • seven Wikipedia mentions
  • more than 20 blog articles
  • hundreds of Flickr photos
  • 15 YouTube videos
  • a Twitter user talking about specifying the product
  • several discussion forum articles
  • at least one Facebook user, and
  • a local community Facebook group proud of its local manufacturer.

To his great credit, John Pyatt, managing director of Essex-based Crittall Windows, was in the audience and was very sporting about the surprise that I had sprung upon him. Afterwards, I explained that I had simply selected his company to make a point and had been pleasantly surprised at the extent of its Web 2.0 footprint (for a historic if relatively unglamourous construction products business). I also stressed that this was only a superficial view as – among other things – a proper audit would have looked more deeply into the key marketing messages, competitive differentiations, etc, that Crittall wanted to project.

The presentation certainly seemed to excite some interest among other delegates too, underlining my perception that, while some sectors are getting web 2.0-savvy, there are large portions of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector that have yet to grasp the significance of social media.

The event included some excellent presentations (some very gloomy about the recession). I particularly enjoyed the presentation preceding mine from Andrew Cassie of CIB Communications. He talked about a recent CIB/CIMCIG survey of AEC marcoms professionals, and I hope the full findings will be made more public shortly. In the meantime, for more event background, see also the Twitter stream about the event (thanks also to Liz Male for maintaining the flow while I presented).

CIMCIG

I am preparing my talk for Wednesday’s CIMCIG conference at the Building Centre in London (a happy return to the venue of Be2camp 2008 which I co-organised last year). The theme for the conference is Downturn Marketing: A survivors’ guide to recession, and I will be speaking about “Online: The rise and rise“:

Many are focussing on the apparently cheap alternatives offered by online marketing methods. Is it really the panacea it occasionally claims to be, and can we make a step change in ROI through enthusiastic adoption of novel communication such as Wikis, Tweets and Blogs?

(For me, the event will be notable in one major respect. While I am down to speak as head of corporate communications at BIW Technologies, this conference will be the first time that I will be representing my reformed consultancy business, pwcom.)

I plan to reflect on the major changes that have taken place in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) marketing and PR world. When I started learning my trade  just before the early 1990s recession, the worldwide web was still some years away. Even when CERN opened the web to the world in 1993, it took a couple of years before my then employer (Tarmac) decided that it should have even a rudimentary website.

Just over a decade later, websites are now a key part of the AEC marketing promotion mix, and just as the industry faces an even deeper recession, we are seeing new web technologies change the online landscape. I have written before about the limited take-up of web 2.0 technologies by AEC professionals, but – perhaps reflecting the slightly higher levels of AEC media web 2.0 adoption – I believe that now is the time to invest in social media as an integral part of corporate and marketing and PR. However, it is not necessarily a cheap option – particularly if organisations have to rethink how they communicate, moving from approaches based on broadcasting to becoming listeners and sharers. I wonder how this message will go down on Wednesday?

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