The recently-released SMPS Marketing 2022 report (free download / registration required) outlined many of the ways that AEC marketers are looking to incorporate business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing approaches in the coming years. However, one area where AEC marketers continue to struggle is with generating content targeting the various stages of the buying process.
The Buying Stages
In general, there are three stages in the buying journey that can and should have customized content. The early stage of a journey is centered around creating awareness and generating interest in your firm.
The middle stage is when your prospects develop interest in your firm, and consider you for upcoming work. At this point they have an intent to purchase services, but they haven’t determined which provider they will select. Often they may be considering multiple firms.
The final stage of the buying process is when the prospects evaluate you (and maybe a few competitors) and make a decision to retain a specific provider.
Content development — and if you read my last post, specially thought leadership content — should respond to each of these buying stages, as is common with B2C marketers. In the AEC industry, however, our level of sophistication when it comes to content is not as advanced as our B2C brethren. The majority of AEC marketers don’t currently develop content for each stage of the buying journey. Within three years, the number that do is projected to increase — but not significantly.
One of the primary reasons for this is most likely the lack of understanding of how different types of content can target each buying stage. Another is probably the lack of broad content offerings. A blog can be a great marketing tool for AEC firms, but it is merely one type of content.
According to the Content Management Institute’s B2B Content Marketing 2019 Report, survey respondents believe the following top types of content to be most effective for each stage of the buying journey (based upon % of respondents):
- Blog posts/articles
- Interactive content
- White papers
- Interactive content
- Case studies
- Case studies
- In-person events
- White papers
How many of these content approaches does your firm utilize? According to SMPS research, only 44% of firms currently utilize video, while just 2% employ podcasts.
One of the challenges with these types of surveys — and I think the Content Management Institute provides excellent information — is that they tend to skew heavily toward online content. But content marketing, and thought leadership marketing, is far older than the internet.
The most-frequently utilized content for the awareness stage is blog posts and articles. Note that these “articles” can take many shapes and sizes, including:
- Company newsletters
- Trade publications
- Business journals
- Association newsletters (print or digital)
- Newspaper op-eds
Furthermore, the blogs could be hosted on your website, posted on LinkedIn’s resident blogging platform, or posted on another site (e.g., guest blog).
In-person events makes an appearance in all three stages, with a relatively consistent 30-35% in all categories. This is a very broad category, and can include:
- Speaking at conferences and trade shows (local, regional, national, international)
- Presenting to community organizations (chambers of commerce, service clubs, economic development organizations)
- Hosting educational events at your office
- Delivering lunch-and-learn trainings at your clients’/prospects’ offices
AEC firms certainly invest in offline content marketing. Remember, this is about content, not networking. And the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) provides a great definition of content marketing:
“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
In my last post I opined that this definition is more accurate for thought leadership marketing as there’s a lot of bad or self-laudatory content out there that fails to meet the “value” threshold of the CMI definition.
In general, AEC firms are more focused on creating awareness stage content, which is certainly a huge part of a successful marketing program. However, as firms are able to evolve and begin producing more content targeting the consideration and evaluation stages, their content will transition from just being a marketing tool to also being a business development tool.
Many AEC firms say they have “case studies,” but these are really just project descriptions. A true case study addresses the challenges the client was facing, the potential solutions considered, the approach and unique value the AEC firm provided, and the successful end-result. In other words, a case study should be story-based, and take the reader on a journey. If you claim to have case studies, do they meet these criteria?
Where is your firm with producing ebooks and white papers? Have you published any? Ebooks are viewed as highly effective for the awareness and consideration stages, while white papers are viewed as the top approach for consideration stage content.
What’s the difference? In general, ebooks are educational documents (often downloadable PDF files) that provide insight into a particular area based upon the author’s experience. “How to” guides are popular topics for ebooks. White papers are similar, but are typically based on research, which can be primary or secondary. White papers provide technical information on a very focused topic.
Ebooks tend to be lighter in tone while white papers are more academic. Furthermore, Ebooks are often targeted toward non-experts to create awareness, while white papers are for readers with a deeper knowledge base, and help close the sale.
The terms “ebook”and “white paper” scare a lot of AEC firms. “We can never do that,” they say. Or “We don’t have the _____ to do that.” The blank could be time, budget, or talent. And yet firms of all sizes are regularly creating this type of content. Furthermore, by the very nature of the industry you operate in, your key technical staff are subject matter experts with much knowledge to share.
All types of content can be useful in all buying stages, but it very much depends upon the topic and the audience.
I often share a story of two pieces of content that I helped create for an engineering firm. Both were blog posts of fewer than 1000 words.
The first post was about a newer type of HVAC system. We created and posted the content early in its domestic adoption, and benefited from first page Google exposure – ahead of many manufacturers of the equipment. That alone consistently generated thousands of views. It generated a couple of leads as well, but none of those leads converted to projects.
The second post was about a very specific electrical issue that could endanger employees, and how to prevent it. The post received very low readership — probably one view for every 75 views of the HVAC post. And yet, when a lead arose related to this type of issue, we’d send the prospect to the blog post, which showcased our subject matter expertise. So this seldom-viewed post became highly effective for the consideration and evaluation stages.
I ask you: which post was more effective? They both played an important, although very different role.
The AEC Challenge
Having worked in this industry for almost three decades, I know all to well the challenges that AEC marketers face. It took some marketers multiple years to get their corporate leadership to agree to having active social media pages. Right now, many marketers are struggling to get the firms to move forward with content strategy.
Thought leadership is a key differentiator that can create separation between your firm and your competitors. This strategy is not new to AEC, just revisit this blog post I wrote for ENR several years ago to see how an architectural practice quadrupled in size and went from boutique to national because of a defined thought leadership marketing strategy.
AEC marketers understand the importance of content in the overall marketing mix. In fact, participants in the SMPS Marketing 2022 survey believe that thought leadership will be the third most important marketing approach by 2022, with content marketing close behind. (For the survey, we used “content” to refer to any content being generated, and “thought leadership” specific to the education-based content.) Furthermore, by 2022, 85% of respondents believe that half or more of their marketing program will be dedicated to education-based marketing.
Alas, marketers getting buy-in from their firms continues to be problematic. In order for a content marketing or thought leadership strategy to succeed, the subject matter experts need to be active participants.
I believe that this is a great way to engage your seller-doers. Content targeting the consideration and evaluation stages is business development, and most seller-doers should be expanding their time spent in BD. Engaging them in this process, with buy-in from the firms, can be a win-win for the marketing team and seller-doers.
As AEC firms are just moving into content creation or becoming more comfortable with it, content is evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated. We all interact with content daily, and as consumers we rely heavily on it when making purchasing decisions. But guess what? Buyers of AEC services are also purchasers of consumer goods. And they are increasingly expecting the same buying process.
Is your firm keeping up with the way people are buying? If not, perhaps it is time to up your game!
Arm yourself with the SMPS and CMI research referenced in this post. Determine a plan of action for your firm. What content could, and should, be created to address each stage of the buying process, in each of your markets (segments, industries, verticals)? If you can begin to identify opportunities, determine time commitments, and demonstrate ROI, then you’ll be more likely to get buy-in from the top! (And yes, putting actual dollar amounts to ROI is almost impossible, so define ROI in terms of brand awareness, buyer consideration, and higher closing rates during evaluation.)
Does your firm create content for each stage of the buying journey? Which approaches have you found to be most effective?
Looking for training or strategy development assistance? Reach out to Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717-891-1393 or email@example.com. Scott is certified in Content Marketing, Inbound Marketing, and Social Media through the HubSpot Academy.
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Content Marketing: A Short Primer for AEC Firms (from Scott Butcher’s ENR Marketropolis blog)