Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.
I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:
The outcome of good marketing = More clients
In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.
The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.
According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.
So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?
Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times. And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:
When each prospect made contact
How she found out about us
Whether we submitted a fee proposal
Whether we won the commission
Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):
She reads this blog
She is a family or friend
She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
She discovered us via online media
She is a past client
She visited a past project
She discovered us via printed media
She discovered us via television media
She came across our website
She discovered us via word of mouth
I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.
What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:
Suspect to prospect
As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.
Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram,Facebook, Pinterest, Houzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.
But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25 per cent), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (five per cent). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19 per cent), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73 per cent). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only two per cent of our prospects and 0 per cent of our clients.
For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:
A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.
Prospect to client
From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:
Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = two years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = four
My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56 per cent of the leads we receive, and 59 per cent of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33 per cent of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:
For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.
If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:
We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
We win five new projects every year.
This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?
All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.
Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.
Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.
Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money
This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.
Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.
If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.
1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.
1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
2. Lead conversion.
3. Overall growth.
About the Author: Warwick Mihaly is a principal of architecture studio, Mihaly Slocombe, an emerging practice dedicated to the pursuit of the sublimely utilitarian.