BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
Do you remember the sound of a dial-up modem? The static crackle and hiss; the singular, repetitive “bong” as you waited — more impatiently every day as your evolution into a creature of connectivity began progressing at a rapid rate? “What were things like before the telephone?” “How did a business operate without car phones and cellular devices?” You may have marveled with questions like these as a child – perhaps to this day – imagining pay-phones, telegrams, Morse code, and smoke signals. To subsequent generations, individuals who may have never seen a phone with a cord, an area bereft of Wi-Fi — denying access to social media outlets like Instagram and Facebook — seems unconscionable, a violation somehow of the natural laws of civilized communication.
Supporting fact: Facebook’s 2013 Q1 financials reported its most recent user total had climbed to 1.11 billion. Billion. Summation: If your company isn’t using social media, it probably should be.
“We were a fairly quiet company in our first 50 years of business,” says Crystal DelleChiaie, marketing communications specialist for the South Burlington, Vt.- based PC Construction, an AGC of Vermont and Carolinas AGC member. “We shied away from promoting and publicizing our projects and accomplishments.” But when the company became 100 percent employee-owned, its collective new proprietorship decided a change was in order and began a foray into a range of different platforms — YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn among them. “And we have seen a lot of success.”
THE WHYS OF PRESENCE
These days we live a large part of our lives online — personally and professionally. A recent survey from Experian found that Americans spend an average of 16 minutes of every online hour on social media. And although many construction professionals are highly mobile — moving from office to trailer to jobsite quite often — their devices, whether laptop or tablet, iPhone or smartphone, are omnipresent.
Are these construction professionals in the 16-minute demographic? And if so, why is engaging them so important for your business?
Community: “There could be a whole episode of ‘Mythbusters’ about who uses social media,” jokes Brian Turmail, executive director of public affairs at AGC of America in Washington, D.C. “One [myth] is that it’s just for young people, or tech-savvy folks who drink no-foam, skim milk lattes ….” But Turmail, like so many others, has learned that quite the opposite is true – the truth is that AGC of America and its chapters across the country use various social media platforms and at a consistently increasing rate.
“The construction industry is a lot more technologically savvy than some might imagine. And if you’re a project supervisor working on a construction site, social media is a great opportunity for you to connect and network with a broader community when you may be on a project that’s isolated in the middle of nowhere.”
Contractors, he says, are a social bunch. “They tend to be pretty interested in what the next person is doing. And I see them taking opportunities to chat with each other in the social media space every day. The members who comment on our Facebook page, the ones who follow and retweet us, are not the 22-year olds. Our active users are made up of past presidents of AGC and everyone on down.”
AGC has been on Facebook since 2009 and at press time had 3,230 “likes” on its page. Turmail says they’ve been using it for everything from sharing articles and information of interest to the membership (recent topics include Work Zone Awareness Week) to interacting with users in a way that builds community.
It is yet another way to identify with our membership and the industry at-large. “Recently we’ve been asking folks to send us images of cranes in action at their construction sites,” he says. The request went out across several platforms, from Instagram to Twitter. “Then we post some of our favorites on Facebook.” It’s not much different, he notes, than posting vacation pictures on a personal page so your friends can see what you’ve been up to. “[A member] can share a shot from one of his or her construction projects and then a friend across the country who’s also a member can see it. It’s fun and a little bit frivolous, but it’s just as important as if we had 50 people in the room sharing cocktails.”
Says AGC’s associate director of communications Maggie Jaus, “Our members get hit with a lot of words via all our publications, newsletters, magazines, and press releases, so using social media is a way to advocate for something with fewer words. We can start the same kinds of conversations, but with less from us and more from our members.”
Cultivation: With all the distraction platforms such as Facebook can create, folks often forget that the Internet had a zillion uses before there were so many adorable kitten memes to share. One of them was research. Perryn Olson, president and COO of the New Orleansbased Brand Constructors firm, speaks and writes about all things construction marketing — from websites to branding to social media. He notes that a company’s online presence is often what sets it apart from the herd — not only for potential clients, but for potential employees. “Construction management graduates across the country are highly coveted and they know it,” he explains. “They can be project managers with very little training on Day One. There’s very few of them. And they get top pay.” As such, these fresh young minds often receive multiple offers. They get to choose where they go. “Social media is the only way to showcase what your company can do, what its culture is,” says Olson. Even just having a Facebook page gives potential employees a notion of who you are, something to weigh against what they’ve seen from other offers they might be considering.
Prospective clients too, he notes, are watching. “They may like your Facebook page or join your Twitter feed and just follow you for awhile. You won’t even know they’re looking at you, but they’re taking their time, doing their research.” They know they have a big project coming. “A company is going to build its corporate headquarters only once,” he notes.
“They want to do it right. They might start combing years in advance, getting a pulse, seeing which company might be the best fit.”
Olson himself has gotten business the same way. “PCL is the sixth largest construction company in the U.S., and when [PCL] called Brand Constructors, I asked how [the company] found us — it seemed odd that [someone would call] right out of the blue.” Turned out one of the company’s communication managers followed Olson on Twitter and was a regular reader of his blog.
In a way, social media is an ongoing game of Telephone, though the retweet feature does a bit more to maintain the message accuracy.
Controlling perception: Have you ever, even out of pure curiosity, Googled yourself? What you find might surprise you — because there’s likely more out there than you think. Same goes for your company. It’s easy for recruits, clients, anyone to see what you’re saying, who’s listening, whether they like it and how often they choose to pass it along. And there are tools for analytics you can use to measure your influence. Olson recommends Klout, Kred and Grader, as well as TweetCounter and Twitaholic.
Social media, says Olson, can be just as useful as a reactive tool as it is proactive. You wouldn’t want to wait until you had a problem to hire a public relations firm. Platforms like Twitter work the same way. “Do you want your company’s first tweet to read something along the lines of ‘The site is secure’ or ‘There were no casualties’”? A firm’s public relations team floods search engines with proactive stories, a feat that would be much more difficult without multiple social media accounts already up, running, and well-established.
Be who you are. Your personality, moreover your company culture, could easily play a role in winning the contract or coming in second. More than ever, clients are doing their own research, particularly, says Olson, on the government side. “Where they used to get five or eight submissions for an RFP, now they’re getting 50,” he explains. “They’re going online, looking at websites, at social media, creating a short list of companies that can not only do the work but also are who they want to work with. These are jobs that last 12, 18, even 36 months. So they want to find a company they like.” Olson says companies that try to be extremely corporate or neutral — to the point where no sense of who you are shines through — can alienate clients who might be great fits. Knowing your audience, your clientele, means you can build a website — and a social media strategy — that woos the ones you want.
“When you show some personality, you may not win over everyone, but what happens is that instead of having people who like you, you build raving fans who are out there, promoting you to the world ….”
START IT UP
Olson, who unbelievably still encounters companies that fight even the idea of a having a website, recommends newbies get their social media baptism via LinkedIn. Information is easy to input and offers your company an online presence in a place where people are likely to look first. Profiles are simple to complete and once there, it can sit, steadily growing as employees, colleagues and clients find you and connect.
“Get your leadership team on it and go to the next step,” he advises. “Start proactively looking for connections.” Olson suggests getting involved in LinkedIn’s discussion groups — client discussion groups, in particular — and sharing advice. “This turns you into a thought leader, an industry expert,” he explains. Jerry VanderWood, director of communications for AGC of Washington, has had his chapter’s greatest social media success thus far on LinkedIn in precisely this manner. “We created a safety professionals group with about 130 members, a young constructors group with about 650.” The latter, he believes, is particularly notable. “It speaks to the demographics of who’s using it. We’ve done very little to promote that group and it’s just grown by osmosis.”
You can be passive on LinkedIn and still be successful, Olson points out. “It depends on your personality and what you’re looking for. Business developers love it because it opens doors, you can get a lot of intell on other companies. And human resources finds it very valuable for recruiting.”
Indeed PC Construction’s DelleChiaie says its LinkedIn presence has resulted in connections that turned into valuable new hires, but calls PC’s blog — which readers access easily via the company website, no platform account necessary — the center of its social media efforts.
“It allows us to tell stories and share knowledge that would otherwise stay locked up,” she explains. “Combining our blog efforts with our Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube presences allows us to get those messages out to a broader network, to engage with current and potential clients, current and potential employees, the community ….”
And the number of new contacts has exceeded expectations. “Can I say we’ve gotten a new construction award due to our Twitter presence? Certainly not, but we’ve been rewarded in many other ways. We’ve been able to collaborate on PR activities with clients, architects and engineers. We share resources, innovations and experience — ours and that of other construction experts — with networks we’ve never had access to before.”
Indeed, Twitter is powerful, but regular posts, says Olson, are the key. “If you’re going to post once or twice a day, you might get lucky once in awhile, but otherwise you’re a blip on the radar. To have a real presence you’ll want to post eight to 10 times a day.” Unlike Facebook, however, where repeat posts turn useful information into newsfeed junk mail all but guaranteed to disengage your following, on Twitter, they maintain their relevance. “It took me a while to get that,” Olson admits. “You can post the same thing five times and get five different groups of reactions.”
How? By using different hash tags, mentioning different people or companies and rephrasing the tweet that pairs with the link or photo you’re posting, you’ll be pinging different entities every time, each with its own following. And of course, you’ll catch different people at different times of the day. “Twitter is really its own language.”
Learning a new language, of course, can be daunting for some. Leonard Toenjes, president of AGC St. Louis, used face-to-face tactics to bring new users into his chapter’s Twittersphere fold. “Our Keystone Awards is a popular event — at which we have a Twitter board.” Enlisting the aid of a software provider on-site, Toenjes set him up right at the party’s threshold, explaining the process, helping him set up attendees with accounts so they could live-tweet the event.
“We encourage them to tweet throughout the ceremony. As they do, a volunteer goes through the tweets, then posts them up to the board for all to see.” Toenjes admits he was quite the skeptic at first. “I thought it was the wackiest idea I’d ever heard. But the people love it! It makes the ceremony more interesting. And capturing them there personally certainly helps drive our following.”
There is a myriad of ways to use social media. What Olson discourages is cross-posting information across all your platforms with no differentiation. “It annoys users. They will get disengaged.
Just because you can use tools such as HootSuite to push posts out across a range of platforms doesn’t mean you should.” He recommends taking a small amount of time to tailor your posts toward each audience.
“Some social media experts think this is being efficient, but they’re just getting lazy,” he says matter-of-factly. “They’re caring more about quantity than quality.” Olson’s small company cultivates its Twitter following carefully. “It’s only about 2,000,” he says. “I want people who actually know who we are and care about us.” He does the same when considering who to follow back, vetting them a bit to make sure it’s of interest. Having a very specific focus on construction, he says, is a good thing.
Facebook, says VanderWood, has been the toughest nut to crack. At press time, his chapter’s page had about 80 followers. “It has evolved into something I’d call more social,” he says. “We promote events on it, we trumpet the successes of our members, we use it a little for advocacy- type efforts, but it’s great for posting photos. Our members love to see pictures from golf tournament events and award banquets and those sorts of things.”
Remember that simple, fun, “send us your crane pics” request of AGC’s? PC Construction’s DelleChiaie responded. “I sent an incredible shot of one of our water treatment projects in Washington, D.C. Within an hour AGC had retweeted it to its more than 12,000 followers.” And from that one simple point-and-click interaction, PC Construction picked up 20 new followers of its own, along with nine comments and some additional retweets. “[Social media] helps us reinforce our brand, who we are as a company and as employee-owners and the great work we are doing for our clients.”