• Credit: Michael Austin

Marketing is a chore for most residential architects, who would rather draw than dream up ways to attract new business. It's easier to rely on word-of-mouth advertising and the casual connections formed at kids' soccer games, dinner parties, and board meetings. Conventional wisdom says that personal networking is, in fact, the most powerful marketing tool there is. Consumers place far more trust in people they know than they do in advertising messages, and that explains the growing number of companies turning to online social media—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like—to generate interest in their work. There's a lot of hype around online schmoozing, to be sure, and some see it as a trendy Internet time drain. But there's evidence that it can be a powerful professional ally—especially for small firms and independent practitioners, for whom each connection is a multipliable building block.

So many people now socialize online that the local Chamber of Commerce mixer seems positively “old school.” Facebook alone saw a 116 percent jump in membership from September 2007 to September 2008, according to Nielsen Online. And Twitter has grown tenfold over the past year, a comScore analysis showed. When you consider the thousands of businesses that host Facebook groups, thereby creating an online community of people who share their interests, it's clear that social media is catching on with business in a big way.

A mid-2008 study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research bears this out. A survey of the Inc. 500—a list of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States compiled annually by Inc. magazine—showed that their use of online social media doubled between 2007 and 2008. Thirty-nine percent of the companies were blogging in 2008, up from 19 percent in 2007.

Social media is still in its nascent stages, and not yet second nature for many design firms. But some are figuring out how to use it judiciously. One example is Charlottesville, Va., architect Lance Hosey, AIA, LEED AP, a former director at William McDonough + Partners. Last fall he set up a Facebook page for Women in Green, the book he co-authored with Kira Gould, to spread the word about the topic. Feedback poured in so quickly that within months it had attracted several hundred fans—mostly people he didn't know. Besides the page's direct marketing value, the comments left by viewers are more illuminating than sales figures alone. An added bonus: It's easier to set up and amend than a website.

Last year, Hosey also created a personal Facebook page that, he's discovered, adds color to his professional life. “I joined because family and friends were pressuring me, but I immediately realized the value of it,” he says. For Hosey, it's the chance to get to know workaday peers as real people. “Someone can announce that she's just won a design competition or launched a new book, and in the same day say she's overcoming a cold and frantic about meeting a deadline. In moderation, mixing the personal and professional can be a good thing. If people know me from my résumé, they only see one side of me.”

Yen Ha, LEED AP, a principal at Front Studio, New York City, thinks so too. She and co-principal Michi Yanagishita created LUNCH, a blog that reveals bits of their style in a way that a portfolio could not. The luscious photos and mini-musings on repasts ranging from lamb saagwala to apple puff pastry are “a reminder to stop, chill, breathe in fresh air, and most importantly—eat,” according to the website. Ha says a lot of clients are fascinated by it, and it may explain some of the restaurant projects that are starting to come their way. “It helps, for someone whose portfolio is low on restaurant work, that clients coming in are saying, ‘Oh, you guys really like to eat.'” The pair also ties Front Studio to Twitter, using it to remark on an interesting design they've seen or something delicious they've just eaten. “I think for a lot of designers, the Web presence is just a way of making little comments here and there that reflect your personality and design sensibilities,” Ha says.

virtual chatter

Online social networking's other essential beauty is that it unlocks geography, making it attractive to architects with a national and international range. For example, Chris Pardo—whose Seattle firm, Pb Elemental Architecture, has work in China, Hong Kong, and South America—uses a combination of blog submittals, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for publicity. He hooks up with developers and sub-consultants on LinkedIn, a strategy that paid off when he landed a client through a Realtor who had requested a connection. In addition, five new clients found Pardo through his year-old Facebook page, but it's the blogs that have had the biggest ripple effect.

Blogging is easy on the budget, so it's perfect for small firms. And it's more believable and engaging to the viewer than most other forms of advertising. In short, it's a way to push news at people who've volunteered to read it. In Pardo's case, though, the blogs are less personal and more project-focused. “We identified people who blog about architecture and asked if they were interested in our projects,” he says. The firm regularly uploads photos of work under way to blog sites such as Contemporist (www.contemporist.com), Offbeat Homes (www.offbeathomes.com), archiCentral (www.archicentral.com), Studio House Design (www.studiohousedesign.com), and ArchDaily (www.archdaily.com). “We're probably on 100 different sites, because once you get on one blog site, another blog sees it and asks for permission from that blog to put it on their site,” he says. “That's how we got onto international blogs. It catches on without us having to submit to them.”