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Can Social Media Increase Sales?: A look at how general contractors are using social media

social1From Facebook to Twitter, LinkedIn to YouTube, social media has become an important way for businesses to market their products and services. The numbers are hard to ignore. According to Nielsen's "State of the Media: The Social Media Report-Q3 2011," social networking and blogs dominate Americans' time online, accounting for nearly a quarter of total time spent on the web. Additionally, nearly four in five active Internet users visit social networks and blogs, while Americans spend more time on Facebook than they do on any other U.S. website.

If that's not enough, the report finds that close to 40 percent of social media users access social media content from their mobile phones, while social networking apps are the third most-used among U.S. smartphone owners.

With all this talk about social media, it begs the question: can using social media actually increase sales for general contractors? We turned to three who are active on social media to find out.

Effectiveness

For general contractors, the effectiveness of social media when related to obtaining new business is hard to ascertain. For instance, while Kristy dosReis, marketing communications manager at Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I., thinks that social media has been effective; she says there are only a few instances in which they can directly tie it to creating new business. "We have certainly used social media as a way to better connect with clients and research projects," she says. "We look at social media as another channel in our overall communications and marketing mix and incorporate it into all of our campaigns."

Jay Weisberger, APR, director, communications west at Parsippany, N.J.-based Skanska USA, says that since so much goes into the sales process, it's hard to point to social media and say that it has had a direct affect on new business. "However, all of our communications programs are meant to support sales and build the Skanska brand," he says. "We feel confident that our work in social media has had a positive effect on brand awareness."

Teddi Fowler, corporate business development coordinator at Sundt Construction, Tucson, Ariz., agrees that it's hard to assess the effectiveness of social media at this time, since there isn't a shopping cart on websites for buildings and highways. Even though it's tough to measure, Fowler says "we believe it's worthwhile because our goal with social media is to build relationships, engage our followers and generate awareness of Sundt in the construction community. We have seen a great deal of engagement across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and we have seen increases in traffic to our website."

social2Using Social Media

While the use of social media is not easily attributed directly to an increase in sales, there are many reasons for general contractors to get involved. Gilbane has been using social media since July 2009 to connect to different audiences. The company uses Twitter and Facebook to share news, as well as to stay informed about what's going on in the industry. Employees are encouraged to use LinkedIn for networking, where the company shares more corporate news. Additionally, Gilbane uses YouTube and Flicker to share information in a more visual way.

According to dosReis, the Gilbane marketing team tries to use social media multiple times a day, typically tweeting four or more times a day, while posting to Facebook twice a day on average. "We share news about projects and events, and update our followers about news we think might be useful to them," she says.

"We believe that we're in an era where individuals choose to get their news and interact in their own personalized way," explains Weisberger. "As a result, it's vital that we deliver our messages to all of our audiences in whichever way they want to receive them. We try to pick channels that make sense for the way we interact with our audiences. Twitter, for instance, was a natural fit. We have enjoyed using it to engage with all sorts of audiences and hashtags have allowed us to hold occasional Twitter chats."

Having been on Twitter since fall 2009, Weisberger says that the communications team tries to tweet daily, since using Twitter means respecting the community and being a participant. "We feel that people have learned they can find us there and we want to make sure people see us there every day," he says. "But we don't try to force messages or schedule tweets. Our tweets should feel natural. So, when we do have something to share, we do. If there's a conversation we want to join, we do. If we don't have something interesting to say, we usually don't say anything … no one likes a boring tweet."

Weisberger goes on to say that they share news about project wins, along with job postings, as those two items affect the communities that they work in. "We were pleasantly surprised to see some interesting interactions from local communities when we tweeted about new projects in their areas."

"A major part of our social media effort is to help make construction more accessible to the average person," Weisberger continues. "We think people have a natural curiosity about construction. They pass by construction every day, but, for obvious reasons, they cannot just walk onto a project site. When we post project photos, for instance, we help give our social media followers a look inside the job fence and it gives them an avenue to ask questions if they so choose." Sundt Construction has been using social media for about a year. As Fowler explains, the goal is to be part of an industry-wide conversation about construction with clients, colleagues and media. "We use these platforms to discuss industry issues, offer thought leadership on topics such as technology and innovation, and share Sundt project news, awards and blog posts."

Fowler says that they tweet multiple times a day on Twitter, try to post daily to Facebook and frequently to LinkedIn. "We focus on construction topics that are relevant to tat core client/colleague/media audience," she says. "That may mean sharing construction news or articles, which may be internally generated or discovered through others' tweets. We also engage in conversations about the local communities in which we work."

social3Advantages

For general contractors, one of the main reasons to get involved with social media has been to develop a conversation and dialogue with the surrounding community. "[Social media] helps take an industry that has been "closed" to the general public and make things more open," Weisberger explains. "It helps people see why there's a lane closed on their highway commute or what exactly is happening behind the fence. Additionally, it takes some of the mystery out of who we are as a contractor. We're not just a name on the sign … we're a company that provides local jobs, has a unique corporate culture and performs a lot of community service. Social media is a natural way to share that with interested audiences. Our industry is, almost by function, business-to-business. Social media is a way to make what we do relatable for the average consumer."

Fowler says that Sundt considers themselves to be on the cutting-edge of construction technology, and naturally wanted to embrace the latest in communications technology, seeking to be a frontrunner in that realm among general contractors. "We view social media as an opportunity to connect with clients, other industry professionals, current and future employees, as well as the media. So far, the connections are happening, and we're enjoying the opportunity to share with and learn from others."

"Our social media efforts are centralized with our communications department to ensure we're relaying messaging and following the rules of social engagement, i.e., discussing appropriate topics, balancing push/pull messaging and consistency," Fowler adds.

DosReis explains that since their work touches so many different people, from the owner to the A/E to subcontractors, along with the community at large and facility end users, social media allows them to communicate with many different audiences in unique ways. "It's fast and flexible in ways that other media is not."

Metrics

Measuring the reach and effectiveness of social media can be difficult for all companies, not just general contractors. Weisberger says that Skanska has metrics in place, although they feel that the bulk of meaningful metrics are qualitative. "Follower counts are nice, but they are not a measure of engagement. We have dug into our conversations and found some interesting patterns related to how people choose to interact with us. Based on those findings, we can adjust our strategy."

DosReis explains that currently, Gilbane is just measuring the basics-number of followers, subscribers, etc. "But we are looking at ways to tie social media more closely with business development efforts."

Fowler agrees, saying that Sundt is continually studying the metrics they have in place and re-evaluating how they relate to and help them achieve their goals.

Lessons and Recommendations

If you are thinking about getting involved with social media, it's best to learn from those who are already there. For example, dosReis recommends being open and real. "Peoples' expectations have changed and you need to be ready to get them their information in various types of formats-and a whole lot quicker than before!"

"Think outside the box," continues dosReis. "Social media has infinite possibilities and most companies are still just trying to figure it all out. Look at ways you can really make social media work for your specific objectives."

Fowler explains that for a company in a B2B industry, social media is a worthwhile investment of Sundt's time and resources. "We've also realized that to be successful, you have to dedicate the time to do it well. This demands as much or more time than our other communications strategies, such as public relations."

She goes on to recommend that people thoughtfully consider which social media avenues are most relevant to their business and pursue those angles. "Don't just do it to do it; be purposeful and thoughtful in your approach. Once you dive in, be consistent. This is the kind of initiative that takes time and builds momentum, but it is a worthwhile endeavor that provides new avenues of communication."

 

Top 10 Social Media Practices for Construction Firms

By Neil M. Brown

  1. Register your social profile names before someone else takes them!
  2. Build profiles for the BIG 5: LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (note order of importance)
  3. Implement a blog with project samples, customer testimonials, relevant topics, resources, and social sharing tools (Twitter counter, Facebook Like, bookmarks, Google+)
  4. Integrate your blog and social profiles (all of above), with your website to build search authority.
  5. Take videos of projects and customer testimonials and place them on a YouTube channel (embed on your website, video blogs, etc.)
  6. If your website is more than five years old, consider a search engine optimization (SEO) retrofit, or build a new (search-optimized) website.
  7. If your business is local or regional, be sure to register for Google Places.
  8. Promote special offers in blogs and social posts that link to registration pages that capture leads!
  9. Blog and social share your blogs at least weekly. Post on your social profiles daily.
  10. Do not try to do this yourself. Hire a pro to tell you how to do it, then hire an agency, or at the very least, an intern to manage this hugely time-consuming initiative.

 

Neil M. Brown, CCMP, is chairman of the Construction Marketing Association, and chief marketing officer of Construction Marketing Advisors. To learn more, visit www.constructionmarketingassociation.org.