Taking your Network online – Living:Room

When this entry is posted I’ll be giving my talk at the RIBA, entitled ‘Why Take Your Network Online?’. Putting together the presentation has been an education in Crowdsourcing – asking my network to help me devise the presentation.

One of the many people who helped me is Angela Carr, a Dublin Architect who has a blog at Living:Room. Angela has kindly consented to me using her story as an example in my talk, and also has agreed to share it here with you.

Hi Su,

Angela Carr

Angela Carr

Lovely to hear from you! You’re very welcome to feature the blog in your talk to the RIBA – I’m flattered! Your post about doing the talk generated a lot of interesting responses and I enjoyed reading the various takes on professional networking. It’s been a very interesting journey for me over the past year and I often wondered along the way if the time I put into things like the blog, Twitter & Facebook was productive.

To give you some background, I was made redundant last year – in many ways a blessing, as it gave me time to assess my options and set up my business before the falling housing market and financial crisis really hit at the end of 2008. Here in Ireland, approx. 40% of architects were unemployed at the beginning of 2009 and that’s expected to increase to between 50 – 60% this year, as existing projects are coming to an end and few new commercial projects have started in the intervening time. Living:room harnesses my own extensive housing design and planning experience to respond to the changing needs of homeowners – helping those who can’t afford to move make better use of their homes and helping buyers identify properties with potential to add space for long-term added value.

I launched and received positive national media coverage in Oct 2008 – two months later, everyone went to ground as the banks failed and stayed there until around June 2009. I felt there was no point in trying to publicise a business at this time, particularly one associated with housing, as people’s feelings about their homes changed dramatically over that 6 month period.

I’ve also felt for a long time that architects do not communicate their value to potential clients, particularly in the residential sector – we’re seen as an expensive luxury rather than an essential service. This situation isn’t helped by the fact that registration of the title ‘Architect’, was only introduced in Ireland last year – prior to that anyone could call themselves an architect and, believe me, anyone did! It’s difficult to explain to a potential client why they should pay an architect a reasonable fee for their services when a local technician or engineer operating under the title of architect offers to do a planning package for a much lower fee. Part of my commitment with living:room is to help homeowners understand the value of good design and how it can help them make more of their homes and protect their investment. Although, I can’t claim to have a social media networking strategy, it was the possibility of getting that message across that first piqued my interest!

I started exploring these tools during that down time when there was little else happening in my business. I joined Twitter in Feb 2009 and it took a couple of months to get the hang of it and start interacting with others – the Facebook page grew out of that, as a way of posting interesting housing projects for everyone to see. ‘Oh, I love Grand Designs!’ is the most frequent comment I hear when I say I’m an architect – the viewing figures for programmes like ‘Grand Designs’, ‘Property Ladder’, ‘The Home Show’, indicate a huge public interest in home design. People love looking at other people’s houses – it’s the entry level to architecture, and I wanted to harness this interest.

Through Twitter I’ve found all kinds of interesting people – yourself included – talking about architecture and design and related subjects. It has led to my blog being linked to other blogs / web-sites and also to being featured in other home design related blogs. For example, one of my tweets about ‘The Home Show’, was picked up by Channel 4 and used in their 4Homes blog – my first Twitter success!

The blog was prompted by my web designer as part of the Search Engine Optimisation for the site and, when I started out, I saw it as a tool for answering common questions clients have about planning issues. As I read more blogs on various subjects, I realised it could do more – be the human face of the business where I could talk about the aspects of housing design that I was interested in, point out common problems etc. The SEO benefit is real and quantifiable – my blog comes up more prominently on relevant web searches than my web-site, as it is regularly updated with keyword rich content.

There has been another unexpected benefit to the blog – although the market for my business seemed non-existent for part of the year, the blog stats told a different story. There was a steady stream of visitors to the blog between Feb – May 2009, followed by a sharp upswing in June, doubling from July to August and now there is now approx. 3 times as many visitors per month. This information allows me to guage public response to different posts, see what information people are searching for online and ultimately target my message more effectively. It also helped me decide on the right time to promote the business.

There’s an old joke: Half my advertising is a waste of money, now if I only knew which half. A couple of weeks ago, there was a small piece about the business in the Irish Times. On the day of publication, I had over 200 hits on the blog – in the days that followed the number climbed to around 500 – the blog stats gave me direct feedback on the success of the article.

But does it actually create business? I’m happy to say that I’m now reaping the rewards of all the time and effort that went in throughout the year. I have 3 new clients who found me first on the blog, then saw the newspaper piece and made contact. And there are new enquiries coming in all the time. Blogging gives people the opportunity to find out a bit more about me, my approach to design and to build up a relationship, that doesn’t necessarily come across in pictures or drawings of previous work. But as I commented in your post, it’s like any form of networking – you need to put in time and cultivate these potential relationships. There are no quick fixes.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, I’m as happy to promote the work of other architects on the blog as my own – I’m interested in how social media and new creative disciplines like web-design, thrive on sharing information as a way to improve overall quality and the industry benefits as a result. I think the ‘hive’ mentality of social media – specialization, sharing, seeing how different people take information in different directions – might offer clues as to how architects can re-group and strengthen as a profession.

I hope all this is relevant and helpful and if there’s anything else you’d like to ask, please just drop me a line or give me a call.

Best of luck with the talk!

Kind Regards,

Angela Carr