After our fascinating debate on how architects use the Internet over the summer, and the interest in some more empirical data, I thought I’d get in touch with Chris Ashworth of Competitive Advantage, who carries out research every year into the communication channels construction professionals use.
Chris agreed to have a chat with me about the research, and here we investigate some of his findings in the 2013 report, “CMI 2013 – Architect Communication Channels”.
The Construction Media Index
Chris and his team carry out a variety of market research, and have been researching how construction professionals use communication channels – including Journals and Publications, Websites, Blogs and Newsletters, Product Directories and Social Media, for three years.
The major trade journals used to jointly fund their own research into journal readership, but this stopped and there was a need for something better, and independent of the publishers. Product manufacturers and other construction companies need to learn about not just magazine readership, but all sorts of communication channels used in the construction industry. As a result, the CMI Index was set up, independently funded by a group of marketing agencies operating in construction, and therefore not influenced by publishers.
How the research is conducted
Unlike carrying out research of this type online, which would cause it be biased to online users, the CMI is researched using structured telephone interviews with professionals, selected to represent a good spread of their professions. In the case of UK architects, 200 were interviewed at the beginning of this year. The sample interviewed work for a good range of practises from one-man bands up to the big multinational firms. 95% of the sample are members of the RIBA.
What are the Trends?
One of the recurring themes of our conversation was how much our use of information is changing and becoming more homogeneous.
Integration of Web Based Information
Three years ago, respondents saw the web and printed documents differently and treated them differently, but now we get feeds of information from everywhere, and we may not necessarily remember the source, Chris told me. This means that over the three years the types of questions that are appropriate to ask architects are changing, because they way they are sourcing information is changing.
The principle online newsletter the architects say they read is Construction News (an answer given without prompting). But, Chris asks, do they really know where the content comes from? When asked to name a product directory they use, only 36% of the sample were able to name one without prompting.
Construction News is a very successful email newsletter, but the articles it links to are subscription only. Perhaps they read the newsletter but don’t click through. For some architects the headlines may well be enough, which begs the question, how will media organisations fund their news machines in future? This is no longer necessarily a print vs online question, its more about eyeballs and outcomes. RSS feeds remove the branding from the information we consume, but what will remain, and what will create loyalty, is good content.
The Hard Copy vs Online debate
Chris feels the boundary between hard copy and online information is being blurred. We still need hard copy information, for example where we need to create an audit trail or for practical reasons such as the unreliability of onsite internet access. Hard Copy, when we need it is generally technical information.
On the other hand, the internet makes it possible to obtain the latest information more easily, when we need it, so keeping hard copy versions of things becomes a waste of time and money.
Brands and Tools
Three years ago, apps (mobile applications) were not in the report at all, but their use has grown very rapidly. The research suggests that people don’t however, remember the names of most of the apps they use, whether they use them or not.
Other research by Competitive Advantage suggests that specifiers will go to the brand they know first. A good example of this is the success of Celotex and its U-Value caluculator. Once you know a brand can perform, why go anywhere else unless it fails you? Usefulness and familiarity is a huge benefit to specifiers.
Chris sites another example in Optima Partitions, who made a Glass Thickness Calculator app for internal use and for their sales team to use on the road. However, word got out about how useful it was, and architects began to download it, even nominating it for an award in 2012.
The Evolution of Blogs into News
We talked about the whole area of news and how architects consume it. Social media, including blogging, has blurred the distinctions between media organisations and trusted bloggers, so much so that the credibility of information is perhaps located in a much more nebulous array of places. This is reinforced by the difficulty people have recalling where they came across information.
In the meantime, people can say they read ‘blogs’ only if they know what a ‘blog’ is. Blogs have become a source of news, blogs are blurring with websites, indeed words like ‘website’ and ‘blog’ may no longer be separable from the point of view of those who consume them.
Differences between generations in the sample were not as big as expected, Chris tells me. The over 51s are more active on Linkedin Groups. But on the whole the use of social media has become universal, and is no longer a significant topic of debate.
There was one change I noticed in the report however. 81% of respondents aged under 35 years said they never responded to hard copy print advertisements. 53 % of the over 51s said they never responded. These generational differences were reversed with online advertising. Perhaps hard copy print advertising has had its day, even if the death of advertising has been somewhat exaggerated.
Using Twitter at Work
This year, 44% of respondents now say they use Twitter to help them with work.
In 2011, 38% of architect respondents said their employer did not allow them to use Twitter at work. This year that has shrunk to just 8%.
This chimes with the research that Darryl Store carried out in February this year (his results), and which I was able to replicate and expand on in August (my results). The CMI research, much more credible given its source, backs this up.
I talked to Chris about Mark Stodgell’s comments about cultural change at work and how this might affect practice in future. Chris agreed that things are changing. Practices used to be much more hierarchical organisations, today they are generally much flatter, and people progress by moving between practices rather than upward within one.
Architects are also becoming much more collaborative, and social media is reflecting and enabling that. Changes in regulations and the need for technical expertise in new areas (such as BIM, sustainability or responsible sourcing) mean that architects need a more dynamic way of finding information.
This is driving a change in the culture of our working practices, which social media is enabling by providing a network of connected, intelligent people; able to filter and share information, supporting each other in a peer-to-peer search for expertise that a non-social internet could not fulfil.
People spend less time online
The amount of time the sample is spending online has decreased in the last three years, which might be surprising. Chris thinks that we may be becoming more effective, better at using the internet. As the growth of social platforms like Linkedin and Twitter continues, perhaps finding the information we need from our peers becomes easier and we are using our time online more productively.
An Information System
We concluded our conversation with the thought that in two or three years, we’ll look back on the way we thought about the Internet and Communication in the beginning of the dacade, and laugh. We will no longer see these channels as individual separate items, and more as integrated components in an information system, one that is evolving to meet our needs.
If you’re interested to read about Chris’s research you can visit the CMI pageson his website and view the slide deck below. You can also talk to the Competitive Advantage team on twitter.
The CMI Report, Architect Communication Channels, is available to buy here.
Competitive Advantage has also just produced a report on the adoption of BIM by Architects.
Enoch Sears, AIA (@BusinessofArch) says
Hello Su, thank you for the thoughtful and detailed article. The findings that you discussed with Chris are very interesting. I find it interesting that only 8% of firms interviewed do not allow their employees to use Twitter at work. I’m going to guess anecdotally that UK firms are ahead of the US in this area.
Chris Ashworth says
I assist a client in the USA with their Specification Sales activity and when I started about two years ago, based on our findings from the Construction Media Index, I suggested online and social media as a key communication channel. But as you suggest there does not seem to be the same level of adoption by construction professionals over there. I would think they are currently 2 or 3 years behind the UK.
Nick Moss says
An interesting article. As a manufacturer, we have found the internet, specifically social media sites including wordpress, twitter and facebook to have had some positives as far as product enquiries go, but the use of our sales team and agents who have a good relationship with architects and specifiers to be the main source of business. I do know that a lot more business globally has come our way thanks to the internet, and thanks to “search” engines on various search engines, you never know who will find our company!