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In the inaugural episode of his podcast Single Serves, Arnaud Marthouret chats with marketing consultant Dave Sharp, president of Melbourne-based Vanity Projects, about how and why architects are navigating the world of social media.


 The first question is, quite simply: why would an architect get on social media?

I think architects generally get on social media for the attention. And I mean that in the best possible way. We do really good work and we spend so much time thinking about making it as great as it can possibly be. We get photos taken and we want there to be an audience for that work. We want people to see our ideas. And, whether they are just people in our industry or potential clients or just society generally, you do something good and you want people to see it. Eventually that sort of thing turns into business results. But, really, it’s that attention that I think a lot of architects are looking for. I don’t necessarily say social media has any special feature, necessarily, that makes it different to magazines or awards or any other place that architecture used to get published; it’s just another place where people go to spend their time and see great architecture. Everybody who’s out there looking for amazing architectural ideas are spending their time on social media.

The number one architecture magazine in Australia is only read by about 10,000 people and comes out four times a year. And you have to be very, very lucky to get a spot in that magazine. You really have to do the best work in the country to get even a tiny bit of space in there. Then you’ve got just every architecture firm, and there are hundreds of them, who have very, very big audiences on social media and they don’t need to rely on anybody, really. They are a little bit attached to what happens to the social media platforms but they are kind of the captains of their own ship and I love it.

Can you describe some shining examples of architects who’ve done very well on social media and why?

There’s a bit of a distinction, I think, between architects that have done really well on social media because they’ve been good at social media, and architects that have done really well through social media because their work has done really well on social media. In Australia, there is an architect, Andrew Maynard, who discovered Twitter, like, the first year it came out. And years before any other architect was on Twitter, he was building up a big audience. Then he did the same thing on Instagram and YouTube. He’s always moving ahead of the industry and gathering up this enormous audience because the general society moves onto these platforms so quickly that architects can sometimes be really slow to get there. But he’s always been able to do that, and he’s built this fantastic audience and this very loyal fan base in the residential space primarily. And they will now follow him to any new platform. He could open up a Snapchat account tomorrow and he could have 5,000 to 10,000 followers on Snapchat by the next day.

But then I think, on the other side of the coin, classic examples like Bjarke Ingels. Now Bjarke, I don’t believe, is technically very good at social media. I think he’s very open and transparent and he posts frequently. But what really makes Bjarke well-known and built an enormous following for him was his TEDTalk going viral on Facebook. That was seen by millions of people and that brought an enormous audience to him that liked his ideas, they liked the way he thought, and they’ve stuck with him over time.

The final example is an architect that I used to work for in Japan called Takaharu Tezuka. And he did a very popular TEDTalk called “The Best Kindergarten in the World” about his kindergarten project. And Tezuka is now somewhat of a famous architect and I don’t think his firm has a Facebook page, they don’t have Instagram, they don’t have Twitter — they have no social media. But his videos and his content, his projects and that TEDTalk have collectively generated hundreds of millions of views on Facebook: a shining example of what social media can do for an architecture firm.

On the one side you’ve got people that really understand how the platform works day-to-day. Then you’ve just got successful architects on the other side who understand what type of content works really well on social media. They don’t actually have to personally be the one driving it day-to-day, but they create work and talk about it in a way that they know that social media will really love to take that story and spread it.

To me, it sounds like [those examples] were able, each in their own way, to leverage whatever platform they were on, [but also] all three of them are very smart architects who have very strong opinions and are not afraid to put them out there. I’m wondering if it’s more a function of being vocal about what they believe in and sticking by it, year-over-year, as opposed to being specifically on a social media platform?

Yeah, they have a consistent message or a worldview that their work supports: they don’t do work and then figure out what to say about it, they have something they’re already saying and then they do work that fits. All three of those guys have very strong opinions: Maynard talks about suburbia being and communities being broken; Tezuka talks about children and young people and what they need to grow and be happy; Ingels talks about the environment and the city.

They have these narratives that are much bigger than architecture and I think that’s the key for success for the three of them. They have figured out a way to talk about their work in a way that can relate and have a big impact with non-architects. Social media works extremely well for them because they can have a conversation with people from any walk of life. You’re right; you tend to get known for a message that is supported by work, and that will translate across any platform. If you build a really potent following on one platform, as long as those channels are somewhat similar in terms of the content they produce, that audience will just follow you all the way across to the other platform, or the next one that comes out in a year’s time.

What would be the most common mistakes you see architects and designers make on social media?

At the macro level I think the mistake that most architects make is they wait too long. And they wait for everybody else to be doing it before they start doing it. Social media platforms can become a very crowded trade, a lot of people can be trying to compete over the same number of viewers and audience in one platform. It’s 2019 and there are still a lot of architects talking to me about whether or not they should start an Instagram account. Now, they are very late to the party. It’s not like social media is not going to happen for them, but I just wouldn’t go on Instagram. It’s kind of already worn out, I think, if you’re not there and you haven’t already developed an audience.

I think waiting for confirmation from the rest of the industry before you do something is the single biggest mistake. I think it’s really helpful for architects to keep their eye on other industries: what are more fast-moving industries like graphic design, creative strategy, technology and marketing doing? You usually find strategies and examples of approaches that work years before your industry starts applying them. You might be a little early to the party, but that’s okay, I think it’s all right to be early.

The other major issue is just a general perfectionism about the presentation of our brand and our portfolio: you want that quality to shine through in every aspect of your company, and that makes sense. But really, anybody, even a social media expert, that thinks they can tell you that they know how social media works and which post is going to do well and which one isn’t, they’re pretty much just lying to you. I could look at five different images and a client might ask me which one will do best on Instagram and I’m always surprised by the answer.

The lesson is that you just need to take a lot of swings at the bat and put out a lot more content than you probably feel comfortable with. Because a lot of it’s not going to really get seen by that many people. But that one in 10, that outlying post, will get seen by a hundred times what the typical post gets seen by. Trying to stage and prepare the release of our projects like we were releasing them in a newspaper or magazine so that everything is guaranteed—there are no guarantees in social media. You could pick the wrong time of day, the wrong day of the week, the wrong image, any little factor could come into play that could totally sink the debut of your new project. Instead, think about how you can break your work and your process down into smaller little chunks and be testing more of a variety of different kinds of things. And don’t feel bad if a post doesn’t do well or you post something and it doesn’t get many likes or nobody really shares. Most of the time what we share just gets ignored on social media. But you’ll be rewarded by that kind of consistency and experimentation, because when posts do well, they’ll do very, very well.

How do you think social media fits into an overall business development strategy for design businesses?

It really depends on your firm. Are you business-facing, are you consumer-facing? Which vertical are you interested in? Are you doing houses, are you doing cafés? That really affects how you use it as a strategy. It also depends on your content. If you’re just getting professional photography of your finished projects and the predominant output of your architecture practice in a year is photos, my recommendation about how you should use LinkedIn is somewhat limited by that. If you’re a writer and you’re not playing as much in the kind of visual aesthetic realm, but you’re thinking more about ideas and research and insights and getting a little bit more political with your work, then I think that your strategy will be completely different to another firm.

You’re trying to marry up who is your ideal client, what kind of content are they going to find most valuable or is going to be most persuasive to them? If your ideal client is the government and you want to do schools, Instagram and awesome photos of schools you’ve designed is probably not going to be your best in-road into that. Different avenues are more efficient.

For architecture, I think we have this sort of general reluctance to pigeonhole ourselves or focus in on one particular thing, but really we’re doing ourselves a bit of a disservice because the best business development strategy that is made possible by social media is to really just focus on a very targeted group of people and create stuff just for them.

A lot of people who are famous and have a huge following on social media [are saying] the structure of social media, based on the kind of artificial interaction that people have with social media and posts, is just more of a cause of headaches and depression and all sorts of negative emotions than it is a positive thing. What’s your take on that?

I read a very good essay recently [that] was about what the platform if really selling is status, in a lot of ways [it’s] a status game like the popularity at high school. And, invariably, in a market of status and popularity there’s going to be winners and losers. If you’re at the top it’s sort of a new set of troubles. If you’re at the bottom, [where] you’re just posting and no one’s recognizing the good work you’re doing, that can be quite stressful as well.

I think for an architecture firm that’s [thinking] about social media, a lot of the time we’re not really attaching personal brands to our social media, which, if I was to add another social media mistake architects make, I’d probably say that’s one. To market on social media through the brand of your company is not as ideal as just going, “Hi, I’m Dave. This is my content.” But we tend to avoid the personal on social media, so in a lot of ways we’re an industry immune from the possibilities, but also immune from some of the dangers, as well. We kind of get to play this middle ground a little bit where we’re not personally feeling that invalidated by the reactions and the comments and the trolls. But it also means we have a bit of a ceiling over our heads about how well we can possibly do.

Different architects see it differently. I work with a number of clients who don’t really give [their Instagram account] much mind and see it as almost like the phone book, as a place business comes from. They don’t get emotionally attached to it. But a lot of time those same architects, if they get snubbed for an award [get] very upset about that. So they get their status in different ways. Then there are some architects, particularly emerging firms, who are extremely sensitive to how their content does on Instagram and sometimes get what is called in shooting sports “target panic” [where] it takes a couple of bum posts and a few negative comments and they start getting really discouraged from posting more of their work. Or they start adapting their strategy based on some tiny amount of negative feedback.

How do we prevent ourselves from falling into the traps of social media and its design intent to create the maximum engagement possible, which can lead to addictive behaviours?

I think the best thing you can do is be a bit of an omni channel firm. And that means being a little bit unbiased and a little bit unprejudiced towards all of the major social media channels. Because then you start to see that they all have different roles and they all serve different purposes. There isn’t a single social media platform that is all-important that you just need to be there. At least in the Australian architecture space Instagram is thought of as the only game in town. And I’ve been told that in the U.K., Twitter is seen that way, and in the United States Facebook and increasingly Instagram are seen that way now. But when you believe that there is one gatekeeper and one source of status and projects and those kinds of things, I think you begin to develop a feeling that your livelihood really depends on your success or failure on this one platform. But, instead, those things are largely out of your control and you really don’t want to be reliant on one individual platform.

When I look at marketing my focus is on the quality of whatever content I’m making. If I was making architecture it would be my photos as the output. In my case, I’m writing, I’m making podcasts, I’m recording videos and I’m just focused on the work. Then I have a pretty broad, unbiased, emotionless point of view of the social media channels, and I just look at each one individually and go, “How could I take my writing, my video or my podcast and recycle them and repurpose them and put them out on those platforms.” A bit like Joe Rogan’s [“Post and walk away” mantra]. Sometimes so much that I have to remind myself to go back and actually respond to people’s comments. You can find yourself getting very distant and selfish on social media and, to me, what’s more of a battle [or] internal struggle is to insulate yourself from this feeling of addiction or anxiety about how the platform is treating you, while also still keeping your heart a little bit in the game so that you’re actually a nice person and participant and a contributor. Because if you just see social media as some loud bullhorn that you can just fill with messages and walk away and can then get back to the drawing board, that’s not going to be appreciated by any audience, really. So there always has to be a reciprocity and back and forth between you and the people that follow you. It is a fine balance, but when you create content and you share it and you’re generous and you share your ideas, you tend to find that you get very positive feedback and feedback that quickly turns into real relationships. Social media is a great way of generating long-distance, professional friendships.

An architect by training, Arnaud Marthouret is a culture, communications and media maven for the architecture and design industry.

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