Marketing in a Recession

I may get thrown out of the SMPS for saying this — or I would if I were in the SMPS — but I find it incredibly disingenuous for someone who sells marketing consulting services to advise their client base to increase marketing expenditures during troubled economic times. Even if they truly believe what they’re saying, these people must recognize the perceived conflict of interest this raises.

It’s like they’re telling you to put gas in a boat’s engine when it’s sinking. It’s true that the boat (i.e., firm) will go nowhere without gas (i.e., marketing). But if you don’t first plug the holes, there won’t be a boat. And in this case, the people giving the advice own the gas station!

Most AEC firms don’t have to invest more money into marketing. You may, in fact, be able to cut overall marketing expenses if you invest your firm’s time and effort into more cost-effective forms of marketing. For instance:

  • Publish Articles. The mainstream media may be dying, but there is still what seems an endless stream of trade and specialty publications for the AEC industry. Target a handful and try to get an article (or a few) published. It’s a lot less expensive than splashy, full-color ads and, as part of the editorial content, an article carries a lot more credibility with the reader (i.e., your client base). I’ll be speaking on this subject at the ACEC’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2009.

  • Make Subtle Web Site Improvements. A lot of company web sites in our industry are showing their age. Yours may need an upgrade, but if money is tight, make cosmetic changes and functional improvements instead of revamping the whole site for big bucks.

  • Use Your Staff’s Non-Chargeable Hours. For A/E firms seeing their staff’s average chargeability dropping, the choice sometimes comes down to laying people off or finding other things for them to do. If you’re in position to carry some folks while you wait for the workload to pick up (if only so you don’t risk losing someone good), instruct your marketing staff or a marketing-savvy co-worker to get these people involved in the marketing effort. This could mean attending networking events, writing letters to clients and targets, starting a company blog or some other Web 2.0 function, or helping with graphical or electronic marketing collateral. See what these people are good at and use it.

  • Give Some Attention to Down Markets. There’s not much residential building of any kind going on here in Massachusetts, but one of my engineering/survey clients is keeping the development community in his firm’s marketing rotation. He just contributed the cover article to a local builder magazine, receiving several comments about it from developers. They’re down now, but they won’t be forever. Chances are, they’ll remember my client when the market comes back.

  • Pick Your Spots Carefully. It’s important to get out to trade shows, conferences, and other leadership events. Unfortunately, when money is tight, some firm leaders just stop going altogether. Or, if they limit it to one or two events, they choose the wrong one or two. Before you do anything, do some research. Look at the universe of possible events and make an honest assessment of which are likely to provide the most benefit to the firm as a whole. (Or to you, professionally, because if you’re a firm leader, they’re one in the same…just don’t go to a show in Vegas only because you love Vegas.) You may find that the friendly trade show where you see the same old faces from the same old firms isn’t as valuable as a leadership event that challenges your preconceived notions and breaks you out of your comfort zone. You may determine that the “fringe” event you never considered is actually rich with potential clients. When it comes to events — and, in fact, most methods of marketing — doing something just because that’s what you’ve always done is usually the wrong approach.

These are just a few ideas of many. Give it some thought, talk it over with your partners or marketing staff, and I’m sure you’ll come up with a few of your own.

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