By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in the Philly.com on August 25, 2012.
In early 2009 Bridget McMullin went from 30 clients to five, and then eventually to none. After being in business for 12 years, the Haddonfield-based designer found herself with plenty of time to assess her marketing plan.
With no advertising budget, she addressed what she could: revising her website and starting a blog, where she would write twice a week about anything from establishing a design budget to choosing a TV for over the fireplace.
“That has been one of our most popular posts,” McMullin, 39, said.
Three years later, she hired four new employees.
“You have to commit to do it, but people are now finding me through my blog and then my site. I am giving away a little, but I have gotten so much.”
McMullin is one of many designers and architects who have either tiptoed or cannonballed into the unsure waters of social media to promote their business. Some have company Facebook pages, others tweet, some network through LinkedIn, still others have embraced the virtual pinboards of Pinterest or Houzz, an online home resource site.
But for every professional (not to mention the general universe) who sings the praises of these tools, spending hours a day offering advice, posting pictures and tweeting wisdom out into the ether, another calls them exercises in vanity, showing little return for a mighty investment of time.
“Our clientele is not a Facebook client,” says Philadelphia-based architect Spence Kass, who still gets many high-end projects in the city, including a Parc Rittenhouse penthouse and townhouses in Society Hill and the Art Museum area. And although he networks with tradespeople through LinkedIn and recently posted his work on Houzz, which has thousands of pictures of residential projects, he’s not impressed with the feedback.
“We mostly get readers asking ‘What is this paint color?’ or ‘Where do you get this faucet?’ I’d be surprised if it led to something.”
Designer Ashli Mizell says her website and word of mouth have kept her busy enough with projects in Philadelphia. “I have never had a client ask if I’m on Facebook or Twitter, and I have never felt it has hindered my business,” says Mizell, whose clients, on average, are in their mid-50s.
Neil Sandvold, architect and principal of Sandvold Blanda, also relies on his website, but he sends out news, too, about recent projects, like the latest Iron Hill Brewery in Voorhees, through his company Facebook page. The company also has a portfolio on Houzz with hundreds of page views. “Viewers have picked our projects for their inspiration boards. It certainly gets our name out there to a larger audience,” says Sandvold.
Houzz, which started in February 2009, can work as a powerful advertising venue, free of charge.
“Seventy-five percent of the calls I get are from people who see my work on Houzz,” says Ani Semerjian of Semerjian Interiors in Wayne. The designer, who regularly appears on NBC10’s The 10! Show, also blogs and has a company Facebook page. She recently landed a high-end client because of her online presence.
“Because I have so much content online, I am pretty searchable,” she said. Once she lands a client, she uses Pinterest to post ideas for his or her home, putting the client’s initials on them to ensure privacy. Clients can view the boards at their leisure.
Social media can be just as much a part of a firm’s institutional makeup as invoicing clients. Architect James Morrissey, principal of Morrissey Design in Flourtown, discusses with his team at weekly meetings what projects will be promoted on their Facebook page. A number of images are projected on a screen, and the group decides what to post. Project manager Tracy Chin writes the Facebook content three times a week, posts it, and then tweets about it.
One client, Scoogi’s in Chestnut Hill, saw photos of Morrissey’s work at Magerks Pub in Fort Washington and called the firm. When Morrissey completed a job for the mod Xilantro Restaurant in Wayne, a customer found his name through Facebook photos and hired him to work on her home in Vero Beach, Fla.
The conclusions designers draw about social media might just be a matter of available energy (if you can dedicate a lot of time to it, you’ll see results) and the demographics of their targeted clientele. Whereas a twentysomething looking to remodel her bathroom might start her design research on Pinterest, a 60-year-old is more likely to consult with the neighbor who raved about the guy who did her kitchen.
Another factor is considering clients’ privacy, especially residential ones. Who wants pictures of their living room out on the Internet? Some do, but many don’t.
Katie Guzinski, executive director of Marguerite Rodgers Ltd., says keeping projects private is part of protecting their brand and client. The firm recently joined Facebook in response to employees asking “Why aren’t we doing this?”
Employees can link to the MRL Facebook page or LinkedIn site but they aren’t allowed to post photos from any project sites. “It is important for us to be cautious about social media,” says Guzinski. The firm mainly uses its Facebook page for announcing projects or events, like the opening night of a 10 Rittenhouse condominium it furnished.
Susan Taylor has attended seminars at the last two High Point Markets – the popular semiannual North Carolina trade show for home furnishings – discussing the urgency of participating in social media, says the designer, who also owns the store Black Eyed Susan in Holicong.
With hundreds of blog followers, Taylor has been blogging for many years, documenting buying trips and giving design tips to engage clients. But it was her boards on Pinterest, which she joined a year ago, that recently earned her a new client.
A woman who had shopped at her store for years finally hired Taylor for an entire home project.
Taylor’s firm currently is establishing an e-commerce division, and she plans to use Pinterest to market it.
In the end, some find social media good for, well, socializing. Carrie Leskowitz’s two-year-old blog, Carrie’s Musings, has connected her with like-minded professionals.
“I haven’t gotten clients out of any of this, but my goal was to connect with other designers because this business can be isolating,” said Leskowitz, who is based in Fort Washington. But it’s a lot of work.
“I guess you have to ask yourself what your goals are if you want to start one,” she said of the three-day-a-week commitment. “For me, it is like another part-time job.”