Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Trading on social media

Published 12 October 2012 10:32, Updated 21 November 2012 08:02

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Alison Evans has been using LinkedIn for about 12 months. It isn’t her name on the social network site however but that of her husband Paul.

In a twist on the traditional husband-and-wife small business model, Evans has taken on the role of social media manager for their North Coburg-based construction contracting business, F.E.W. Waterproofing.

While Paul’s photo is on the site, along with his name, biography and track record, he isn’t behind the site. Alison is. She posts the company newsletters, deals with email enquiries and networks with other people in the industry – all in his name.

“I know what’s happening,” Evans says. “I know the projects being done. I know which ones to highlight. I can keep it up to date. Paul looks at it and corrects it but I actually do the physical sending out. I do the copy writing.”

In the world of design and construction, the five-person F.E.W. Waterproofing is ahead of most. A survey by online business directory Infolink.com.au shows one-third of 1126 building, construction, architecture and design businesses polled were unsure how to use social media.

While design professionals were the most aware of the need to use social media – 42 per cent of firms surveyed said social media was a crucial part of the marketing mix – other trades are not doing as well. Just over one-quarter (28 per cent) of building and construction businesses said social media was crucial, while even fewer (23 per cent) architecture businesses surveyed said the same thing.

Evans says her industry is behind on the options technology offers.

“They’re just scrabbling with iPhones, to tell the truth,” she says. “All tradies have mobiles – but it stops there.”

The use of social media in the construction trade is taking off – but only just. Paul Hindes, a Sunshine Coast-based building designer, started using social media 18 months ago after, he says, “a lot of prompting from my wife”.

“I was incredibly reluctant to start with,” Hindes says. “I thought it was a complete waste of time. I didn’t see the value.”

Others still don’t see the value.

Joseph Austin-Crowe designs three-dimensional images of buildings that are put on billboards and marketing material to sell property. He doesn’t use social media – “I think I’ve got a LinkedIn profile, I can’t remember” – and doesn’t know why he would need it.

“I have to wonder what would I be wanting to achieve by simply getting out there,” Austin-Crowe says. “I can’t even imagine how I’d reach a target audience.”

The search term “architectural visualisation”, which all would-be clients know, is sufficient for them to find the website for his Brunswick East-based company Advanced 3D Modelling.

“There doesn’t seem to be, for most work, much need to chest beat,” he says.

On top of that are the potential risks, such as providing a platform for people such as malicious rivals to bad-mouth the company.

“I suppose the main thing would be the risk of it being a negative experience, portraying the company in a negative way,” Austin-Crowe says.

Businesses happily using social media say it can be only one part of their marketing strategy. Evans says LinkedIn is crucial for keeping in touch with the office-based project managers in companies they seek to do business with but they have to also use traditional methods to target smaller companies.

“The smaller the construction company, the more influential the onsite people are,” she says. “Another market is probably the site managers, supervisors, but they’re not really using social media. That’s still old-fashioned print and good word of mouth.”

Hindes, whose firm Soul Space has a Facebook page, a website and a presence (in his name) on LinkedIn, says social media hasn’t led to more work but agrees it is likely to play a role in the decisions clients make.

“People might find my website, then search on Facebook and find my profile,” he says. “They might not necessarily subscribe to it, but they are learning about me. People are doing a lot more background checks on who they’re dealing with prior to engaging my services.”

The real value, he says, is as an information source: “LinkedIn . . . is a fantastic resource. People write with a question or a comment or an idea and as professionals, they’re not just people commenting off the cuff.”

Others are still making up their minds how best to use social media. Michael Bonello is the founder of skylight installer Skydome, which he listed in 1988 and took private again in 2010. The company has 27 employees, below the 85-odd it employed at its peak, but is still large, with a turnover of up to $6 million. It hasn’t yet worked out how to use social media to its advantage but Bonello says he will give it a go.

He has signed up with directory services company Sensis for a package, costing about $130,000, that will give the company Yellow Pages listings, boost its profile on Google searches and manage its presence on Facebook and YouTube.

“I don’t claim to have the knowledge of social media and what it can achieve,” he says. “But I have a gut feel that it’s not going to go away and if you don’t hook into it now, then you’re not going to survive.”

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