We blinked, and suddenly December was upon us. What even happened in 2022?
To start, the massive federal infrastructure spending bill passed in 2021 meant more projects on the horizon for architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. Recruitment and retainment became significant priorities for AEC marketing teams, especially amid the Great Resignation.
In this episode of Spill the Ink, Michelle Calcote King hands the microphone to a special guest. Steven Gallo serves as the Director of Content and PR at Reputation Ink where he’s in charge of creating brand awareness strategies for the agency’s AEC clients. They reflect on the trends and legislation that shaped AEC marketing in 2022, discuss the growing importance of building a digital brand and reputation, and what marketing departments can do to prepare for a recession and the new year.
Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn
- What trends shaped AEC marketing and public relations in 2022?
- How did the 2021 Infrastructure Bill influence AEC marketing?
- What will be AEC firms’ greatest communication challenges in the new year?
- Why shouldn’t AEC firms cut down on marketing during a recession?
- What should marketers and AEC firms be doing today to prepare for 2023?
About our featured guest
Steven Gallo is the Director of Content and PR at Reputation Ink. His communications experience spans the media spectrum, including award-winning work for television, radio and digital platforms. Before entering the PR and content marketing arena, Steven was a broadcast news reporter in Florida and Georgia.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Sponsor for this episode
This episode is brought to you by Reputation Ink.
Founded by Michelle Calcote King, Reputation Ink is a public relations and content marketing agency that serves professional services firms of all shapes and sizes across the United States, including corporate law firms and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms.
Reputation Ink understands how sophisticated corporate buyers find and select professional services firms. For more than a decade, they have helped firms grow through thought leadership-fueled strategies, including public relations, content marketing, video marketing, social media, podcasting, marketing strategy services, and more.
To learn more visit www.rep-ink.com or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org today.
[00:00:00] Michelle Calcote King: If you don't have that digital presence and that reputation online, it becomes a gap, especially as we look at future generations who are much more digital savvy and we're trying to target those. If you don't have a website that is very easy to navigate, has all that content and anecdotes and details and photography and video that people come to expect you're in a worse place than a competitor would be.
[00:00:35] Welcome to Spill the Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink where we feature experts in growth and brand visibility for law firms and architecture, engineering and construction firms. Now, let's get started with the show.
[00:00:53] Michelle: Hi, everyone. I'm Michelle Calcote King. I'm your host and I'm also the principal and president of Reputation Ink. We're a public relations and content marketing agency for law firms, architecture, engineering and construction firms, and other professional services firms. To learn more, go to rep-ink, that's ink with a K, .com.
This month we're doing something a little different which is exciting. We're having members of the Reputation Ink team come over and take over our Spill the Ink to interview me instead of our usual format. It's going to be more of a conversation.
It’s very special episode of Spill the Ink because I have the opportunity to welcome and hand over the virtual microphone to Steven Gallo, so welcome, Steven.
[00:01:35] Steven Gallo: Thank you.
[00:01:35] Michelle: Steven serves as the director of content and PR for Reputation Ink. He leads many of our biggest accounts. He's in charge of creating the phenomenal content and public relations strategies that we do for many of our clients in the AEC sector, the architecture, engineering, and construction sector. Before entering the PR and content marketing arena, Steven was a broadcast news reporter in Florida and Georgia, so he applies a unique media-savvy perspective to his client work. Thank you for joining me.
[00:02:07] Steven: Yes, thank you. You make me sound so official, I appreciate it. [chuckles]
[00:02:12] Michelle: It's exciting.
[00:02:13] Steven: It's exciting to be here and cool in this format, so thanks for bringing me in, Michelle. I know somehow the holiday season is already upon us. Before we get, I guess, too ahead of ourselves and jump into the New Year, let's maybe talk about 2022 and the AEC industry. I guess looking back over this past year, what are some of the factors that, from your perspective, really shaped AEC marketing and PR?
[00:02:41] Michelle: We've been working in the AEC sector since we were founded 11 years ago. I would say the number one trend that I'm seeing is the labor shortage and how really recruiting is becoming a top priority for marketing. Every AEC firm owner that I speak to, that's their challenge. The work is there, so they can secure the projects, funding is great. There's a lot of government funding happening, but also the private sector is building, but really, it's finding the people to build these projects.
Coming off of COVID, we've got just such a disruption in the market and the industry was already facing a labor shortage. Really, much of marketing's role is becoming how to communicate a brand that people want to work for — differentiating. Because every other firm is out there hiring and competing for the same people. Really communicating what a company is about, why work for them, what kind of career you can expect. It's a real melding of those disciplines and I know our team is working really closely with HR departments to help them on those initiatives.
[00:04:04] Steven: Yes, and to your point too, attrition in the industry, this changing of the guard almost that we've been seeing happening in the past few years and looking ahead, there's this need for that worker. I know that that's a big part of it now even for maybe traditionally, not as much from a marketing standpoint but marketing being a great place to work now it seems more important than ever, at least in this industry.
[00:04:25] Michelle: Yes, absolutely. Then other trends I'm seeing is when I first started this company 11 years ago and before when I was working at other agencies, you would talk to people in more conservative industries like AEC and there was a sense that we're exempt from needing to do that kind of marketing. That doesn't apply to us and that's changing. I'm having clients come to me and say, "We need to do thought leadership," or, "We need to do some niche focusing in on a certain industry."
It's really interesting to see that transition from, "No, we don't need to do that. We're all about in-person, relationship building,” to realizing that building a brand online and developing a brand and a reputation for having expertise in certain niche areas is incredibly important to building their business. That's a shift that's been slowly happening, but I'm really feeling it moreso now with client requests. It's less me explaining why you need to write an article for a trade publication to them saying, "We really need to write an article for X and X publication," and me thinking, "Wow, that's great that they're coming up to us with that."
[00:05:49] Steven: Yes, a paradigm shift happening. I think realizing that construction, architecture, engineers, we're not immune necessarily to these changes and it's just as important.
[00:05:59] Michelle: Right. What I often show is how they're right, it is a relationship business, but relationships are formed in very different ways nowadays. People spend a lot of time online educating themselves and connecting with people. While we're certainly, thankfully, we're in a different place than we were just last year or two years ago where we are going to meetings and seeing people in person, it's very important to make sure that your website is an incredibly robust website. You're telling the stories about your projects, you're regularly telling stories about what it's like to work there, you're sharing updates about milestones on projects, that kind of thing.
Because if you don't have that digital presence and that reputation online, it becomes a gap. Especially as we look at future generations who are much more digital savvy and we're trying to target those. If you don't have a website that is very easy to navigate, has all that content and anecdotes and details and photography and video that people come to expect, you are in a worse place than a competitor would be.
[00:07:22] Steven: Yes, that's a great point. You mentioned, despite the fact that we're looking a bit more like pre-COVID in terms of day-to-day life, but a lot of those same remote work habits and that hybrid model. We're in a different world now that there's some things that feels like that can't be put back in that box and we're seeing that now.
[00:07:45] Michelle: Yes, well, we have a very large, what we thought was a more conservative client that right out of the gate when COVID hit, said, "You know what? This work-from-home thing is actually working for us," and has let employees really continue working from home in a very flexible format that I don't think I would've ever expected, especially in this industry. We have other AEC clients that are like, "No, you absolutely have to get back to the office." That's a culture thing. This is a tangible industry that's working on projects, so it makes sense that it can't be fully remote, but a lot of those habits remain.
The fact that you can accomplish multiple meetings with multiple different audiences in one day over Zoom versus spending a whole day out just for one meeting is still happening. They're realizing that they really have to upgrade their digital presence to reflect that environment.
[00:08:50] Steven: Yes, definitely. Speaking of clients of ours, as you mentioned, I've had a pleasure to work with a lot of these AEC clients for a number of years now at the agency. If there's one thing I've learned about that sector and the smart people that work in it is that there's always something new to learn, there's always something going on. I guess I'm curious, as we're reflecting back on 2022, any surprises, learnings, takeaways that the clients have seen this year? What have you been hearing?
[00:09:19] Michelle: I think for me what I'm seeing is there's a realization that marketing does not equal proposals. For the longest time in this industry, if a company had an in-house marketing person or team, that person was really just doing proposals. They weren't doing the brand-building work that we do, the telling stories on social media, telling stories through PR, through engaging with the media and publishing articles, and getting news out about projects. They're realizing that, yes, proposals are always going to be important, but there's this whole other realm of activities that we have to do to have that brand presence. Just the importance of that online brand.
It's funny to be in 2022 talking about social media and that people are realizing it's important, but it really is true to see how, especially these AEC owners are older many of them. These are people that didn't grow up with social media and seeing them really understand that they have to be very active on platforms like LinkedIn and have to engage there, that that's where people are and that's where they're learning about people. I just got off a prospect call with a construction company owner and I asked him where he heard of us and he said, LinkedIn.
They're on there and they're starting to really engage in those platforms, especially as they realize that recruiting is such an important focus and that they're trying to recruit these more younger people. That the importance of social media can't be understated.
[00:11:09] Steven: Exactly, right, especially in that recruiting conversation now, it definitely can't be ignored because that's a pain point. Everyone's feeling it seems. Something I've noticed as well— We're helping a client go through a big milestone year and brand changes and it's this understanding as an AEC firm that having a brand now, I need to be thinking about that. Maybe at least compared to historically, it was really all about, "Hey, here's who we are." I guess, what does that look like for AEC firms and why does it matter?
[00:11:44] Michelle: I know the example you're thinking of there, but I think the whole industry is feeling it is that there's this shift in delivery methods. Especially for clients that do a lot of government work, it used to be a hard bid environment. There was a good argument for the fact that marketing didn't really make an impact there when we're really just it's the lowest price wins. As government agencies and certainly the private sector shift toward a design-build model where they can factor in other things other than price, that's when a brand really does play a big role.
That's a shift for the industry overall, the shift toward the design-build model, and with it, more AEC companies are going to realize that having a strong reputation, a strong brand will help them secure these projects.
[00:12:49] Steven: Absolutely. To pivot a little bit, I know we just got over the hump of midterm elections. Still recovering from the onslaught of campaign ads. I guess all the votes haven't even been counted yet and everyone's already shifting to looking to the next election cycle, so it's always something. The AEC industry is always really keeping tabs on what's going on in Washington one way or the other, but the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act, that was a big deal when the president signed it a year ago this month, last November. I guess I'm curious, over this past year, have we seen that influence marketing in the industry and in this sector in particular?
[00:13:30] Michelle: I think that the firms that specialize in these areas and infrastructure are certainly gearing up for it. They know that this work is coming and they've got to be ready. It goes back to not to beat a dead horse, but recruiting and making sure that they've got the right people to do this work because it is, it's going to be a lot of work. I think the smart companies now are gearing up and thinking about how do we build our brand to attract the right people to be able to deliver that work. It's an exciting time for companies that work in that sector because there's going to be a lot of activity.
I think the challenge will be keeping the momentum going. It's easy to get caught up in all that work that's happening and forget that there are down cycles. You've got to keep your foot on the marketing pedal even during when things are really, really busy. Making sure that they don't ignore it whenever they are fulfilling those contracts is going to be important.
[00:14:45] Steven: That's a great point. Just because that was signed doesn't mean that that work is just automatically walk in the door, right?
[00:14:51] Michelle: Yes.
[00:14:52] Steven: I know some people are wondering, "Okay, well, is 2023 going to be a busy year for the industry?" We don't have a crystal ball, but to your point, regardless of what you might be anticipating in terms of investment and the effort putting into marketing and PR efforts, it's just not the time to slow down at least. Is that fair to say?
[00:15:15] Michelle: It's an interesting thing— Unfortunately, I've been in this business long enough to where I've gone through many, many cycles of people predicting a recession, and there's always talk about marketing being the first thing that goes during a recession, but the way marketing works right now, you can't stop it. Certainly, you could pull back on some expenditures, absolutely, but especially on a B2B side of things, you've got to be keeping your CRM system up to date. You have to be regularly announcing and talking about projects. You have to be keeping your project descriptions and case studies up to date.
You have to show activity. You have to be building that brand. Maybe you pull back on some more of the nice-to-haves or campaigns trying to get into new markets, but other than that, if you pull back on those when you're in a much worse place, when you're ready to spend the money again and really you're going to end up spending more money than needed. You're really damaging your brand in the long run because there's just so much catch up that you'll have to do. I liken it to you're regularly telling the story of your business, and if you just stop telling that story, especially in the online world, it can create a lot of negative associations with your brand that you don't want to happen.
Pushing that pedal and moving forward is the right thing to do in a recession, if it hits. Certain construction sectors tend to be pretty recession-proof. I certainly don't think our infrastructure clients are going to feel any pullback. That's really the lesson. I know it sounds self-serving coming from a marketer, but it's the truth. Marketing's not one of those things that you want to start when you need it because it takes so long, it's a long-term game. You can't say, "Oh, I suddenly need business, let's do this." You might not see the results of your marketing efforts for a year, so you can't wait until you need it to start it.
[00:17:34] Steven: To your point, if you're not telling your story regularly, that gap, that silence also speaks in its own right. It's also an opportunity for other folks to tell your story indirectly or not if you're not the one doing it.
[00:17:50] Michelle: Right. Yes, absolutely.
[00:17:52] Steven: No, I love that.
You did your fair share of traveling this year, business and pleasure, but a lot of that I know is attending and speaking at various industry conferences and events, as you usually do. I know those can oftentimes, especially now folks coming back together in person and networking, it could be a place where you get a lot of ideas and see maybe what's new, what's next. I'm curious, anything you picked up along the way that AEC leaders should keep top of mind? What are the most valuable insights?
[00:18:23] Michelle: I went to a conference where culture was the focus, and I thought that was really interesting. Again, more conservative industries talking about things that you wouldn't anticipate them talking about. I can see how culture is an important topic for AEC. Again, going back to the recruiting, how do you differentiate your workplace from another workplace? Culture really is that. Marketers, when you think about a lot of the conference I was talking about, how does marketing impact culture? I think marketing is tasked with, one, not only helping to define what that is but communicating that culture.
Culture's often set from the top down, but marketing's role is really how do we communicate and showcase what that culture is? Certainly, internal communications can help that. Especially AEC, companies they have a workforce that's highly distributed. You've got field employees who aren't glued to a computer screen like us office people, so it becomes a challenge to communicate to those audiences, and that's a really important factor in retaining your workforce. The other thing I think we've noticed too is companies being more willing to, in this competitive labor market, being more willing to showcase their employees online.
I'm sure we both remember years ago when we'd say, "Oh, let's put this employee up for an award," or we'd suggest these things and we get, "We don't want anyone tapping in and stealing our employees." There's a realization that that cat is out of the bag. LinkedIn exists, and really, by showcasing your employees, one, you're making them feel great about themselves. It's a way of giving them feedback and showing that you're proud of them. Two, it helps show other people looking from the outside the kind of people that work here and the way this company treats their employees, which is to showcase them and to talk about how great they are. In the digital environment, people want to see other people.
You don't want to be this faceless brand. The more companies can showcase their people on social and on their website and put them up for rewards, the more people associate you with actual human beings, which is what really people relate to and want to do business with.
[00:21:01] Steven: That's a great point. I know sometimes I've heard workplace culture is so much bigger than just marketing, it's really a team effort. I think to a degree, that is true, it goes beyond just marketing, but I've also heard folks say, "Oh, this is such a great place to work. We have such a great family-oriented culture," but you're talking about telling that story. That may be true, but if no one knows that, then how far is that really going to take you, especially in that recruiting conversation?
[00:21:33] Michelle: Exactly.
[00:21:34] Steven: That's a great point.
I guess 2023, it's here, it's upon us. Looking ahead and gearing up for the New Year resolutions, all that good stuff, what's one thing, or maybe a couple of things that in-house marketers that AEC firms should be doing right now to prepare for 2023?
[00:21:56] Michelle: If I were in-house at an AEC company, I would be looking at ways to streamline all the many collateral needs that an AEC firm needs any time. After working with in-house marketers for so long, I know that they can get just pulled into this endless cycle of churning out materials, so project descriptions, team resumes, qualifications packages, proposals. As I've worked more in this industry, I've found providers that have found ways to really stream like that.
I just did a podcast interview with a gentleman who runs a company called NK Interactive and they've really developed a proprietary system. They call it a single Source of Truth, where all information is held in one place, but it can be repurposed very quickly and easily. Anytime they update a project on the website, they can pull a project one sheet or all those images are there, the video is in that one spot. It's really thought out to meet the needs of AEC because I know that AEC marketers end up becoming InDesign graphics specialists who never went to school to be an InDesign designer. That's because these AEC firms are having to constantly submit proposals and qualification packages and they need details on projects. It's very hard to keep track. If you don't have a CRM system built for AEC, I would be getting one now.
You'd be surprised at the amount of really large companies that don't, that none of that information is collected and in one place. It really slows down and makes marketing very inefficient. Thinking through that process, even though it takes a while to really think through, "How am I going to collect all this project information and this team information and get it in one place and have a process for updating it?” It's incredibly important and will make their life a lot better. That would be the number one thing I would do.
[00:24:07] Steven: That is great advice, Michelle and I know there's probably numerous things, but that one is a big one, especially if you're looking at budget planning and whatnot. To your point, being organized and having those things lined up and ready to go is going to make the whole process throughout the year a lot more efficient, whether you're working with an in-house team or an agency that's outside the company. I appreciate you sharing those insights and a little bit about what you've been seeing and what we're looking forward to.
[00:24:34] Michelle: Yes, it was fun to have you on as my interviewer. I'll do our normal wrap-up. That's a wrap for our show today and thank you for joining me and for coming on Spill The Ink.
[00:24:47] Steven: Of course. Thanks so much, Michelle. Take care.
[00:24:52] Thanks for listening to Spill The Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.
<< BACK TO ALL EPISODES