The value of market research for architecture, engineering and construction firms

What do we all do before making a decision? Research.

Market research enables architecture, engineering and construction firms to make strategic decisions about their business. Firms can use the information for diverse purposes, including to plan for the future, create buy-in, break into a new market and identify missed opportunities in their current markets.

How do you know you’re doing “good” research? How should you incorporate your findings into your marketing strategy?

Michelle invites Sarah Kinard to weigh in on the conversation in this episode of “Spill the Ink.” Sarah is the owner of The Flamingo Project, a market research and strategy consultancy for AEC firms. They discuss how firms can use market research to their advantage, common pitfalls to avoid, considerations before kickstarting a research project, and more.

Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn

  • Who is Sarah Kinard and what is The Flamingo Project

  • What market research is and how to get started

  • Why AEC firms commonly engage market research firms

  • How market research supports growth strategies and decision-making 

  • How market research information supports content development

  • How to tell the difference between “good” and “bad” information

  • What to know before engaging a market research firm

About our featured guest

Sarah Kinard is a strategic visionary with over 20 years of experience in professional services firm strategy, marketing and implementation. She is known as a change agent and is frequently hired by firms to create a strategy rooted in research, business practice and scale, resulting in their unique growth plan.

Her career has taken her from a well-regarded regional firm, to a national K-12 firm to begin a higher education practice that went global, to a global interior architecture firm focused on hospitality. Her experience and understanding of differing markets, project types and growth strategies bring thoughtful, tailored research to her clients. She is constantly curious and able to weave together market data and trends in insightful and actionable ways. Sarah's curiosity, fail-forward/fail-fast approach and desire to have fun in everything she does are the hallmarks of how she “does it differently.”

Sarah serves the AEC industry as a Trustee for the SMPS Foundation, as past president for the SMPS North Texas Chapter, and recently received the Hall of Fame award from SMPS North Texas. She partners with many business consulting agencies in the industry, including Zweig Group, Go Strategies and Elevate Marketing Advisors.

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 or email them at today.


[00:00:00] Sarah Kinard: I tell people that information is your compass. That's what market research gives you, information to make decisions.


[00:00:11]: 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.


[00:00:28] Michelle Calcote King: Hey 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 architecture, engineering and construction firms and other professional services firms. To learn more, go to

Today we're going to talk about market research. Market research is often the compass that leads successful marketing campaigns, but what is the key to conducting good research and how can it help architecture, engineering and construction firms empower their marketing initiatives, chase growth opportunities and achieve success?

Today I'm excited to welcome Sarah Kinard to talk about the topic. Sarah's the owner of The Flamingo Project. In addition to having a very cool company name, The Flamingo Project is a market research and strategy consultancy designed to grow existing AEC firms and launch new businesses. Sarah currently serves as a trustee on the Society for Marketing Professional Services Foundation and is a past president of that organization's Dallas Group. Thanks for joining me today, Sarah.

[00:01:37] Sarah: Thanks.

[00:01:38] Michelle: I'm excited. One, give me a little background about your career, why you created the Flamingo Project, and I always tell people not to double-barrel questions, but I'm going to do it. Tell me about how you came up with a name.

[00:01:50] Sarah: That's okay. It's a good question. I'm a marketer at heart and when I figured out that that was my calling, I was at a small liberal arts college and they didn't have a marketing degree. They had traditional business, communication arts, those sorts of degrees. I went to the Board of Regents and created an interdisciplinary degree. So, apparently, I've always been an entrepreneur and I didn't know it. 

[00:02:16] Michelle: Very cool.

[00:02:17] Sarah: Marketing, communicating an idea has always been something that has fascinated me. I was the little kid loving commercials. Of course, like so many of us, I didn't find myself at a product. I found myself at a service, which is a different thing. My first full-time career job was at an architecture firm that designs everything but hospitals and jails.That's really where I learned the craft of architecture, fell in love with the industry and specifically, urban planning and how the profession can shape communities and cities for the better. Sometimes they’re not always for the better. 

Once I had the industry jargon under my belt and understood how projects came to fruition, how you win projects, I joined a firm who hired me to work with a principal to establish a new practice.It was a firm that had a 60-year-old history of doing K-12 work only, and they wanted to get into higher ed. 100-year buildings are a different thing than K-12 buildings. That's really where I found that research was at the core of how I was going to make it work; understanding the differences in the markets, what was needed, how to identify projects, obviously, competition, differentiators, you name it. That's really where I found market research as such a core to who I am and how I operate.

From there, I went national with the firm with higher ed. After that, it was what's the growth strategy beyond this for the firm? Acquisition was clearly the right path for them, but not for me. I decided to move on to a global firm. It was actually global. A lot of the times we talk about how it's a global firm, but do you actually have a global role? I had people in Shanghai, Singapore, all over the US, London, Paris, Dubai reporting to me.

[00:04:09] Michelle: Very cool.

[00:04:10] Sarah: I say the time zones were brutal, the travel was amazing. It was time to stop doing that. 

[00:04:19] Michelle: I know travel is very sexy until you start doing it regularly for work.

[00:04:25] Sarah: Exactly. From there, I was trying to discern what was next and I got to speak with fantastic firms out there who wanted me to help them to grow. I realized I wanted to help a lot of firms grow and that was when I decided that my next step was not for me to go into another firm. 

One of the things that research gives you is the understanding of the market, of differentiation, of how you need to look differently, and what stands out from the flock? A flamingo.

[00:04:59] Michelle: Love it. That's cool. I love that. I'm just curious because I know how long it took me to come up with my own company name. Did you know it? Did you have it in your heart? Or did it come from a painstaking process of a million names and coming down to that one?

[00:05:18] Sarah: It's going to sound little nuts, but when I was having the revelation that this is what I needed to do I was sitting at our family lake house alone, which at that time never happened. We would all be there at the same time. My mother-in-law was obsessed with flamingos and there was a flamingo staring at me on the mantle.

[00:05:39] Michelle: That's funny. I love that.

[00:05:41] Sarah: The flamingo made me do it, is the other thing I like to say.

[00:05:45] Michelle: I love it. I think it's great.

[00:05:47] Sarah: It just also worked out.

[00:05:49] Michelle: Let's talk about market research and AEC firms because this is an industry that is not known for being the most forward-thinking and progressive. Tell me about the kinds of market research that you do in AEC.

[00:06:04] Sarah: I've really spent a lot of time trying to help firms boil this down because it is a little alien to them. They don't know what they're looking for, they don't know what to ask for. 

I like to say, basically, there's different purposes for market research and understanding what the purpose is. Is it a growth initiative for your firm? A growth initiative could look anything like a new sector, a new service, a new region.Is it to really understand your brand position? Is it to understand where you can do more strategic promotion, is what I like to say, whether it's PR or conferences, any of that. Is it competitor profiling? Really understanding where you sit with your competition. Content development. What do we need to be talking about? Then going back to growth sector and geography forecasts. Are we in the right sectors and the right geographies for our services right now? Are they changing dramatically? I also refer to it as a health check, understanding where it is. And pursuit specific, of course.

We're real accustomed to anything once we get an RFQ RFP in our hands for research. Where did that come from, who's our competition, what are our differentiators there? We're good once we get to pursuits specific, usually it's pulling back from that. I'd like to say that those are usually the purposes and sometimes that can be in tandem with a strategic plan. Sometimes it can be because you lost something you didn't expect to lose. There can be reasons to give energy to the idea of market research, but those are the common purposes.

[00:07:54] Michelle: Do you see that AEC firms only do market research as a one-off? Have you worked with some firms that are really starting to incorporate it as something that they do day in, day out, it's a regular part of how they operate? Are you seeing that shift?

[00:08:09] Sarah: I am seeing that shift. It's very exciting and I really believe that it is indicative of the transition of leadership to the next generation. 

One of the big differences between, let's say the boomer generation that has owned firms for a long time and done amazing owning the firms, but also benefited from really long-term expansion of markets. Yes, there were downturns in there, don't get me wrong. There were downturns, but they were all fairly typical. There was a cause and so there was a response.It was less multifaceted than the world that we are in today. 

That is also a generation that started a firm, grew it locally, regionally, and maybe beyond, and could do that very well through relationships and not necessarily through market information. The generation that's taking over in leadership now, whether they're Gen X or millennials, are more accustomed to having access to information to make decisions, period. It's how they operate.

It's very exciting to me when I get these phone calls where somebody says, "I've just been moved into a director of strategy role for the firm, and so I'm responsible for looking at potential growth opportunities, but I don't know how to do that. Can you help mentor me in how to do that?" Which it's thrilling to me. It's thrilling that firms are saying, "How can we make sure that this firm stays really viable for our employees, for our clients, for the communities we're serving?" It's very exciting.

[00:10:03] Michelle: Yes, I bet. It's really rewarding when something you've been telling clients forever that, "This is a good thing, this is important," and then they start to implement it and ask for it without you having to struggle and push them toward it, I know that feeling. 

We do a lot of content for AEC firms. Tell me about the work that you're doing to help fuel content. I'd love to hear more about that. What research are you doing and then, tell me about the output.

[00:10:31] Sarah: What I'm doing is very different from what you are doing. I am saying very much, at the high level, strategic, "This is where we want to go with our vision. This is where we want to be in 3–5 years. What are the influences on our industry that we need to be talking about? What are the things we're trying in terms of new markets to capture? How do we need to be talking about that in the future so that it will resonate with where we're going?"

It's much more at the company vision level and response to influencers and drivers in the marketplace. I do not do SEO evaluations and those kinds of things. It's more around, "This is where we want to be in the future." I have a client who says that what they like about working with me is we lift the gaze towards the future in everything that we do so that we don't, in the busy times — which we all know, are frequent — get stuck looking down at the piece of paper to get the work done and then look up later and say we missed.

I'm really focused on, "What are the economic impacts that we're going to be seeing? What are the drivers of the market that are changing? Really, what are the things that our clients even need to be thinking about?"

[00:11:57] Michelle: Yes. We live in this information age, we're in the heyday, right now, of ChatGPT and all this, how do you help clients tell the difference between good and bad information? How do you help them sort through that?

[00:12:11] Sarah: I just love this question.

[00:12:13] Sarah: My husband and I actually talked about this question last night as we were talking about our days today. I think that just in terms of me and where I sit, generationally, I couldn't refer to anything on the internet in a research paper in college.

[00:12:32] Michelle: Right, I know. Same generation. 

[00:12:36] Sarah: That was all very voodoo. LexisNexis is where you went for your information. It was already this canon of information that was, "This is the real deal." The World Book Britannica was the real deal. Today, yes, what is good and bad information? I like to tell people that, yes, there is definitely bad information out there, but really looking at it and saying, "Who is this coming from? What is their point of view?" 

For example, people will call me to look at transportation for them. Transportation is, of course, a broad market. One of my favorite resources is ARTBA, but ARTBA, it leans towards things that are impacting labor for truck drivers. I just need to know that when I am referencing it.

Really, what the clients want to understand is, for the trucking industry, how EV is going to be impacting construction, durations of rides, all those sorts of things. That's what we care about. Yes, we care about the labor too, because without them there to work, it impacts our industry for sure. Understanding the bias that certain things come with that are good bias, somebody else needs that bias. I don't need that bias. They have a lot of other very helpful and good information.

I like to say go to organizations and associations, but every one of them has a point of view. Every one of them has a point of view, something that they're advocating for. Make sure you understand what it is they're advocating for so that when you're reading, and you're researching, you understand the bias that's there.

[00:14:23] Michelle: Yes, it's like how I prep clients for media interviews. The journalist has a story they want to tell. Figure out what angle they're coming at, to begin with. We all want every media interview to start with a very— We don't play in the real politicized world of media, but there's still a story they're trying to get. They're still trying to fill a hole in an editorial calendar. You've got to go into it understanding that before you conduct the interview and make sure that you're operating from that. That's a great point.

[00:14:58] Sarah: You can have a source that is a good source, but it becomes a bad source for you because you don't understand their point of view.

[00:15:08] Michelle: That makes sense. If you're a marketing director at an AEC firm, and you're like, "We've really never conducted research, and I feel like we should," what would be a good start for somebody who's like, "We just need to get more direction to our marketing strategy"? Where would they start to integrate research into that?

[00:15:30] Sarah: I believe that a marketing strategy is a response to where you are and where you want to go as a company. When the purpose of research is about the company strategy, the marketing strategy has to help move the needle there. When you want to inform your marketing strategy, you're uncovering where you need to use different messages to differentiate to meet your market and stand out from the flock, as I say. It's a response to that company vision and understanding what that means in terms of where we're trying to go and not just the words and the vision. Is it a growth initiative? Is it going deeper within an existing market?That's what we're trying to do usually with our work, is lay the groundwork for that to be done. 

Going back to the purposes, the common purposes is that you guys want to be, from a competitive standpoint, winning at SEO. Then it's content, and so it is understanding what content is needed. Is it that you want, in a specific market, to be more well-known? Strategic promotion may be what you really need to be focusing on. It's almost do a swat to say, "What is it that we need to shore up right now?" That's a good starting place. Really, the marketing strategy is a response to where you are and where the company wants to go.

[00:16:59] Michelle: I'm jumping around a little bit here, but I find—because we work exclusively with professional services firms, positioning is a real interesting thing for professional services firms. Like you said, most of the previous generation, their positioning was their geography. It was where they were based. They're a South Carolina firm and that was it. There was no other thought around positioning beyond geography. Are you finding that more firms are really starting to think more strategically and globally around their positioning?

[00:17:34] Sarah: Yes, I think that the firms who have expanded their footprints beyond, let's call it, four or five geographies, have to find their voice and their point of view. Whether they plan to expand beyond where they are right now at all, they have to have a point of view. You look at large architecture firms and engineering firms that have been around for a long time, and you call XYZ Engineering Firm when you are going to do something really complicated. That's their brand.

They haven't had to open additional offices in places because their expertise is sought after. Their point of view as well is sought after. As well as certain architecture firms, they've got specific expertise in certain areas. That's one model is the whole, "I've got a point of view, people will want me to come.” And then others that just want to expand geographically across the United States for various reasons. It could be driven by their clients and their clients being in those places. It could be because they're wanting to be more differentiated for resilience.

[00:18:49] Michelle: That makes sense. That's great. Tell me, what do you wish firms knew before engaging a market research firm?

[00:18:57] Sarah: That is such a great question and a little bit of a complicated question because this is such a new thing for so many firms. I think what I wish they knew is when they're hiring a firm, it is for you. This is not a report you're buying off of a shelf. This is for you. That's where I spend a lot of time helping them to refine what the purpose is and how they're going to use it.

A great example of that is if this is something that is part of a strategic plan initiative where they're going in, and they're saying, "We want to understand what's going on nationally in the market when we're doing our strategic planning to determine some potential growth areas for ourselves,” that's one purpose.

Or during the strategic—because people always ask me, do we do it before or do we do it after? Both, it doesn't matter. You can decide you want to grow, you want to differentiate and then do the research to decide which direction.

[00:20:03] Michelle: Right, yes.

[00:20:04] Sarah: Or you can do it at the front end either way. If it's for that, they're not necessarily looking for in every single market, all of the competition by volume, by this, by that. They're trying to understand what's the opportunity, what's the scale of that opportunity and how crowded is it? Those are some of the questions that we're going to want to answer.Then we stop because they're using it to make a determination of do we want to go further. 

You decide you want to go further, you want to investigate — and this is an example, for one of my clients — want to investigate K-12 in this state because you want to grow further in the state. Guess what? One of the deliverables is a spreadsheet of all of the past bond elections, all of the firms that did the work from those bond elections, their voting history, all the things you need to make a decision of, is this a good one for us to go look at?Is this a large district that tends to break up projects into $10 million projects instead of a district that either awards at all to one firm and has awarded it to the same firm for the last four bond cycles? These are the kinds of things. It's both a understanding the health of the market, where population growth is forecasted, all those kinds of things but there's a spreadsheet so that their BD teams, their seller-doer teams can go in and say, "If I'm looking at this district, what's the story?"

How are you going to use it? is a really important question. Especially in the engineering world, because they're engineers, they want to get down to all of that nitty gritty. I say, we can do that, but I don't know that you're going to use it to make the decisions you need to make based on the purpose you told me.

[00:21:59] Michelle: Right, just helping them come back and remind themselves of what they're doing.

[00:22:03] Sarah: Exactly. Purpose and how you're going to use it.

[00:22:05] Michelle: Yes. I always like to ask this, if, let's say, somebody didn't have time to listen to this conversation, what's the most important lesson you hope someone would come away from about market research in the AEC industry?

[00:22:19] Sarah: I tell people that information is your compass. That's what market research gives you is information to make decisions. My definition of market research is an answer to a question that informs action with a defendable why. If I break that down, market research is asking a bunch of questions and going to find the answers, which then helps you determine, "Are we going to go do that or not do that?" Because you have done that based in information, you have a defendable why over and over again. To me, information is your compass. Market research can give you the information that you need and it doesn't have to be hard either.

[00:23:02] Michelle: Yes. Thank you so much. 

We've been talking to Sarah Kinard of The Flamingo Project. If somebody wants to learn more, maybe has a market research project they've been pondering, what's the best way for them to connect with you?

[00:23:15] Sarah: is my website. I have a number of articles and worksheets and things like that on my site for market research to help get you going, to get your brain oriented into market research. I am always up for a conversation of how to break it down, make it easier and simplify it so that you guys can get started.

[00:23:40] Michelle: Wonderful. Thank you so much.


[00:23:42] Sarah: Thank you.


[00:23:44] 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.


Featured Guest

Sarah Kinard

The Flamingo Project


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