23 May 2012
Last week I was in Washington DC for the 2012 National American Institute of Architects convention. I was fortunate to have been asked to present a case study on this blog site as part of a panel of architects who blog. I was a little surprised to find myself nervous when standing on the stage as it was my turn to present – not because I was afraid I would be terrible, but because I was only suppose to talk for 20 minutes.
What?! There are only a few things I can get done in twenty minutes (insert inappropriate joke here), truth is, I was worried about going over my time allotment.
I met a million people when I was in DC who are readers of this blog – it was strange and satisfying at the same time. For those of you who wanted to hear what I had to say, I thought I would put my slides up here with some fleshed out talking notes.
I hope it was a lot more interesting when I was telling the story – I hope you enjoy my case study…
In the beginning … I was bored. Work was slow – I felt irrelevant thinking that I had let technology pass me by. A friend of mind and I were having a conversation about on this subject and in a matter of 30 seconds he threw out 5 or 10 words that I had never heard of before.
By the end of the next day, I had set up my website and written my first post “Who wants to be relevant?”
I entered this “experiment” without knowing anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have an agenda … I was simply going to make it up as I went along. How bad could it be?
I started this experiment just over 2 years ago with no expectations. It wasn’t part of my job, it was simply me trying to figure something out on my own time.
So where do I do all this work? Mostly sitting in front of the TV in the evenings after my 7 year old daughter had gone to bed. It’s just me and my laptop. Blogging didn’t take any new resources, everything I needed I already had or was readily available for free on the internet.
I rarely write my posts at my work office … it’s their time – not mine – and as a result my blog is an evening and weekend activity.
Sometimes when I’m really busy I work out of my “satellite” office
… yes, I’m not above staging photos to make a point. I’d like to thank my wife for helping me stage this picture, I don’t actually “blog” when I am on the toilet … I’m usually on Facebook.
So it’s been just over two years since I started doing this – have I been successful? Depends on how you define success. If you define it as whether or not people have been coming to my site, I’d have to say the answer is yes. In fact, I have been told that people would kill for the numbers I have but I don’t really know what that means or what I am supposed to do with that information. I would assume that people think a lot of traffic equals success – but that’s only if that’s your goal – which it wasn’t for me. I was simply trying to learn something new, and in the process, discovered that there is more than one way to communicate with people.
So who are these people and where are they coming from? That’s a hard question to answer. I mean, I know what cities and countries people are coming from but I don’t know if they are other architects, students, vendors, recruiters, potential clients … it could be anybody.
I put together some graphics so that in a glimpse you can see the geographic coverage Life of an Architect has –
In that top image, if it’s green, someone from that country has come to the site – the darker the green, the more people. In all, I think there are only about 15 countries or territories left in the world that haven’t come by … but I’m going to assume it’s because they don’t have internet access.
I use a variety of different platforms to help build the traffic to my site and this, in and of itself, has been very interesting. I primarily use Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook as forums for discussion or to share content. There are many, many more available but I already do a bad job of keeping up with these three so I try and concentrate my efforts.
The thing that has been most interesting about the three platforms I use is that despite the content being the same in all places, I get a distinctly different group of users and a different level of engagement from each platform.
Facebook is the youngest demographic group with most users typically under 40 years old.
While I place the same content on all platforms, I try and make the presentation of the content a bit more graphic when it goes on Facebook. Instead of it simply being a link to a post I’ve written, it will be a picture that has a link to the post. I only set up my Facebook page about 1 ½ years ago but it quickly became the second largest referrer of people to my website. The users there tend to be very tech and social media savvy.
Most – if not all – of the interaction that happens as a result of Facebook – actually happens on Facebook and nowhere else. If you are a Facebook user, that seems to be your main platform.
and then there was Twitter …
The first social media platform I used to help promote my site was Twitter – the graphic above is actually a screen capture from a 3rd party provider called Tweetdeck – and it helped build my audience in the beginning. Of all the social media platforms I have experimented with, Twitter was the most rewarding because the exchange of information was the most instant – it was the closest to having a real conversation with someone. I have made some friends as a result of my time on Twitter and I would suggest that a great many of the opportunities I have been afforded have in some way been as a result of Twitter. In fact, this panel today was assembled as a result of twitter relationships I had with Cindy and Jody … [ahem] that’s not as dirty as it sounds
Despite the fact that I had no agenda when I started, it is easy to go back and look through the posts I’ve written to see where the appeal might have generated. I typically do not use my website as an online diary but I do try to find a way to make a personal connection with the reader. I generally have a few main classifications that almost all my posts can be categorized.
There are the posts I write that probably appeal to the profession but are really advocate pieces for what we as architects really do. We have all been at parties where someone tells us once they learn that we are an architect – that they had considered being an architect but they weren’t very good at math or couldn’t draw very well so … we’ve all been there. Most architects will groan and roll their eyes when recalling this sort of experience – I don’t. For some reason, several years ago, whenever someone told me that they wanted to be an architect I tell them that they should have done it, that they are missing out. Anytime part of your job description includes colored pencils, things can’t be all that bad.
There are posts that I write that are slanted towards other architectural professionals – but only a little bit. I still try and keep everything simple and easy to follow and avoid getting overly technical in anything that I write. The topics might include how job site photography has evolved or how valuable telling a story to the client as part of the design process can be … Surprisingly, I have found that there is a lot of crossover interest in these sorts of stories from people outside the profession. People are really interested in hearing how architects do their jobs.
I also write posts that are specific to me and my job – where and how I work. I don’t do them often but I enjoy talking about the culture of an architectural office. Most architectural offices function differently than other professional offices. We shoot rubber bands at each other, we have beer:30, pumpkin carving contests, we go to movies early on some Fridays … all sorts of things that speak to the culture of a creative environment. People can read these posts and see that we like to have fun and that we try and create an atmosphere conducive to personal expression and creativity.
And then there are posts written about our projects. … but these posts are different than what people are used to seeing on most architectural web sites. The project isn’t complete, the pictures aren’t perfect – but they are educational, interesting, and give someone a reason to come back the site.
I have long believed that the practice of architecture is personality based once you get to a certain level. Clients want a project that won’t leak but that’s an expectation they deserve. They want to believe that they will enjoy the process. How did this project turn out the way it did? Where did it start, why was one decision made over another? If you read any of these posts that I write, I don’t talk like an architect – and that’s on purpose. People don’t want to hear about my axis mundi.
… that also isn’t as dirty as it sounds.
Humor plays a large role on my site and I think it accounts for a large part of any success I have achieved. But trying to explain how you make something funny almost defeats the point – it’s like writing something and adding a “laugh here” … it shouldn’t work that way. While I try and bring humor to most things I talk about, there are times when I specifically write about something because I think it funny – like my master bathroom shower which looks like it was designed for a 1970’s key party – or as I wrote in the post –
Part of the reason I think humor is so important is because it conveys my personality pretty well and I think most of my jokes are hi-lar-i-ous. One of the initial objectives I had when I started my blog was to convey my personality – for better or worse – with the idea being that the reader would get a better understanding of what it would be like to work with me. As serious as I take my job, I like to have fun along the way and enjoy the process as much as the final product.
These personality posts have historically made up a vast majority of what I talk about – this is my blog after all and since it isn’t the blog of the company I work for, I need to be careful what I talk about and how I portray the things I do.
I endeavor to keep things positive, I don’t use foul language, I don’t speak negatively about other architects, projects, or products. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that I think suck, I just choose not to write about them.
Who would want to read that?
Nothing conveys personality better than being personal – something that my 7 year old daughter loves because she thinks it’s cool that she’s on the internet (something I’m starting to get a little nervous about) and something that my wife understandably hates.
When I say personal, I’m not talking about treating my site as an online diary, I mean that I talk about every day things and how they relate to what I do as an architect – how being an architect isn’t an 8:00 to 5:00 job, how I plan vacations around buildings I want to see, how I look at how the restaurant is laid out, etc. that it defines the way I see and interact with things everyday.
These things are important to convey because it makes you a real person that others will be able to connect with, it conveys some sort of personal style, informs on what I bring to the mix as an individual.
Something that was not on my radar screen when I started Life of an Architect was how I could use the site to help others … that I could talk about the charity that I support – and how I support it by designing playhouses that get raffled off every year. At first I designed them and shared the drawings and construction photos online. You want to build this playhouse? Great – here are the drawings, live long and prosper.
But this year was different, this was the first year that I hosted a playhouse competition on my site – anybody could enter and it didn’t cost anybody any money was – other than the money I spent on beer and snacks I provided during the live judging round. I received entries from all over the world. from architects, architectural students, craftsman, wood workers, college professors – the list went on and on. I was completely overwhelmed that this stupid blog could actually do something so amazing, helpful and beautiful. This was something different than me sitting on my couch writing about how urinals are dirty.
Why do I do it?
Primarily it was to learn something new, add a new skill set to my quiver. It didn’t take long before the comments and emails started coming in and I realized that my site was filling a gap that existed. Architects, generally speaking, don’t have blogs and of the ones that do, few are very interesting. Isn’t the point to tell a story, get the reader to become invested, have them want to come back again to see how something evolved or turned out?
Being able to tell these stories and engage the readers has enabled me to make so many new friends, and visit places that would previously be unavailable to me. Why is that? I am the same person today that I was before I started this social media experiment. Truth is that I am nobody special, I don’t have a skill set that is particularly unique and it’s quite possible that Google screwed something up and that’s why I get a lot of traffic.
There are two things I think I have that have done that have made a difference –
- I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and possibly humiliate myself, and
- I made it personal and made fun of those mistakes
So here I am, standing on a stage at the National AIA convention talking to a bunch of people who I am currently visualizing in their underwear …
Where do I go from here? Since I have been making this up as I go, I’m honestly not sure. Should everyone out there be blogging? Absolutely not – it’s not for everyone … especially if you’re boring. I will tell those that are really interested that the more traffic and attention you get, the more work and crap you have to deal with.
I know how to do what I’ve already done, where is the next challenge … ?
The first thing anybody who thinks they want to blog needs to do is figure out what they expect to get out of the process of maintaining a blog. Is it to get new business, maybe personal branding … or maybe it’s just a creative outlet that could possibly lead different horizons. My office has gotten two projects specifically from my blog and if that was my measuring stick …. well, I would stick that stick in my neck considering the amount of time and effort I have put into this thing.
For me, I consider this a creative outlet, just another part of the whole and based on the people I’ve met, the experiences I had and the things I’ve learned, I’m pretty happy with how things have gone. If you are one of the people I have connected with, or if you’ve left a comment or sent me an email, thanks – I really appreciate it.