Building Your Business: A Conversation with Meg Touborg

A conversation with Meg Touborg kicks off a new series on building and managing your design business. Image courtesy Meg Touborg/Metworks Inc.Your ideas are great. Your projects are spectacular. But, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of running a business—any kind of business—all of us can always use a little guidance. From marketing and public relations to intellectural property and employment law to human resources and finance, maintaining and growing a successful firm means a lot of moving parts. We’re pleased to present the first in a series of conversations with experts outside of architecture and design whom we’ve asked to weigh in with tips, suggestions and ideas on the ingredients that go into a building a thriving practice. Our hope is that each one will get you thinking big and strategically.

Up first is a chat with Meg Touborg, of Metworks Inc., a strategic advisory firm that provides marketing intelligence to architects, designers and companies serving the design industry. She is also the co-founder of the Leaders of Design Council, a membership organization for the top architects and designers in America. We’re delighted to have had the chance to chat with her about the benefits of getting published and how building a comprehensive marketing strategy still relies on the human touch. 

Why are designers focused on getting published? What are the benefits?

Having design work appear in print or online is such a well-regarded form of both professional publicity and personal recognition. This achievement virtually guarantees that lots of eyes (depending on the medium that could be over tens of thousands!) might see images of your ideas brought to life with your name attached. In addition to the broad exposure, you can use the content on your Web site and in your social media forums with the tacit endorsement of an esteemed third party—the editor. And, when presenting to a prospective individual client, your work is perceived to be enhanced by its publication, without having to brag! There is great impact to having a beautiful magazine on the presentation table. Finally, these days, being published in a print national or regional magazine is even more of a “coup” than ever before as the number of publications is directionally half what it was five years ago; and, among the survivors, there are even fewer issues. So the competition for print exposure is fierce and being included is an impressive statement about the quality and novelty of your work. 

You mention increased competition for print coverage. What about online?

For every action, there is a reaction—and as print vehicles contract, online forums have not only expanded in numbers but also improved dramatically in content, graphics, popularity and format. Designers can now seek coverage in a variety of forums and build enduring relationships with online editors. In the digital versions of print publications, while there is still a rigorous selection process, editors have more leeway with digital page counts. And, lead times are considerably shorter than with print issues allowing for less delay between installation and exposure. The “pass on” value is considerable when you consider how easy it is for an online magazine or blog to forward the article an infinite number of times, or to store it in a electronic file for future reference—even easier than “swiping” pages used to be in the olden days.  Also, there are dedicated digital magazines, which have gained considerable clout with their advances in quality content and increased circulation. And, with digital content, adding links to your own Web site and social media is both easy and tidy; even more directly, links can also be incorporated to prospective client letters or digital marketing collateral. In this way, online media coverage of your design work offers the same third party endorsement benefits as print coverage—yet, with even more convenient pass-along capabilities.

Your comments have been oriented to designers/architects, but what about manufacturers?

Exactly the same constraints for editorial coverage in print vehicles, and the same opportunities within digital media. In fact, there can be the ability to more rigorously trace an on-line referral or enquiry by identifying the source of click-thrus, thus verifying the usefulness of exposure (whether by free editorial coverage or by paid advertising).

For all this attention and effort to get published, does it really lead to new business?

 In my experience, the answer is . . . Unknown! As we discussed before, having your work published is important and attractive for credibilty and broad market exposure, and I would add for a sense of “posterity” for those of us on the “older” side. These elements may also assist with other aspect of business development, such as establishing credibility in obtaining partnerships, business collaborations, and even employee recruiting. However, regarding actually gaining a new paying client for design services, it is hard to say. As the reader audience is broad, you have no way of knowing if your exact target client is reading that exact target publication and will notice your feature and your name and contact you and sign on! So many factors.

So what does?

In my work with many individual architects and interior designers, and in confidential surveys I have conducted, I have learned over and over that “personal referrals” are the number one source of new clients, by a wide margin. Successful businesses, regardless of industry, thrive on personal relationships developed with mutual trust and chemistry and held together with shared interests both economic and cultural.

In practical terms, what does this mean for designers’ marketing strategy?

It means that the client you have today is the greatest possible lead to the client of tomorrow. Their friends, colleagues and family are all likely prospects—and also they are a chance for repeat business for a new project (renovation, second or multiple home, commercial versus residential et cetera). More broadly, the successful client you have today can also be a model for the new, unknown clients you seek. What are the special aspects of their needs, and your design services, and that made you a good all-around match with your client? Where can you find more people with these specific profiles? For instance, if your best and most profitable projects have been renovating beach cottages, identify ways to penetrate similar coastal communities to find homeowners in need of your specialty. Publications—yes, as we have discussed—but also through networking with other professionals of your caliber (architects, builders, landscapers, realtors, and other specialists) through speaking or other public engagements and through civic associations where you could volunteer your time (doing well by doing good too!).

How does social media play into this communication strategy?

It is an increasingly important component. Earlier in our conversation, we discussed all the benefits of digital publications—and these are true for social media, which are, in effect, “self-published” forums! No matter your age or experience, in today’s business world, if you do not participate in social media, you do not “exist.” Brutal, but true. What is critical to understand, and to implement, is that you are in control of your online image and forums, exactly as you are in print and in person. What this means is use the vehicles that suit your professional goals. Pinterest is a great one, Instagram and Tumblr too, for designers to show their work and personalities to prospective clients. Have an entry on Linked In with your years of experience and education posted to demonstrate your professionalism to other tradespeople as well as to clients. You might consider simple videos taken of your work, or of yourself describing your firm’s specialties and experience, and post these through Vimeo links to your Web site. 

Enroll in all social media to “own” and thus control your own firm name, but do not feel obligated to post anything beyond firm contacts. Never publish any content that does not reflect your values or your aesthetics, or delegate to a staff member who has not demonstrated the “authentic” voice of your firm or company. You wouldn’t ask a junior designer to write a client letter and send it without your approval, so treat your on-line persona with the same old-fashioned standards of care.

How do you get designers and architects to “think different” re: the ingrained model of publish or perish?

One of the legacies of the recession, for many of us, is that the pipeline of new business can never be full enough! Only the firms and companies with sufficient momentum going into that economic storm survived. So, I think many designers and design-driven companies are alert to thinking strategically about their new business development efforts, and to realizing that marketing your talents means communicating your skills and attributes aggressively wherever your target clients are likely to read, research and network for their professional design resources.


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