Social Etiquette: Invited or Imposed?

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Architects are often hesitant to communicate with their clients beyond a project. And then they complain when they have no work. The old cliché turns out to be true: “Out of sight, out of mind.” But what is the etiquette for contacting clients in an age of constant and instant communication? Consider the concepts of invited or imposed. If you are sending an email that suggests a response, or at least a reading, that is a kind of imposition. If you post something on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or a subscribed blog, that is essentially invited, because your contact has chosen to view your photos, thoughts, or ramblings. If you are imposing, be cautious. If you are invited, be generous but not stupid.

When I suggest that architects figure out a (more or less) strategic approach to staying in touch with their clients, they say, “Our clients don’t want to be bothered with mailers, blogs, emails, or God forbid, phone calls.” Well, they don’t if the content isn’t interesting. Or, worse, if the sender isn’t interesting. Architects need to get out more and see some dance, some art, some Occupy protests. Read some Michael Kimmelman, Robert Reich, or John Irving. Connect the dots. That is the first bit of advice.

Most of my clients have been “design first” firms. I ask them, who are your clients? Who are your referral sources? They guess, but they often don’t know. What some simple analysis often shows, to their surprise, is that they exist in a closed loop. Most of their referral sources turn out to be—yup—other architects. Architects outside of practice working for universities, healthcare organizations, corporations, real estate developers, and government agencies. Architects in mid-size and larger firms also send residential commissions to their buddies in small independent practices.

Next, I suggest that their clients and referral services are interested in, yes, design and its visual representation. But even if the referral sources might be interested recipients, architects are afraid of intimacy, unless it’s an old classmate from late nights at Wurster Hall or wherever. Well then, start there. In other words, if a lunch or a game of golf with a friend feels OK, do it.

The kind of encounter that yields results is personal and face-to-face. Figure out what is doable on the continuum from a mass email to a dinner. Move toward face-to-face. Eventually, the imposed could lead to the invited.

Speaking of mass emails, they don’t do much. They are generally a bother to recipients, because they didn’t initiate the communication. Personalized email is far more effective than mass email blasts. However, if you use a program like Mail Chimp to personalize a mass email, it may lessen the effectiveness of the individual communiqué.

Over the years, I have found that most architects get work from a very small group of people. All of us will open personal emails from a friend or a professional we trust. Use that trust to send useful or desired information. For example, if you write a blog about a charity that you work with, most of your closest contacts will be interested in hearing about it. It’s fine to send that along with a personal note. It’s an imposition that most of your contacts will enjoy. But do they want to see the latest pharmacy you designed? Probably not.

Remember that most technological innovations allow us to reach the few among the many. That’s their value. We are selling a highly specialized service, not a tennis shoe or soft drink. A few years ago, architects scoffed at websites and, more recently, at blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. One friend of mine said that Pinterest was witchcraft! It’s not reasonable for every senior-level architect to engage in multiple forms of social media. But if they want to stay in touch with their clients and referral sources, they will likely have to engage with some of them.

What distinguishes many forms of these kinds of social media is the recipient’s intent. People choose to join Facebook or LinkedIn and accept you as part of their circle. This means that, unlike email, there is already a good chance that your “friend” is interested in your activities and opinions—in other words, you are invited to the party.

While they are probably not interested in what you ate for lunch, they are interested in the new design competition at Fort Mason or your latest residence at Sea Ranch. And if they’re not, they don’t have to click on your post. Think of yourself as part of this large, ongoing cocktail party. But if you want to be sure that your friend saw the article you wrote on the new landscape at Lake Merritt, best to send a personal email.

So, a few tips:

Is your communication invited or imposed? Be sparing with the imposed, generous with the invited.

Some Do’s

  1. Remember that your referral sources are interested in you.
  2. Stay interesting. Read. Go to the theater. Follow a passion besides architecture.
  3. Share yourself. Suggest an event of mutual interest. Send an article. Send your blog post. Send somebody else’s blog post. Post an article about a book you read on Facebook.
  4. Move towards face-to-face communication. Connect at the edge of your comfort zone. An email is easy. Golf is harder.

Some Don’ts

  1. Don’t send out tons of mass emails. The occasional announcement about a design award is fine. Every project win is boring.
  2. Don’t ask broadly for work. Nobody wants to respond to such a plea. This is about being visible in a mutually beneficial relationship. But it is OK to ask about a specific project or to be placed on a RFQ list.
  3. Don’t post photos on Facebook that you don’t want your clients to see. Because they will.

Kenneth Caldwell

Kenneth Caldwell is a Bay Area writer and communications consultant and a frequent contributor to arcCA. On his blog,, he explores the modernist faith that architecture can be of service and improve human lives.

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  1. avatar
    Howard Wolff

    Well said, Kenneth.

    Your readers may be interested in some related advice on Three Big Reasons Why Clients Leave You … And How You Can Win Them Back. It can be accessed for free at:

  2. avatar

    Great post Kenny – ironically, communication by mail has now become unusual enough to merit attention where email doesn’t. If I receive something that actually shows some craft, I am more likely to spend time with it than not. But it must be to the point and tailored to me – not a mass mailing piece.

    Sometime the old becomes new again.

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