Digital Literature

The Power of Graphics

Human communication is increasingly visually driven.  Digital cameras, shooting still and video, are everywhere, and everyone knows how to use them, so visual instructions and explanations are becoming ubiquitous.

Shooting a video to explain an idea or process is tempting, because everyone seems to want visual communication.  However, a video of someone reading an explanation isn't really "visual."  It's just Text in Video clothing.  Truly visual communication is a a very different animal.

Sometimes, a good old-fashioned graphic, or a clever, new-fangled interactive graphic, can do the job very nicely, where a video might be quite a challenge to execute effectively.  Here are two examples that each tackle the concept of giving scale to large numbers and sizes.

Goldman Sachs' office building, next to towers of palletized
$100 bills representing Goldman's derivative exposure.
Each tower is $1 Trillion ($1,000,000,000,000).  
This page uses static graphics to great advantage, depicting the 9 big banks' derivative exposure in $1 Trillion towers of palletized $100 bills.  (You might want to read the entire page, too, for some interesting info on world economics.)

This page uses flash to let you "scroll dimensionally" in and out of size, from the size of quantum strings up to the estimated diameter of the universe (as distinct from the smaller diameter of the "known universe").

Both illustrate the concept of scale very effectively.  They also offer the viewer the ability to dwell over them as needed to comprehend what they are saying, a measure of control that videos distinctly lack (as in, "Yeah, I already know that, move on to the next thing.").

They also illustrate the value that a good graphics designer can have to enhance your marketing efforts.

Take This Tablet To Improve Business

Tablet computers are moving into the construction industry in a variety of ways.  A series of articles in the February, 2012 edition of California Builder & Engineer describes various uses of tablets for contractors, including on the construction site, both ruggedized tablets specifically designed for construction, and the un-ruggedized but incredibly sexy Apple iPad. 

Tablets have an equally attractive potential as a sales tool.  The iPad, for example, offers an engaging way to share visual information, and it has impressive functionality to implement that process.  Development of specialized software – apps – that can present your product or system in the ideal way is relatively inexpensive.  It can to provide your product and sales information with high visual engagement – think about a brochure with embedded videos, or an interactive design tool for placing your product into an environment -  as well as pull down information from the Web, and email any and all of it to the customer as you work. 

There’s still time to be near the beginning of this trend.  But probably not much time.

Web Design: A compelling case for larger fonts

We've probably said it before. We'll probably say it again. But this article says it very well: Make your web site legible.

16 Pixels For Body Copy. Anything Less Is A Costly Mistake.

Consider your audience. Gray-on-gray eight-pixel type is beautiful and looks like an architecture magazine. But if you want your audience to understand your message, larger and higher-contrast is the way to go. The article itself proves the point.

How NOT to use Flash Drives in Press Kits

It has become popular to use "thumb-size" flash drives in press kits. Having the copy and photos on a thumb drive makes it easy for an editor to transfer the data directly into a story, without having to go onto your website or open a CD.

Thumb drives are also a type of "swag" that will attract the attention of an editor. In the press room at the recent World of Concrete (WOC) trade show, I watched editors browse through press kit to see what was worth the effort of hauling home; press kits with flash drives went right into their goodie bag.

But here are a few pointers about how to do it wrong:

- Not using printed media, too. If you just put a bunch of flash drives on the press room table, your message will not be available to the editor during the trade show. Use your paper literature to motivate the editor to visit your booth and to stimulate buzz at the show.

- Not putting editable text on the drive. If you want the editor to run your story, include the press release in a format that the editor can cut and paste. Some of the press kits I saw had pdf files that were locked to prevent text from being copied. What editor will take the time to re-key your article into their word processor?

- Not including an overview sheet on the thumb drive. When I opened one of the flash drives from the trip, all it showed me were file names like:  2450GR, RT24, and 830RT. These may very well be model numbers for new products, but it is off-putting to a busy editor that doesn't know your company well. File names like, "Pervious_Concrete_Admixture" or "New_Sales_Manager" will be more easily understood.

- Not using the color of your brand. Flash drives come in all colors, and can be imprinted in any color. Use colors that support your branding.

- Not printing the name of the company on the data stick. The editor will probably erase your content and reuse the data stick for his or her own purposes. If the name of your company is printed on the face of the drive, at least the drive will continue to provide brand awareness.

- Not including links to your website on the thumb drive. The press release is supposed to be a tease that encourages an editor to go deeper into your story. Put live links into the digital press releases to invite editors to learn the rest of your story.

- Not indicating the name of the trade show. A well formatted press release should have a release date and, if the announcement is being made at a trade show, the show name should be indicated. Yet this information was missing on many of the flash drives I collected.  Compare that to naming the drive "WOC" (instead leaving it named "untitled") and placing downloads inside a folder named, "World of Concrete 2012."

- Not reporting any "News". I attended a press conference where the speaker had poor presentation skills. Afterwards, I asked an editor in attendance what she thought, and she replied that she didn't mind the bad speaker because, "at least he had real news to share." Many press kits just rehash the corporate brand or past glories. It may make the Communications Director feel good, but it is not much value for an editor looking to provide meaningful content to readers.

- Not including press releases: One flash drive was filled with brochures, animations, photos, slide shows, and sales sheets. Perhaps the exertion of putting all that together wore out the PR department, because they didn't include a press release.

- Not putting data on the flash drive. It happens.

Information Technology Forecast for Construction

Engineering News Record, 12/28/2011, in an article by discusses the growing use of information technology in construction. Here are excerpts with my comments about what this means for building product manufacturers:
The new year will be the year of mobility... when the constraints on the flow of data into and out of the field, and the use of mobile devices to collect, share and present it, give way for good.
Almost everyone on construction jobsites carries a smart phone or other computerized device. This offers great new avenues for building product manufacturers to communicate with customers.
Watch for wireless networks, technology kiosks and pads, and tablets to sprout on more and more jobsites...
Your shop drawings, installation instructions, training videos, and other information has to be accessible.
The value chain has been joined from one end of the project delivery process to the other...
Consider the impact on your distribution strategy, sales management, and customer service.
...relatively inexpensive Tablet PCs running Android and the forthcoming Windows 8, challenge Apple's iPad and iPhone for business use in the field.  
Your field reps will have to be similarly equipped.
...independently created and relatively inexpensive apps will continue to compete with, and sometimes challenge the capabilities of more expensive, old-school, licensed software.
 "Independently created" means "provided by building product manufacturers." Move beyond providing materials to offering tools the contractor can use to run his or her business.
Three-dimensional printing of models and components will become commonly used tools. Imagineers will design, model, and print in 3-D to test and communicate ideas, and then build for real.
This will first happen in design offices. Some manufacturers use this for rapid prototyping of parts. In other cases, actual parts are now "printed."
The "Internet of Things" will grow exponentially and have a direct impact on design, engineering, construction and facilities management, as embedded sensors, cloud-based analysis and rapid data exchange turns our deaf, dumb and blind structures into introspective communicators. 
How will you build intelligence into your product? 
...expect the challenge of capturing, storing, sharing, managing, analyzing, interpreting and presenting the "big data"—that vast collection of information piling up as a product of all of that sensor data collection and analysis, to grow as well.
Intelligent machines are great at capturing, storing, sharing, and managing data, but human beings are still best for analyzing and interpreting a problem and presenting solutions. This means your sales reps must still earn the trust of customers.
In response, look for a drive to simplify data delivery through browser-based interfaces, neutral file formats and innovative visualization.
Don't leave this to your IT guy. Make sure your marketing communications team leads the charge.
In short, look for an exciting year ahead.
I agree.

Wiki Revisited

I was asked, recently, about the potential for a new and improved internet-based source for building product information, a comprehensive and reliable source of information about construction means and methods.

It seems the industry already has many powerful tools for distributing information; the crucial issue is how to create and maintain the content. My suggestion is to "crowd source" it, allowing the learned members of the construction industry (including building product manufacturers) to create content.

Wiki tools, such as Wikipedia, are a good way to do this. I use Wikipedia frequently as a quick source of information, as demonstrated to the many Wikipedia links embedded in this post.*

When looking for building product information, many architects and builders begin their investigation on a search engine where pages from Wikipedia are often the first result returned. is another wiki specifically for architecture. Yet I note that these sites are woefully limited in building product information and neither uses industry standards for organizing data. They could be more useful to the construction industry if it were cross-referenced according to MasterFormat and OmniClass, industry standards for organizing construction information.

At the time of writing this, Wikipedia, for example: 
  • "Ceiling" does not cross reference MasterFormat Division 09
  • A search on "Acoustical Ceiling" returns 13 hits, but most of these are tangential. Wikipedia does not have a prime entry for the topic.
  • Wikipedia's "MasterFormat" entry links to the entry for "50 Divisions" where Division 09 links to a page on "wood finishing" --- hardly a complete discussion about finishes.
Amazingly, the following common building product terms do not have pages in either wiki:
  • "Concrete Admixture"
  • "Division 04"
  • "Single Ply Roof"
This makes me wonder if the construction community is willing to support a new, non-profit product database. Perhaps an individual or organization could champion such an effort. Is this an initiative that should be undertaken by a trade organization such as the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)?  Is it a viable commercial venture that could be financed by selling ads? Or will a new generation of online tools soon render wikis as antiquated as three-ring binders?

Marketing Opportunities
While the industry sorts itself out, you have a great marketing opportunity. If you are in the ceilings industry, for example, why not take it upon yourself to provide and maintain good content about your area of interest.

While overtly commercial messages will quickly be deleted by the crowd sourced legions of wiki watchers, you will find many ways to direct prospects to your company, such as links to articles you have published, and describe technology specific to your products. Chusid Associates created the studcast page, for example, with links to articles we wrote for our client, articles that also list the client's name and contact info.

This blog is mentioned in the Wikipedia listing for scriptio continua:
Scriptio continua has become common in e-mail and internet addresses. For example, the address for the website "Building Product Marketing" is written, scriptio continua, as, without spaces between the separate words.[4]
My business has little to do with Latin inscriptions, but I have had prospects call me after finding our link in the footnote on Wikipedia. It also helps our search engine listing.

 Other than the time you invest, there is no cost to participate in most wikis. It should be part of your social media and brand management programs.

For more information, see my earlier posts on the subject.

* Wikis should not be relied upon for critical decision making since they can contain biased, incomplete, and inaccurate information. Still, they are powerful starting points for further investigation, and frequently provides links to other resources.

Panoramic Photo Stitching for Dramatic Online Content

Digital photos make it easy to "stitch" together several images to create a wide-angle panorama of a scenic vacation spot. Now, software enables the stitching together and online viewing of super-high resolution photos with gigabytes of visual information. I believe these images have great potential for building product marketing. They allow customers to see detailed views of your product, then to zoom out to see them in context.
Create this, in super-high definition...
...from ordinary photos like this.
Check out the examples at


This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote over 20 years ago. "Productware" is now firmly established, and our attention has turned to identifying new trends that will shape building product marketing in the decades ahead. The future is hard to predict -- this article failed to foresee the internet, for example.

Building product manufacturers must be able to speak the language of the architectural community. With a majority of architectural firms now using computers for everything from code analysis to working drawings, many manufacturers are  rushing to learn the language of automation and its marketing dialect.

To date, the number of manufacturers using computers as a new sales communication medium is still relatively small. But as the computerized customer base reaches a critical density, more manufacturers are  realizing that the medium can be an effective method for reaching targeted markets.

I refer to computerized building product sales tools as "productware." The first productware to be developed has been electronic versions of existing guide specifications and product details. By eliminating the chore of inputting data, manufacturers are hoping their diskettes will find a way into an architect's, library of master specifications and standard details. It is fairly simple to translate a guide specification into the variety of word-processing systems most  commonly used by specifiers. But it remains an expensive proposition for manufacturers to create easy-to-use libraries of CAD details, especially since data cannot be moved directly between some of the most widely used CAD systems.

While diskettes with specifications and details can save an architect valuable time, a more significant use of the computers power lies in the development  proprietary product-selection databases, expert systems, and engineering programs. These programs typically present a user with a menu of product performance parameters. Based on the user's input, the computer then searches a database of the manufacturer's products and systems and offers recommendations about the most appropriate products to use. Some programs can then produce a custom specification or schedule. And if an architect needs assistance in evaluating alternatives, many programs also offer interactive product tutorials. Products for which this type of manufacturer produced software is available range from laminated glass and fire stopping to luminaries and ventilators.

When properly programmed, productware should do more than just sort data. It should help designers and specifiers become better decision makers. The rampant growth in building technologies and changes in product availability can contribute to decision-making anxiety. Productware can help relieve this syndrome by performing data-crunching tasks.

Producing and distributing productware on their own, manufacturers can also place proprietary information in one or more of the product-information systems now available or under development. 'The difference and buying space in a product information system is analogous to the difference between a manufacturer distributing product notebooks and going into Sweet's Catalog File. A product-information system offers features like indexing and expanded product search capabilities but requires the manufacturer to adhere to prescribed formats.

Until the nascent computerized product data systems become more widely subscribed to, they pose a difficult marketing dilemma for manufacturers. When will the time be right to buy "advertising" space in a computer database? Which of the emerging databases will survive the inevitable shakeout to become dominant in the market? Are databases in addition to, or replacements for, traditional product literature? How will the systems affect the role of the sales representatives?

Another preliminary marketing observation is that productware can be used very effectively in direct-mail advertising. Conventional direct mail brochures and letters can be easily overlooked, but few architects can resist the temptation to stick a new diskette into the computer to see what it can do.

One feature of the new product- information systems that has caught the attention of manufacturers is their ability to carry on two-way communications between suppliers and specifiers. Most of the systems under development have provisions to collect feedback about how often a manufacturer's products are called up from the database and on what projects they have been specified. Before these systems achieve widespread acceptance among architects, their publishers will have to assure users that sensitive project and client information will remain confidential. Also, users will want assurances that the systems' lead tracking will not bring an unwanted flood of calls from salesmen, Still, the benefits are significant: The on-line communications capabilities of some systems can be used for electronic order entry and have the potential for data sharing among designer, dealer, manufacturer, contractor, and facility manager.

If productware fulfills its promise of improved access to data, better communication and decision making, and increased efficiency, then architects stand to gain. Architects need to help manufacturers understand the impact computers are having on practices and encourage companies to develop the types of productware that will help us get full benefit from our computers and from their products.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, ©1988

Digital Magazines at an Awkward Age

The publishing institution, the Magazine, is at that awkward age; it’s been thrust into the Digital environment, but it hasn’t outgrown its Printed look.

Many magazines – including construction trade magazines -–  have put themselves online, perceiving (quite correctly) that it’s the only way they will survive.  A few have cancelled their print editions altogether, but most have opted for both forms of delivery for their content.

Some have created digital editions that are formatted as websites.  Others have sought to port their entire format, advertising revenue and all, into digital replicas of their print editions.  Both approaches have drawbacks.

The website format typically does not have the advertising impact of print.  Large ads are a difficult stunt to pull off because the web formatting is strung together entirely by the editorial content.  With links directly from the article’s page 1 to its page 2, there’s no need to flip through a couple of half-page or full page ads to read the article.  So ads in these formats tend to be small, and command less money for the magazine.  In other words, it is simply a slower route towards the magazine’s extinction.

Digital replicas offer those stunning full page ads, but both ad and article are hard to read in the full page view.  The type is too small to read.  The full page view is really for navigation only.  The close-up view is the reading view, and it requires a lot of scrolling around to see everything on the page.  It simply destroys the visual cohesion and impact of a full page ad the entire time you’re close enough to read it.

Magazines need to embrace digital publishing on its own terms, not as an extension or a port of Print.  Pages should be formatted in landscape mode, and designed the way tasteful websites are, for screen viewing.  They need to forget what they know about print formatting, but not forget what they know about good design.  To remain viable businesses and useful advertising and publicity vehicles, magazines need to embrace the digital space more wholeheartedly.

Until they do, it might be worth re-considering your ad strategy in both online and print formats, and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.  In a digital-replica magazine, a well-designed half page ad online may actually be more impactful than a full page, because you can see the entire ad and read it at the same time.

Also, the next time a magazine ad salesperson calls, it might be worth suggesting that they re-think their online format to create a truly digital magazine that’s formatted for computer screens, not magazine racks.


Computer-Based Systems Integration

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote twenty years ago. Looking back, it is encouraging to see that many of the advances predicted then have now become part of every day design and construction practice. Yet fundamental challenges about improving communication and project quality still remain.

For many architects, integration of computer-based systems still means figuring out which end of the cable plugs into their personal computer. But the topic was given much greater meaning at the First International Symposium on Building Systems Automation-Integration held in June at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This week-long conference, initiated by Varkie Thomas of the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings B Merrill, was devoted to "the integration of computer-based systems for planning, design, construction, and operation of buildings." The conference offered bold predictions for computer technology and its effect on architecture.

While an increasing number of architectural and construction tasks employ computers, the Symposium identified two major barriers preventing computer-aided design from achieving even greater productivity. First, computers have been applied essentially as "electronic pencils," speeding up manual processes but not changing the nature of the tasks. For example, specification are written as though word processors are just fancy typewriters and CAD drawings replicate the types of lines and abstractions used in traditional drafting. Second, computerized information is still transferred from one application to another by manual methods, leading to increased costs  and errors in data processing. For example, it is rare for an architect's CAD file to be passed along for a contractor to use in construction engineering, and electronic product data are not passed along to owners for use in automated facility management. To overcome these barriers, conference participants presented an amazing variety of new computer-based systems and concepts that are already available or under development in laboratories around the world. They also called for new paradigms, based on integration of information and the building team, for the organizational structure of the building industries.

Computers and Practice
Many designers still practice what Tor Syzertsen from the Norwegian Institute of Technology called "Pencil and Paper-Aided Design (PPAD)." But he predicted that computers will soon be such an intrinsic part of architecture that we will drop the phrase "Computer-Aided" from our description of design. He called for the creation of "knowbots" to automate routine architectural tasks, many examples of which were presented during the week-long conference.

The Intelligent Design Checker, for example, can review a set of drawings for compliance with bullding codes and other standards. Nayel Shafei from Prime Computers, Inc., described how the New York State Facilities Development Corporation uses the program to check compliance of hospital designs with National Fire Protection Association standards and the New York State Life Safety Code. The Checker flagged so many violations in drawings submitted for final approval that the Facilities Development Corporation now requires architects to run the program during the design phase of projects, when corrections can be more easily made.

Architects typically design a building envelope and then pass it to mechanical engineers for an energy-use evaluation. This results in slow and costly iteration of design between architects and engineers. To improve this situation, both Larry Degelman of Texas A&M University and Edna Shaviv of the Israel Institute of Technology presented expert systems that integrate energy analysis and architectural design. Their systems allow architects to visualize buildings in 3D and simultaneously receive feedback on the energy consequences of design decisions. Both are using knowledge-based programs to suggest U-values, window placement, and design strategies to satisfy energy-code constraints.

Mehdi Khalvati from ASG explained that CAD programs could become "integrated architectural systems." ASG software, which runs with AutoCAD, links graphic information to specification writing, cost estimating, and product information. In a software package that ASG distributes for Boise Cascade, wood beams are treated as objects that contain information about their performance characteristics and limitations rather than just as lines; the program can automatically size and arrange wood floor framing members.

Expanding upon this theme, a team from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated ARMILLA, which incorporates expert systems with a CAD drawing tool to aid the design of a building's structural, HVAC, plumbing, and other systems. A knowledge-base of engineering rules automatically makes trade-offs to coordinate the placement of beams, ducts, and risers.

New Models for Architects
Traditional architectural drawings, even those produced with the latest 3D CAD programs, are abstract geometrical representations of building components; the meaning of the lines is determined by the architect.

Computerized models, on the other hand, are constructed of "object-oriented" representations of each building space and component. "Object-oriented" is the computer equivalent of the architectural concern for the nature of materials; it is Louis Kahn's asking a material what it "wants to be." Object-oriented databases key building elements to information about what they are, their performance, and their relationships with other objects. Objects interact with each other according to knowledge-based rules and constraints. "Self-knowledge" enables objects to assert themselves to automatically generate designs or construction and facility management reports. Instead of the static abstraction of traditional drawings, this kind of computer model portrays a virtual reality that responds to changes in materials and conditions as would real buildings.

Visualization Software that creates photographic-quality 3D pictures of buildings will be valuable for both client presentations and as construction planning tools. Simulations will enable designers and owners to predict operating loads more accurately and to optimize the structure's performance by adjusting for varying conditions, thus reducing the need to over compensate for safety factors. And as new user interfaces are refined, architects may find themselves working in cyberspace environments that convey the illusion of being able to manipulate computer-generated items in the actual space.

Other developments in computer science presented at the Symposium that may affect architectural practice include neural nets, hypertext, artificial intelligence, and multimedia. Anticipation of these tools led to heated discussion about where the ultimate boundaries between human and machine capabilities might be. Some argued that creativity and aesthetics were not feasible or appropriate uses of computers. Shaviv countered with the example of a student with no architectural training who developed a program to draw housing plans based on code restrictions and a set of rules defining spatial relationships. "Some of the schemes the computer made were of great originality and beauty, designs a trained architect would never have dreamed of." Others argued that computers could stimulate human creativity by freeing designers from routine chores and presenting a greater range of options for them to consider. One software developer believed human intuition will remain an essential part of architecture; his program includes a "help key" that provides information unrelated to the task at hand to stimulate the user to make problem-solving breakthroughs.

The Need for a Standard
Developing the standard code necessary for object-oriented models will be an enormous undertaking and may not be practical in a fragmented industry that supports a multitude of incompatible computer and software systems. To overcome this, the Symposium struggled with standards and technical guidelines for exchanging computer generated information directly between systems and across the building industry. Current exchange protocols like the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES) and AutoDesk's DXF format primarily exchange geometrical drawing data. New standards are required to accommodate the richer information environment of object-oriented models.

The leading proposed standard is the Standard for The Exchange of Product Model Data (STEP). STEP is being coordinated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and by the Product Data Exchange (PDES) in the United States. A PDES  brochure explains that STEP "will provide a complete, unambiguous, computer interpretable definition of the physical and functional characteristics of each unit of a product throughout its life cycle. (It) will enable communications among heterogeneous computer environments; integration of systems that support design, manufacturing and logistic function/processes; and support automatic, paperless updates of system documentation."

Development of a comprehensive data exchange standard will be extremely costly but is of paramount importance to automation and integration; but funding for the construction industry's effort is problematic. Participants in the Symposium, however, felt that development of STEP is of such importance to United States competitiveness in global construction that they called for a government effort comparable to the building of the Interstate Highway system. "Who will be the President Eisenhower to make it happen?" one participant asked.

Life-Cycle Models
The ability to share a common building model will change the organization of building projects. Duvvuru Sriram from MIT called current design methods over-the-wall engineering. "The architect works on a design and then throws it over the wall to an engineer. The project is thrown over the wall to a contractor who uses the drawings as a sketchpad to figure out how the building will really be built, and it is eventually thrown to the building owner who has to figure out how to operate the facility." He proposed a knowledge-based management system and distributed databases that would facilitate collaborative design among all building team members.

Information must also be managed so that it has value throughout the life-cycle of a building. As information is gathered, from the earliest planning stages through demolition, it should be sorted for value and stored in an accessible electronic form. Instead of merely automating current procedures, every part of architectural practice must be reassessed While putting product catalogs on to computer diskettes is a necessary first step, we should not lose sight of the need for an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system so that product data can flow directly from a manufacturer's catalog into a project database and then back into a manufacturer's production scheduling program without the time and expense of shop drawings. Owners will start demanding computer models for use in space planning, energy management, preventive maintenance, and operating systems; the quality of a building's database will be an asset they can carry to their bottom line.

The complexities of modern construction have created building teams with experts in many fields. Future architects may be able to work with fewer consultants as expert systems become more powerful and electric databases provide easier access to specialized information. This should lead to leaner and more productive building teams, but will require new approaches to architectural education and Practice. Ron Wooldridge of The Locke Group warned that "the good news is that 45 architects with computers will be able to do the work 50 people working manually. The bad news is that the 45 may not be a subset of the current 50." He urged architects to use integration and automation to add value to their work and to develop the knowledge-based systems and databases that would enable their firms to regain competitiveness.

The final advice from the Symposium is to not become too married to the current generation of AEC computers and applications. Rapid changes are coming that may make your personal computer as obsolete as a slide rule. Firms that accept the challenge of automation and integration will have to weather a turbulent period of industry and professional realignment, but are likely to emerge more competitive then before.

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By Michael Chusid, originally published in Progressive Architecture, ©1991

BuildSite - Marketing to Contractors

Architects, engineers, and other specifiers are powerful gatekeepers for building product sales, but contractors make the actual purchase. The contractor's power to select products is particularly strong with commodity and generic types of products, putting them and the distributors serving them in the driver’s seat when it is time to choose product brands for the job. This role as the “last designer” means that contractors and distributors are crucial players in purchasing decisions.

BuildSite, is an online (and mobile) tool that helps get product information in front of distributors and contractors when buying decisions are being made. Through BuildSite, manufacturers can target buyers with messaging that is tied to "un-proprietary specs"—the kind that most contractors face.

While BuildSite can be used for product selection and for email messaging, I see its main application as a way to simplify the assembly and distribution of submittals -- the process by which a contractor sends product data sheets, sample warranty forms, material safety data sheets, and other product information to the designer.

At the present time, the system is strongest for products in Divisions 03, 07, and 09.

For additional information and a demonstration, contact:

  Melanie Loftus, Buildsite Product Manager

Signs of Change: The demise of paper business cards

Business cards from famous fictional compaines
Business cards have long been one of the staples of professional life. People take them very seriously and my first boss thought that the style of a business card was at least as important as the way you dress or greet clients.

Now that is set to change, as new companies aim to send the paper business card the way of the 8-Track and Telnet email client.

Three popular apps - Bump, Hashable, and Cardcloud - are presenting alternative methods of sharing contact information quickly and easily, each with a distinct hook. Bump uses physical proximity; users open the app and bump their phones together - gently! - which triggers the data transfer. Hashable sends information via Twitter or email accounts, and uses a "check-in" system to help you track meetings with contacts. Cardcloud also uses email, and automatically generates social network friend requests, records the location where you met your new contact, and provides a virtual "back of the card" for taking notes.

What's notable is that, for now at least, these apps are presenting new, arguably more efficient, methods of performing the same tasks. They are not changing the nature of information exchange, or adding on new levels of experience that I have seen. In fact, right now they strip much of the experience out, as the vCards (Virtual business cards) look like the contact list in Outlook, and not the highly designed, customized, personal pieces of art some people carry in their pockets. Paper business cards also may be more memorable; you get the card at the show, take it out of your pocket when you get back to the office, and type the information into your database, as opposed to just tapping a couple buttons.

At the other end of the spectrum are the QR Code-enabled business cards. These may be standard cards with a link to your website, or minimalist cards with links to a more detailed profile online. However the code is used, they serve the effect of tying your paper cards back to the digital world. Given the explosion in QR code adoption this past year, I strongly encourage anyone reprinting their business cards to include a code.

I suspect people will continue carrying paper cards for many years before digital programs make them obsolete, and not just because most people have a multi-year supply in their desk that needs to be used up. The tangible benefits are just too great. I would not recommend anyone abandon paper cards yet, but I do recommend creating accounts on these digital systems and learning to use them; they will become important secondary tools.

[h/t ReadWriteWeb]

How to use white papers effectively

White papers used correctly
are powerful marketing tools
White papers have emerged as a powerful marketing tool in recent years. Existing somewhere between sales literature and article, a well-done white paper provides useful background information on vital topics in an objective voice, creating an air of expertise, while allowing you to control the conversation and increase web traffic through viral distribution; packaging the information in pdf form, instead of incorporating it into your website, makes it easier to share and distribute.

I recently received a very effective white paper from ASI Sign Systems; their email caught my eye as I was cleaning out my inbox, itself no mean feat. The subject line was: "White Paper: The Benefits of Campus-Wide Wayfinding". Short, eye-catching, and effective for reaching people interested in wayfinding or educational design. The email was attractive and well-crafted:

ASI then took the most important step in white paper marketing - gathering contact information:

In addition to getting my name and email address they request company name and title, incorporating a level of prospect pre-qualification. Leads that do not match their profile can be ignored or de-prioritized. I have personal dislike for any use of Captcha, but this was at least easy to use and non-intrusive. Beyond that, my only concern is that there is not a box to opt-in to their e-newsletter, which means they either missed the opportunity to subscribe me, or they will auto-subscribe everyone. That course of action could alienate potential prospects, and get them in trouble.

The white paper itself was simple and attractive. At 6 pages, and most of that graphics, it was a quick read. The information was very top-level, making it useful for people just getting into the field. It defined key terms and issues in wayfinding. Reading between the lines, I am sure every topic relates directly to an ASI product offering. Despite that, it is presented in an objective, non-proprietary manner so I did not feel I was reading sales literature. The tone could be slightly more informational, but is within the correct range for this target audience.

The layout and graphic design reinforced the company's branding. It is clear this is an ASI document. And, crucially, at the end is an invitation to contact a representative for more in-depth training and information. 

All in all, very nicely done. A good model for effectively creating and using white papers to market your products. 

Good buys or Goodbyes?

I recently became a Groupon subscriber for the third time. This was followed about a month later by me cancelling my Groupon subscription. For the third time.

For those not familiar, Groupon is a popular and rapidly growing "Group Coupon" service; member companies offer great deals on product or services if a certain minimum number of people pre-buy through Groupon. It has spawned several imitators, such as Living Social and Google Offers.

I am always looking for a good deal, and am married to a semi-pro competitive bargain hunter, so why am I opting out, again, from Groupon? Too many offers.

Call them a victim of their own success. There are so many local companies now participating in Groupon that no matter how narrowly I define my interests (casual dining, concerts, and travel) I get flooded on a daily basis by offers I have no interest in (manicures, laser hair removal, and pole-dancing fitness classes).

There is an important issue here; no matter how interested your customers are in what you offer, you will lose them if you do not communicate in the correct manner. Communicating too frequently can be worse than not enough, and sending them information about products they are not interested in just means they miss the ones they want to know about.

Building Products in BIM

This article from Architectural Record will be of interest to manufacturers considering what the growing use of BIM will mean to your business.

Twitter, Facebook can be policed as "advertisements"

England's Advertising Standards Authority now has powers to police Facebook, Twitter, and other online content as if they were advertisements, starting today. This means these communications must meet the same standards regarding misleading, confusing, and offensive material. For now this only applies to British companies (and companies doing business in England) and the penalties are very mild, but this is likely to set a new precedent that will grow in both severity and international adoption.

Interestingly, and understandably, the new policy only applies to company generated content, and excludes user generated content (UGC). This means your customers' comments will not get dinged for being exaggerated, misleading, or untrue. This is another point in favor of UGC and testimonials/word-of-mouth, but hopefully no one will use the opportunity to encourage customers to lie. The line between "company speech" and "personal speech" is very vague right now, but that type of behavior would clearly fail the test for "personal speech".

We've already seen the FCC crack down on bloggers, requiring disclosure if they received "gifts" from companies they are reviewing, so it is likely only a matter of time until similar regulations are applied to US firms.

How to make a great iPhone app: Bradley ColorSpec

Bathroom fixture manufacturer Bradley recently released the Bradley ColorSpec iPhone app, and it is impressively well done. Be sure to check it out as an example of what can - and should - be done with building product apps.

Guided Tour

The home page is very pretty and eye-catching. I was expecting a standard digital catalog, so this was a pleasant surprise. You can select a product line, get more information about Bradley, or choose from the bottom menu: Materials, Color, Gallery, Favorites, and Locator.

Selecting one of the product lines brings you to a page with tiles of the various options within that line.
You can then view a color in closer detail

Get information on complimentary colors and the relevant partitions.

And - best of all - email the color to a contact, or request more information from a rep.

You can also create a list of your favorites for later reference.
Or visit a project photo gallery.
These are not linked to the color samples, making it harder to find photos of your favorites, and there are very few images. I suspect they will expand this section in future revisions.

Other features help you select patterns using a color chart, and locate reps using Google maps. 

Bugs or features?

The front page is very attractive, but it was unclear until I played with it a bit which parts were clickable buttons, and what they would do. More importantly, when I tried to email a rep, nothing happened visibly. I can't tell if it sent an invisible message to a rep to contact me later, or if the button is broken. 

Other than that, the app works very well and was intuitive to learn. My only other comment - not a criticism, just an observation - is that it provides almost no functionality. In other words, it will be very useful to existing customers trying to select the right material, but does little to draw in new ones. Why should someone download an app that's little more than your - very nicely done - digital product literature? What's in it for them, and what would convince them, if they do, to make a purchase?

My observation is about how the program is used, though; not about its quality. It is important to start app design by deciding clearly what you are trying to accomplish, because it is impossible to make one app that does everything. Better to focus on doing one thing well than everything badly. 

The Bradley ColorSpec app does its one thing very well. It will be a useful tool for designers and installers in the field, or possibly even at their desks, that looks good and works reliably. 


Infographics of New Zealand Earthquakes

One of the challenges in technical marketing is to communicate complex information effectively, efficiently, and engagingly. This website has a map of recent New Zealand seismic activity that meets all these criteria.
The quake is yet another reminder of the importance of adhering to best industry practices. If New Zealand had not had rigorous building code enforcement, the death and destruction there would have been even greater.

Does your documentation suck?

Beyond features & benefits, beyond good relationship building, beyond even budgetary restraints, sometimes your customers choose a product based on a single reason: they go with the company that offers the best documentation.

Over at the Mindtouch blog, Mark Fidelman suggests It’s Not Your Product, Your Documentation Just Sucks.
Do we really have to wade through your 400 page text-based manual you’ve posted online in order to find out why an error keeps us from using your software? Worse, when we finally find the answer it’s incomplete. So what do we do? A Google search and find the answer elsewhere.
Great advice, and a well thought-out post (although the end turns a bit into a sales pitch for "customer experience" software). And especially important to remember in the construction industry.

Mark makes the case that many companies will blame every department for the problem (It's a sales problem! No, marketing! No, tech support!) before looking at their documentation. Based on what I've seen in the building product industry, I would agree. Just last month at World of Concrete, a dozen companies told me they were having trouble reaching architects, but they knew it wasn't their guide spec because they've been using the same "tried and true" document for over three decades!

Fine, but is it possible that in the past 30 years your product has changed a little bit? Or the way people search for information is slightly different? If so, then maybe it's time you update your technical documentation for the new millennium.

Even many companies that have good, meaning functional, documentation miss some important opportunities. Starting with a simple one: did you make it possible for clients to include your documentation in their specs, or easy? Did you provide data or answers?

From Mark's post:
Most organizations are optimized for short term revenue growth not in building a sustainable relationship with their customers.

That may have worked in a pre-internet world, but it’s not going to fly now. Why? Because your prospective customers are going elsewhere for support. That elsewhere may be your competition.
The move to digital by the construction world has been slower than the mainstream business community, but it is happening. There is a real perception now that finding the information online is "faster" than a phone call or email. And that's true, if your site is structured well enough that the first search finds the needed information. If not, then your client is going to waste a lot of time finding it. Or they will call, but only after they've become frustrated.

Which means that having good documentation does not mean just print documentation. It means posting it online, and understanding that digital media is used differently than print. Posting that 400 page pdf Mark describes is functionally the same as posting nothing at all.