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Social skills: How using social media can benefit construction companies

A recent survey revealed UK firms lag way behind their US counterparts in using social media for corporate communications, but also placed three British construction companies among the 50 best in class. What makes them stand out and what can the industry learn?

“UK firms lag behind US peers for corporate comms social media use”; “US companies use social media better than UK firms”; “US companies outshine British for social media”.

These are three of the headlines that appeared in February following communications specialist Investis’ latest Social Media for Corporate Communications report.

But a surprising finding emerged from Investis’ ranking of the top 100 UK and US companies in social media: although just 13 of the top 50 firms came from this side of the Atlantic, three of them were companies involved with construction.

Atkins, Balfour Beatty and Carillion flew the flag in effective social media use – despite the fact construction is often perceived as being behind the digital curve.

What is it that has enabled these companies to be ranked so highly? Why are they finding value in using social media? And what can the rest of construction learn from them?

Why use it?

Atkins, Balfour Beatty and Carillion all spoke to Construction News about their social media use, and all three have put in place a strategy to get the most out of it.

The companies are using platforms like Twitter to share stories about their businesses and to engage more effectively with customers and the public.

Balfour Beatty Construction Services UK digital media executive Kate Willison says the firm is also using it for recruitment and to drive traffic to its website.

“It’s a quick, simple, cost-effective communication tool for building our brand’s presence online and provides a greater audience reach,” she says.

It’s this reach that is perhaps the primary reason for using social media: it provides a direct channel to the people companies want to communicate with most, at a relatively low cost.

“We don’t use social media simply because everyone else is doing it – before we started using it we took a long hard look at how this could really add value for the business”

Lisa Benbow, Carillion

Carillion head of corporate communications Lisa Benbow says it would be “really short-sighted” for her company not to be proactive in having conversations with people on social media.

“We definitely believe social media is not just a broadcast channel but a way to start or be involved in a conversation,” she says.

“We also don’t use social media simply because everyone else is doing it – before we started using it we took a long hard look at how this could really add value for the business, our people, clients and other groups that are interested in what we do.

“Without a clear strategy you run the risk of simply creating content for the sake of it.”

Plethora of platforms

A multitude of social media platforms now exist, some vastly more useful than others – and clear strategy can ensure efforts aren’t wasted on inappropriate media.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are the channels most likely to prove useful, and all for different reasons.

Carillion, for example, tailors its content for each platform, as different kinds of people use each.

“They all have different applications and it’s about how you use each channel to make sure the information is appropriate for those audiences, rather than a blunt tool that you use the same content across all of them,” Ms Benbow says.

Top contractors on Twitter

The top 20 UK contractors on Twitter, ranked by number of followers (CN100 position in brackets):

1) Balfour Beatty (@balfourbeatty): 31,715 (1)
2) Kier Group (@kiergroup): 28,375 (4)
3) Willmott Dixon (@WillmottDixon): 27,393 (13)
4) Bam Construct UK (@BAMConstructUK): 25,799 (20)
5) Laing O’Rourke (@Laing_ORourke): 22,721 (3)
6) Skanska UK (@SkanskaUKplc): 20,731 (12)
7) Mace (@MaceGroup): 18,748 (11)
8) Morgan Sindall (@morgansindall): 18,293 (6)
9) Carillion (@Carillionplc): 16,703 (2)
10) Miller Group (@MillerHomesUK): 15,762 (22)
11) Costain (@CostainGroup): 14,221 (17)
12) Mitie (@wearemitie): 13,385
13) Interserve (@InterserveNews): 11,550 (5)
14) Keepmoat Group (@KeepmoatHomes): 10,715 (16)
15) Bam Nuttall (@BAMNuttall): 10,262 (21)
16) Amey (@Ameyplc): 9,529 (8)
17) Wates Group (@WatesGroup): 9,044 (14)
18) Lend Lease (@LendLeaseGroup): 5,735 (29)
19) ISG (@ISGplc): 4,920 (9)
20) Vinci (@VINCI): 4,900 (10)

Figures correct as of 16:00 on 22 March 2015.

“Broadly we see Twitter as a way of talking about activities or events we are involved in as they happen, so that might be a contract win or supporting something like Open Doors Weekend.

“Facebook is more focused on our social and community activities, and LinkedIn is quite business-focused.”

LinkedIn is proving itself to be a practical tool, especially for its use in targeting potential future employees.

Twitter, on the other hand, is more useful for fostering those conversations and helping to present the brand in a good light.

“At Balfour Beatty we predominately use Twitter and LinkedIn as they are the most popular channels in terms of level of engagement and interaction, but they are also the greatest contributor in delivering and achieving our social media strategy,” Ms Willison says.

“With Twitter we also use images wherever possible, as they’re more engaging and attract better sharing rates”

Matt Cody, Atkins

For Twitter, both Atkins and Carillion say they are making use of scheduled tweets, but that they try to avoid being too prescriptive so they retain the flexibility to react to unexpected news and events.

“We schedule tweets where necessary, but try not to do this too far in advance, so as to avoid any tweets being issued at a time when other news needs to be shared that might be conflicting,” Mr Cody says.

“With Twitter we also use images wherever possible, as they’re more engaging and attract better sharing rates.”

Managing the risks

Having a strategy in place like this can also mitigate the potential risks involved.

By their very nature, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are uncontrollable, so none of the firms recommend seeking to regulate conversations about them.

Rather, firms should aim to involve themselves as much as possible with customers and stakeholders, ensuring they are able to remain a part of conversations rather than letting them pass them by.

Atkins head of group digital communications Matt Cody says social media allows his team to “listen and monitor for conversations that involve Atkins”.

“I don’t think it’s about controlling it – it’s about being open and transparent, and trying to engage in those conversations to put our view across”

Lisa Benbow, Carillion

“We can then respond to general enquiries and answer specific questions, and engage with a wide range of stakeholders – including media, investors, colleagues and peers, and future employees,” he adds.

Carillion agrees that engagement is a crucial factor.

“I don’t think it’s about controlling it – I think it’s about being open and transparent, and trying to engage in those conversations to put our view across,” Ms Benbow says.

Individual tweeters

Individual tweeters in senior positions are less common than corporate accounts, with very few construction CEOs active on Twitter and not many directors, either.

Mr Cody says Atkins provides guidance to all employees, with “more detailed guidance” given to those using Atkins-branded accounts.

“We don’t distinguish based on level of seniority,” he says.

“Your reputation can be destroyed on Twitter or completely overblown on Facebook – and all before you’ve even had your morning coffee”

Read comment from social media consultant Luke Brynley-Jones

“But as to why you don’t see more of our directors or MDs tweeting – well, they’re busy people.”

Ms Benbow says Carillion doesn’t want to “force anyone to use it if they’re not comfortable with it”, but will provide support to those senior-level employees who do.

Ms Willison adds that there might be a reluctance on the part of senior employees due to unfamiliarity with the platforms.

“Personally, I think lots of people would like to use social media but perhaps they have never used Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, so training and support will help them become more confident in time,” she says.

Social skills

The general message is: don’t say something on social media that you wouldn’t say elsewhere in public.

All three companies are in agreement that social media is worthwhile in persevering with, particularly as a cost-effective way to increase engagement with your company’s brand.

In addition to all of these benefits to your company, social media could also help solve one of the industry’s intractable problems: the skills crisis.

“I think using social media could provide those insights into the types of careers we offer, the sorts of fantastic projects or services we focus on, which can only be a good thing,” Ms Benbow says.

“Clearly, younger people use social media as their primary source of information, so we should be feeding that and taking the opportunity to show them more about our industry.”

Social media could even be used as a rallying cry – something the industry has experimented with in recent years with #loveconstruction and #borntobuilduk.

Thinking about how to present news in a different way could help significantly, Mr Cody argues, instead of “sending them a constant barrage of promotional material and press releases”, he says.

“Instead of just talking about how big, how long, how costly, how quick, we could relay the human element, the end-users of these projects, which could help transform the way the construction industry is perceived.”

Top tips

Carillion: “Be authentic. You can always tell if you’ve got someone tweeting on someone else’s behalf – it just doesn’t seem natural.
“It’s got to be about authenticity or you’ll just get found out really quickly.
“It’s not a formal marketing channel, like other more traditional mediums.
“Treat it differently, and be prepared to be more nimble and flexible with it. You can’t be there waiting to approve things.”

Atkins: “Establish a content calendar to co-ordinate and plan activities so that there’s a constant flow of information to share.
“And it’s critical that you’re ready to invest the time and resources to manage these channels.
“As much as they’re typically free resources, somebody has to take the time to sift through the discussions taking place, engage with stakeholders on the platforms, craft your content into suitable chunks for each of the social media channels, and monitor/listen/respond to what’s being said about you.”

Balfour Beatty CSUK: “Choose one channel (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc) and concentrate on making that a success before exploring others.
“There is a lot of information online to help set up these channels and great articles with tips and guidance available.”

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