Online social media is a phenomenon in modern society. You likely hear mentions of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube on a daily basis. But, it is not just a fad. Rather, it is about dialogue — two-way discussions that bring people together to discover and share information.

But how does this new way of communicating fit into the civil engineering industry? Based on a survey conducted by CE News last fall on online social media and mobile devices, civil engineering firms are using online social media to communicate with their target audiences. In fact, 51 percent of the more than 750 respondents noted that they use professional networking sites such as LinkedIn; 30 percent said they use social networking mediums such as Facebook to promote their business; and 20 percent are using Twitter or blogs. Social networking utilizes online social media to increase a person’s business contacts.

Regardless of whether you’ve taken the plunge, education is key. Many firms have found great success, but others have experienced anguish over what employees have said or done online. It is key that employees understand how even their personal use of online social media can impact a firm’s reputation.

Getting started
According to the CE News survey, most professionals use the Internet to perform their job. Specifically, 77 percent use the Internet to attend online education activities, 86 percent follow-up on articles they read, 98 percent research engineering-related topics, and 87 percent search for information about industry trends. These statistics prove that the Internet is one of the leading sources for information and that it is critical for companies to have a dynamic web presence. Employing online social media allows you to have a presence on the Internet that goes beyond your website. In addition to improved search engine optimization (SEO), online social media allows firms to build their brand, promote thought leadership, and even sell.

“Engineering firms can take advantage of social computing tools for knowledge management, expertise sharing, and information retention, which is especially critical with the pending retirement of baby boomers and incoming millennial generation,” said Brian Zeve, managing director, Microsoft Professional Services Industry. “Web-based collaboration through wikis, blogs, tagging, and other content management tools can provide firms with a whole new way of architecting knowledge and enabling input and expertise to bubble-up within the firm.”

The first step is to identify where your target audience is communicating and then observe the conversation. Put yourself in your target audience’s shoes and type in keywords that they would use to find you. What shows up in the Google search? If you are not one of the first results, it’s time to invest in SEO because web surfers rarely go beyond the first few listings.

In the business-to-business (B2B) sector, consider LinkedIn to facilitate professional conversations, reach job-seekers, answer questions, and join group discussions. LinkedIn is a great place to start as it has many civil engineering-targeted groups, some with thousands of members. Wikipedia is another great place to begin your efforts. Develop a Wikipedia page, known as a Wikipedia article, to further improve SEO.

Twitter also is a great way to communicate with customers as well as the press. Public entities, including many state transportation departments around the country, are huge proponents of online social media tools, especially LinkedIn and Twitter. In fact, many public agencies are using Twitter to communicate project progress with the general public. Additionally, if it is a fit for your strategy, consider uploading how-to or education videos to YouTube or participating in or hosting webinars.

While Facebook is likely not the best option for reaching clients (even if they have accounts, they are likely of a personal nature), the outlet is ideal for recruiting as well as employee communication efforts. Many firms have integrated Facebook into their HR efforts.

After identifying where your target audiences are communicating, it is key to outline your strategy and define how you will measure return on investment. Keep in mind that it is recommended that you update each online social media account on a daily basis. If you create an account and let it sit, it will reflect poorly on your brand.

New way of networking
Online social media should not be viewed as simply a way of pumping out information. Rather, it’s a fantastic way of networking in today’s marketplace. Tim Klabunde, director of marketing for William H. Gordon Associates, a civil engineering firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., created the 3,347-member Design and Construction Network group on LinkedIn. He also authors the blog, has a YouTube channel, and utilizes Twitter. He is quick to tout that the firm can trace work they secured to their online social media efforts.

“Online social media is not about talking about yourself,” noted Klabunde. “Rather, for civil engineering firms, online social media is a new tool for networking and building relationships. And, in our industry, networking and relationships have always been the key to success to securing work. With online social media, you gain the most value and the greatest results when you provide value for others.”

Creating an online social media policy
Whether or not you choose to participate in online social media on a personal or a corporate level, it is likely that others at your company are already participating in various outlets. This is where things get tricky because online social media is the perfect storm of marketing, HR, legal, and personal privacy issues. What can and should employees say online? Are they allowed to participate in online social media during regular work hours? Should you have one corporate Twitter account or should engineers tweet under their own names? The answers to these questions depend on your strategy.

Another key challenge is that, in many cases, employees fail to recognize that what is posted stays online. Further, even if they are participating in online social media during their personal time, if they are identified as an employee of your company, either directly or indirectly, their comments will likely be viewed as representing your organization.

For example, one firm recently heard from a client that one of its engineers had made not-so-favorable comments on her Facebook page about the client’s intelligence. When confronted with the situation, the engineer noted that she made the comments during her personal time and she didn’t think anyone could see it or would link her to her place of employment. This, unfortunately, is a common scenario. While it is unrealistic to limit employee’s participation in online social media in their personal time, it is important to remind them that they should consider how their actions reflect on your organization. Key to success is educating employees and creating a policy to guide decisions and behavior.

The policy should state how employees are expected to engage. Recommend that your employees stay transparent by using their real names and the company name. Reiterate that employees are responsible for the content they produce. Also, decide if employees are allowed to use this medium while at work and, if so, for how long.

The S/L/A/M Collaborative, Inc., a 160-person civil engineering firm in Glastonbury, Conn., is currently creating an online social media policy. The firm has encouraged team members to participate in online social media, so they recognized the importance of developing a policy. Current efforts include authoring articles on various blogs and involvement in LinkedIn groups and status updates. The firm strongly values professional networking and, as a result, the use of LinkedIn is encouraged but not required. At press time, 42 employees had accounts on LinkedIn.

“The creation of our online social media policy, which is a part of the larger project of updating the employee handbook, is for the benefit of our employees. We want to clearly spell out the distinction between personal and corporate outlets, and detail what project information can and cannot be shared on sites such as LinkedIn,” said Peter Griem, P.E., principal of the S/L/A/M Collaborative. “We are also working on incorporating legal perspectives into the policy and deciding what limits should be placed on online social media efforts in the workplace.”

With an online social media policy in place and efforts underway, it is key to monitor results. In fact, even if you decide not to engage in online social media, it is important to recognize that the conversation will likely go on without you, so monitoring is essential to ensure you are aware of what people are saying about your company. There are many services (see “Monitoring results,” left) that provide online social media monitoring to fit your needs. These services range from $500 to $1,000 each month and each include reports and copies of what is being said about your company. Utilizing these services allows you to be in the know and respond to any good or negative comments in a timely manner.

Get involved!
Online social media is here to stay, so it is crucial for companies to dive in and join in the conversation. Remember that the online world is likely to talk about your company regardless of whether or not you participate, so be sure to at the very least, monitor the conversation. To get started, determine where your target audience is talking, and then engage with them and monitor activity. Be a part of the community, remain transparent, provide useful content, and enjoy success.

Online social media policy suggestions

  • Employees should stick to their area of expertise and provide individual perspectives on what is going on at the company.
  • Remember that even when posting on personal time, employees are often linked to their company.
  • Post meaningful and respectful comments.
  • Always pause and think before posting.
  • Respect proprietary information and content — make sure your contract allows you to discuss the project.
  • Respect confidentiality.
  • When disagreeing with others, keep it polite and appropriate.
  • Comply with copyright, fair use, and financial disclosure laws.
  • When in doubt about posting content, get permission.

Online social media FAQs
What is the best tactic to start with?
— There is no magic answer to this question, as key to success is joining the outlets your key target audiences participate in.How long does this take? — Like all forms of networking, some experience results right away, while success for others takes months. Key to success is consistency. You must be willing to put time and effort into each account every day to see success. If, after a year, you are not seeing any results, consider deleting the account.How do I launch an online social media program? — You must first research where your target audience is conversing and then go and listen to what is being said. Then, determine your goals and strategy. Start out with one or two outlets and drafting a Wikipedia article.

How do I talk to our executives about online social media? How can I convince them that we should be using this? — One key means of showing them the possibilities is a review of what your competitors are doing using online social media. You could also show them case studies, statistics, and studies regarding the medium.

How do I measure ROI? — Before you dive into online social media, first determine how you will measure it. Will it be from site visits, comments, or sample requests? You decide, but key is outlining your ROI and monitoring results.

Monitoring results
The following services provide online social media monitoring:

Stephanie Brown, interactive PR specialist with Constructive Communication, Inc., can be contacted at Constructive Communication, Inc., is a marketing and public relations firm that specializes in the design and construction industry. For tips on online social media, visit or