| Sep 28, 2009 |
HOK builds own ‘network’ through company’s blog (St. Louis Business Journal)
Boh staff
By Staff

Architectural firm HOK is known for magnificent structures the world over, but there’s something else it has created that has quietly become a gem: its blog.

Life at HOK (hoklife.com) was launched last October — with no promotional advertising — to show the world the people behind the scenes at the design powerhouse, which had $752 million in 2008 revenue. Since then the slick medley of design and pop culture has won awards and become a frequent destination, not only for HOK’s 2,000-plus employees, but for potential hires, clients and competitors, said HOK communications specialist Jeannette Thompson.

“It has just been a great addition to our toolkit of ways we communicate both internally and externally,” Thompson said. “It’s really interesting how people are craving this kind of information.”

Life at HOK averages 400 visits a day and has had more than 105,000 visitors from about 165 countries and territories since its launch, according to HOK statistics. Blog authors, both architects and non-architects, have made about 900 posts.

There are now three dozen bloggers, recruited from HOK offices around the world, including Canada, the U.K., Hong Kong and Singapore.

HOK is among a growing number of firms that hope to reap benefits from a company blog. “It allows the company to be more human and real and personable than a PR-centered corporate Web site,” said technology marketing pro Peter Brockmann, who heads Massachusetts-based Brockmann & Company.

In a 2009 survey of companies with more than 1,000 employees, Brockmann found that those with blogs reported higher levels of customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, greenness, revenue and market share than similar-sized companies without blogs. The companies with blogs reported revenue per employee of $336,792, compared to $263,333 for those without blogs.

Life at HOK makes the company more accessible and fun, say those who run the blog, a group of five people in the company’s corporate communications department in St. Louis.

“We see it almost as our own broadcast channel,” said senior writer John Gilmore. “We have our own HOK network.”

Gilmore said what’s really unusual about the blog is that posts are not edited for content.

“You’d have a hard time finding a corporate blog that is not filtered,” he said. “Young readers are very savvy, and they know when something’s not authentic. If you’re not authentic, it’s the kiss of death for a corporate blog.”

Along with recent posts, the blog’s landing page displays a list of bloggers and their respective locations, featured visitor comments, a list of favorite spots on the Internet and links to HOK’s presence on other social networks, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Delicious. Prominently displayed is the “view opportunities button,” showing a clear aim of the blog is to snare new recruits.

The blog’s content is varied, ranging from musings by architectural technician Kimberly Dowdell on “if Michael Jackson’s music was architecture, what would it look like?” to a video of HOK Chairman Bill Valentine reminiscing about the design for King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was built in 1983.

“We were sitting around drinking beer at midnight and then we started drawing,” Valentine says in the video. “A billion dollars in construction later, there it was. It was just that idea that came out of the group in the time of need.”

HOK honchos boast that no other major architectural firm in the world has a robust, firmwide blog. But other firms may have their reasons for being blogless, such as wanting top talent to keep a low profile so they are not snatched up by competitors.

Not so at HOK, where the uncensored, open nature of the blog is strategic, said Rebecca Nolan, senior vice president and managing principal of the St. Louis office.

“It’s exactly the reason we have it; it’s to attract the best and the brightest,” she said. “It’s wonderful that the firm values input.” Nolan said the blog hasn’t directly landed any new clients yet.

What kind of feedback has HOK gotten about the blog? “That it’s fresh, cutting edge and very, very different,” said Tracy Moore, vice president of human resources. “It really shows that we care about the voice of our employees. This isn’t leadership-speak.”

Positive feedback has taken the form of awards, too. Life at HOK this year received a National Marketing Communications Award from the Society for Marketing Professional Services and a Bronze Quill Award from the St. Louis chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. It also landed on St. Louis Magazine’s A-List for best company blog.

TOKY Branding + Design designed the blog after brainstorming with HOK. To get the ball rolling last year, HOK flew in around 20 newly minted bloggers from offices around the world to St. Louis, where they participated in team building exercises and received blog training over two days, said Eric Thoelke, owner, president and creative director at Midtown-based TOKY.

One day, the group was given camcorders and dispatched throughout the city to interview each other in front of HOK-designed buildings, Thoelke said.

“It became this wonderful, 24-hour crucible,” he said, adding that the blog “has made a far-flung team feel like it’s all the same team.”

Michelle Pinkston, a landscape architect who is an associate in the HOK planning group, said she enjoys being able to blog freely and put her ideas out there.

“This is my platform and it’s really breaking down barriers for designers both old and young,” said Pinkston, who recently made a post, including photos, on her tour of St. Louis’ new CityGarden, a non-HOK project.

HOK officials declined to say how much the blog launch cost, but company spokesman Mike Plotnick said it was “a tiny fraction” of the cost to establish hok.com, the company’s main Web site. He added that costs to run the blog are minimal.

“We might correct some punctuation or typos, but it really runs itself,” Gilmore said.

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