Design Allies Facebook Facelift

AAO eNews – Featured Member Q&A – May 2013

What is the best way for an architectural organization to harness the potential of Facebook? This month, AAO talked with the Design Center (Pittsburgh) about their Design Allies social media campaign and recent rebranding. Since they began posting in 2012, the page has received nearly 8,000 Facebook "likes." Chris Koch, Director of Programs at the Design Center, explains their strategy, the motivations behind it, and how it ties into other programs. Learn why it's better to write the content in-house, what they've found is the ideal frequency of posts, and how posting images has helped attract an audience outside of Pittsburgh.

AAO: The Community Design Center of Pittsburgh recently renamed itself as part of a larger rebranding campaign. Can you tell us about this effort, and how you imagined social media to fit into the strategy?

Chris Koch (CK): The Design Center is a nonprofit organization that has been improving the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region by encouraging good design and planning of the built environment for more than 45 years. Originally known as the Pittsburgh Architects Workshop, the Design Center was established in 1968 and incorporated in 1975 by local architects who provided pro-bono design services to community organizations, individuals, and businesses who could not afford to hire an architect.

In 1987, the organization changed its name to the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh and its operating model — acting as a broker to provide grants, technical assistance, and education to help individuals and organizations purchase and use professional design and planning services. In 2011, the organization re-branded itself as the Design Center and established a new website and a Facebook page called Design Allies, which is actually part of a larger, multi-faceted community engagement effort operating under the same name. The social media strategy, developed by the Design Center, was intended to expand its role in advocating, educating, and engaging communities in good design and planning, both locally and nationally. The strategy focuses on reaching out to practitioners, community members, and thought leaders to ensure dialogue and action in community revitalization.


Left: Former logo for the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh; Right: New logo


AAO: “Public engagement” can mean different things to different people. What are the types of actions and activities you’re hoping to see your local constituents take thanks to the Design Center’s good work?

CK: The Design Allies social media strategy currently includes Facebook, Twitter (for live event reporting) and our website (for more permanent and in-depth info about our organization and its programming). Each platform has its own purpose and its own limitations, and it’s important to acknowledge that we could not do outreach and engagement locally using only social media. It is a tool that is integrated with our other programs and community work.

Because the Design Center is the only nonprofit in Pittsburgh that advocates specifically for good design and planning, we have the opportunity to be seen as a central resource and a leader. Facebook is a good tool for creating a constant, but not invasive relationship with users. We use it to educate and inform, but also to provide calls to action when possible. At the local level, we use it to inform people about public hearings such as planning commissions, art commissions, city council meetings, and other decision-making moments where the communities’ voice has the opportunity to affect project outcomes. Other groups locally advocate for community members to attend these events, but usually it’s only around one issue like transportation, green buildings, or stormwater, but, to my knowledge, we’re the only group that advocates the need for communities to be engaged with these decision-making processes all the time, and educates residents regarding the need to be informed and act on a host of issues.

AAO:  The Facebook effort has been particularly productive for you. What’s been the secret to your success?

CK: Our Facebook presence was the real launch of the Design Allies program in late 2011. In spring 2012, we started posting articles, images, and comments. Our goal was to start a dialogue to further empower local residents. We actually started by contracting a firm to find and write content because we were just getting started and didn’t think of ourselves as social media experts. By August, though, we realized that we had the start of a working framework and the internal ability to develop our own content because the consultants weren’t the architects and planners, we were.

We looked through our analytics and realized that we were getting a lot of views when we posted big images that really grabbed people, and that we had a lot of national followers, but were beginning to gain locally. Using that information, we began to reason that Facebook is not a great place for dialogue or discussions, but that people use it as a place to get quick and visual information. If anyone wants further information, they can click through to the linked article or image. The Facebook newsfeeds are so full of posts by all your friends, groups, and other items that not everyone expects to use it to go deeper on every issue or article post, which is why the visuals are important because people will “like” or share what grabs their attention. We realized you just have to put it out there and allow users to decide at what level to engage. Sometimes that will only be with a picture and two sentences, so that quick text really counts, which is why it was so important for us to write the copy internally.

We also found that we lost “likes” or people following us if we posted more than 3-4 times per day because people felt we were providing too much content. Our current framework is to post a big image first each morning, a national post late morning, and a local post early afternoon. If anything interesting happens that day, we’ll add another post in the early evening for people who check Facebook after work. But as design and planning experts, we post what we read, what we think is interesting, because all the staff brings a unique perspective and I think it comes through that we love this field and the way it can transform lives and communities.

[Note: When the Design Center staff took over the Design Allies Facebook page in August 2012, we began with 3,333 “likes.” We managed to increase that number to 3,931 in just one month, gaining confidence that our content strategy was working. By early December, roughly one quarter year later, our base had grown to 5,368 likes. Today, we up to 7,941.] 

AAO: As everyone’s understanding about social media tools improves, we’re all realizing that impact can take many forms – it’s not just your number of followers that counts. Is there an anecdote you feel sums up the Design Allies approach and its usefulness for advancing the Design Center’s mission?

CK: A good example of impact would likely be the current issues over development in the Strip District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. One project is a very large mixed-use development proposed between the riverfront and shopping area of the Strip District, which is a regional draw. This area used to be home to our produce and wholesale market area, and includes a vacant terminal building much like Detroit’s Eastern Market area but underutilized. The developer owns a sea of adjacent parking lots, and has been working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to demolish part of the terminal building to develop a large project that extends to the riverfront. The project is hugely important to the region and not just the neighborhood, but early in the process very few community members in the neighborhood or regionally knew what was being proposed or what was being approved through the city process. We have been proactive in not taking sides but ensuring that people are informed so a dialogue can occur at a regional level. We’ve used Facebook to inform people when lawsuits were filed, TIFs applications were submitted, demolition applications were submitted, and any public hearing at the commission or council level. Our CEO provided public response at the last planning hearing which is posted on our website. It’s a good example of how we needed to get the word out, but e-blasting every update about this one project would have been overwhelming people. Facebook integrated with our community and partner outreach allowed us to keep everyone up to date about both the project and our advocacy, as well. Currently the project’s TIF funding is on hold at the city council level, and a local group just filed for historic preservation status of the terminal building.

It’s not our intention to holdup investment in our neighborhoods, but to ensure that good design and planning are evaluated through an open community process. This project was not working toward those outcomes, but we hope now the developer and other partners will be amenable to a more inclusive process.


Posts about the Strip project. Up to 1,462 people viewed these.

AAO:  AAO member organizations often rely on a host of strong community partners to help them achieve effective public engagement. How are local groups connecting to your social media efforts?

CK: It was important for us to remember that Facebook and social media in general are tools and not an end goal. We continue to engage people one-on-one and at the organizational level, and those relationships have to be maintained outside of social media. Neighborhood groups and other organizations send us content, but we’re clear to keep it to the issues of design and planning so we don’t become an event site. We don’t post all community meetings, but just the ones where a design and planning topic is on the agenda, for example. But to continue our interaction with community groups and members after meetings, we knew there needed to be a central hub to send people, and websites are just too static. Facebook and Twitter provides an opportunity to say the information is here if you want it, and also to have some fun which can also be harder to make happen on a company website.

Social media allows us to provide a platform for ideas, for visions, and to get people dreaming. We want people to say we can do that in Pittsburgh and help them make that vision a reality. I think that collective hopefulness and visioning across many communities is only possible at big events or Facebook.

AAO:  Do you fund this work from general operations or have you managed to find specific resources for Design Allies?

CK: The Design Center received a generous grant from the Heinz Endowments to launch Design Allies. The program has several goals to increase community education, advocacy, and action around design and planning issues in Pittsburgh, and our social media strategy is only one facet. We realized in developing Design Allies that we were missing an important tool and opportunity to communicate with our audience. Other elements of the program are community workshops, public forums, and events that provide additional ways to educate and engage citizens, but most of those are, of course, very locally focused.

The funding has been crucial to developing, launching, and staffing the Design Allies program and social media strategy; it allows us to keep expert staff engaged in the posts and content, and I think that would take a hit if funding weren’t available. However, Facebook has become such a front porch and tool for us as an organization that we would need to continue to find a way to post every day. By now we’ve layered a social media strategy into all of our programs and projects, so I think it would be difficult to remove these tools. Really the process becomes second nature to staff over time, and this year we’re looking to expand and build on the success we’ve had so far.

Posted by aao on May 30, 2013 - 12:00pm