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BuildChat: Daily 5 Remodel founder and editor Leah Thayer on sustainable business, digital marketing

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After several years as a senior editor at Hanley Wood, Leah Thayer founded Daily 5 Remodel in 2010 to provide a daily resource for building professionals interested in industry news, trends and best practices. She’s fostered an ever-growing online community, leading to a constant conversation about the happenings of the remodeling industry. For this week’s BuildChat, we asked Thayer what she’s learned from her endeavor and got a better feel for how some professionals have woven social media into their business.

Last year, you launched your site daily5remodel.com, which provides daily industry insights and a social platform for building professionals. What have you learned in the first year of operation?
We just passed six months of publishing, and I’ve learned that I love being able to communicate directly with my audience and finesse changes without having to go through a bunch of priority queues or levels of approval. Time moves too quickly — windows open and close like lightning — to wait for the perfect moment, at least when you’re a start-up. Customers won’t wait for you!

I’ve also learned that it’s absolutely essential to have a nimble Web strategy and a robust Web platform. We publish at 6 a.m. just about every weekday, and I feel that my focus needs to be on developing excellent content, understanding how I can help my audience, and responding by tweaking the site and the content mix accordingly. That means I can’t be bogged down by last-minute technology breakdowns or inefficiencies, much less anything as drawn-out and vulnerable to the economy as the print process.

I’ve also learned that some of my instincts in starting this business were better than others!

I was right in sensing that remodelers want to be part of a virtual community of peers (even if they’re just “lurkers” and not active commenters) and appreciate having their very own “daily” sent to them first thing in the morning, before their days get insane. We just had a brief publishing break at d5R, and one reader lamented that he “missed seeing his remodeling ‘paper’ on his virtual porch” each morning.

On the other hand, I’ve learned to it takes more time and patience than I anticipated to gain major traction within the huge but dispersed and somewhat tradition-bound remodeling industry. And that sometimes remodelers appreciate less information in their “morning paper,” not more! And that just because I enjoy talking to remodelers doesn’t mean I enjoy, or am particularly good at, selling to them.

On your site, you write, “I believe that sustainable small businesses are critical to healthy communities and national economic vitality.” What can smaller home construction and remodeling operations sustain in this unfavorable climate?
Most remodeling companies are small businesses by definition, and most remodelers, it seems, are optimistic by nature — especially when it comes to their own companies. I actually think the climate is much more favorable to businesses that are nimble, close to their markets and not heavily burdened by debt or overhead than by those that may be much larger and deeper-pocketed but are hobbled by inventory, legacy systems and bureaucratic holdups.

As far as what they can sustain, one clear winner is the enduring fascination that people have with their homes and the desire, I think, to be closer to home in these somewhat shaky times. Remodeling can’t be outsourced, and our housing stock is aging and in need of constant attention.

The housing bubble has only reinforced the fact that it makes more sense for most people to make the most of their current home than to upsize to a fancy new community. We’re having a fascinating discussion on d5R this week about people who need more from their current homes but can’t think of moving without taking a huge loss. Plus, there’s no mistaking the McMansion backlash as people embrace their not-so-big-house existing homes and seek to reduce their own carbon footprints by walking more (re: older urban homes) and generally wasting less.

Finally, look at the rise of things like the buy-local movement. Due mostly to bad behavior from a handful of actors, “big business” hasn’t warmed many hearts lately. It just feels good to know who you’re doing business with. An example from my own family: We can do our food shopping at Whole Foods or Giant, but when we want really great seafood or meat even my 10-year-old son knows we need to see Pam, the butcher at our local market.

Very recently, you published a survey revealing many in the building industry were involved in social media for business purposes (branding, lead generation, community engagement, etc.). Should builders be considering a digital marketing strategy?
Absolutely. I don’t know of many builders or remodelers who don’t at least have a static website and use email. Even if your clients still prefer doing business via mail and phone and newspaper ads, your future clients will not.

Having said that, I think the notion of “a digital marketing strategy” might be intimidating to some small companies. But the great thing about digital media is that it invites experimentation, is soooo much easier than conventional marketing — zap out e-newsletter vs. printing, paying postage and mailing newsletter? No contest — and costs little or nothing to get started.

It’s sort of ironic that social media is proving to be a wonderful thing for many remodelers and builders. At first many remodelers resisted Twitter and Facebook; they told me “my customers are in my town, so why would I want to do something that anyone in the world can see?” Now many of them tell me they love being able to have almost real-time conversations with their clientele on these platforms. One respondent was fairly typical in saying s/he uses Twitter “to connect with & understand our ideal clients, to connect with peer designers, to partner with designers whose talents dovetail with ours.”

Where in the past, new home builders would pass on remodeling projects, now, many are taking on the work to sustain revenue streams. Is that a viable long-term solution?
I can’t speak for any former new-home builders but my sense is that remodeling is a viable long-term solution for them only if they adjust their margins, training and expectations accordingly. Repeatedly I hear from remodelers that their “competitors” now include builders whose prices are way lower than their own. Sometimes remodelers are called in to finish or fix projects where these lower prices got the builders into trouble — they ran out of money, or cut corners, because their prices didn’t account for “the unexpecteds” that happen in older and/or occupied homes.

Alternatively, it may be that new home builders will figure out a way to apply the efficiencies they sharpened in their previous lives to remodeling projects. I’ve seen an uptick of MBA-types leave their corporate jobs to become remodelers, and there’s definitely room for more business savvy within the remodeling world. But building new homes and remodeling existing homes are two fundamentally different beasts, or so I’m told.

How has the game changed for seasoned remodelers as more builders are now competing for business?
Seasoned remodelers made the switch from being “order takers” to active marketers a few years ago. Many of them are still struggling to articulate how they are different from the competition in any form, let alone how to project that message to enough of the right people. In general, though, I’ve known of remodelers to make a ton of small and large adjustments — from reducing overhead, accepting smaller jobs and taking sales training, to becoming fanatical about job-costing and networking — to reposition for the long slog ahead.

Many of them say they’re having their best years in several years.

But it’s a really good question. Why don’t I ask my readers to answer on d5R next week?