I recently heard from an experienced construction company executive on the topic of referrals. The executive was concerned because the new generation of leaders in his company was spending less time building personal relationships with strategic partners. Word of mouth referrals had always been the foundation of his business success — but he was beginning to understand that the marketing approaches of the past would not be enough to sustain future growth.

Construction marketing has changed — repeat business and referrals are no longer enough. Construction firms must now see marketing through a different lens. To help you see, let's look at three important ways construction marketing has changed:

1. “Who you know” is being replaced by “exactly right”

The “who you know” approach goes something like this: you meet someone, often through a referral or at a networking event, and if the conversation clicks, you begin developing a relationship. The relationship evolves through repeated contacts — for example, working together on trade association boards, at golf outings and over lunch. As as mutual respect grows, the relationship eventually leads to work. The problem with this approach is that many of the activities associated with traditional marketing are time consuming, and their return on investement can be difficult to measure.

Today, the dynamics of building business have changed. Construction executives have less time to pursue traditional business development activities, and they are busier than ever. More and more, prospects are seeking out appropriate partners and vendors using online search, reading online articles or watching online video and other educational content. The more they learn about your perspective, instincts and insights, the more they come to trust you. Eventually, when they they have a need, they will reach out to you to discuss potential work. Called “digital marketing” or “pull marketing,” this approach costs less, is measurable, and attracts highly motivated prospects — people and companies that need what you have to offer. That translates into more business and high closing rates. Best of all, digital marketing works for you whether you are awake or asleep. (If you would like to read more on this topic, check out this post by Lee Frederiksen on traditional versus digital marketing.)

2. Fewer degrees of separation

Because the Internet is a key driver in identifying qualified service providers and teaming partners, geographic proximity is less relevant that it was in the past. To some degree, companies can be vetted and qualified online. This is a very different approach than the relationship marketing of the past. This doesn’t mean that referrals and relationships are obsolete. But the traditional strategies should be supplemented with modern tools: lead generating websites, social media, search engine optimization and content marketing. Many business relationships are now starting with a connection on social media sites such as LinkedIn, where separation between potential business partners can be only a few clicks. As my construction executive pointed out, today’s leadership has to embrace the Internet and social media. These behavior changes are driving the way deals come together.

3. Web leads have silenced the phones

I first began working in the A/E/C industry back in 2004. As a marketing director, I would ask project managers to help me craft content for the website. Most of the time my requests fell on deaf ears. Back then, you see, websites were little more than static online brochures. They didn't do much to attract new business. Project managers, already overwhelmed with work, saw little value in the exercise. Besides, the phones were ringing off the hook. You would probably agree that things have changed a little since then.

Today's construction firm website should be the hub of a firm's marketing plan. Most business prospects will find their way to your website, where they can be captured, nurtured and moved down the sales funnel. You should be asking yourself some important questions. How easily is your construction firm found online? Is your firm appearing on the top 10 search engine results for relevant search terms? Does your firm have a specialty or angle that will help it stand apart from competitors? Is the content on your website inward facing or client-benefit oriented? Is your website encouraging business leads and capturing critical information?

In this new evolution of construction marketing, online leads have muted the ringing phones (well, so has the economy, but that's another story). More often than not, web leads are prequalifying themselves and are more ready to buy. Prospects are engaging with construction firms on blogs and in webinars, they are are watching video and reading articles — and they are deciding which firms they admire and trust most before picking up the phone.