As billboards and bus stop signs have shown us countless times, the real estate sales business attracts a diverse group of professionals, connected only by their shiny smiles and sales instincts. But the business of marketing the materials and trades that actually build those structures is much more specialized. It requires someone who can read the beauty in the blueprints. Someone who can understand technical information coming from contractors and manufacturers, and can translate it to social media campaigns and shelter mag feature pitches. Who can create memorable marketing messages and brand stories around something as prosaic as a toilet. Someone who can look at a piece of flooring, and innately understand how it fits into the larger concept of a “dream home.”

Nora DePalma, our expert for this installment of the Niche Freelancer, co-founded the agency O’Reilly DePalma, where she specializes in PR and marketing for building trades and manufacturers. Ms. DePalma memorably said in a recent ClearVoice article, “It’s not like radiant floor heating will be in anyone’s Valentines Day gift guides.” At which point, I immediately wondered— why not? It’s a great gift for one home-owning spouse to buy the other. And Nora’s specialty is planting those seeds in people’s subconscious.

Like Doug Newcomb of C3 Group, Ms. DePalma is a content marketing professional who thrives at the intersection of B2C and B2B, who has carved out a lucrative niche just adjacent to the obvious and crowded mainstream. And while she isn’t a freelancer, she’s a person who hires freelancers, and thus an excellent example for someone looking to carve out their own niche.

Building a Niche in Design and Construction

You specialize in representation for businesses in the design and construction industry. What exactly does that encompass? And how is it different from real estate PR or interior design PR?

The design and construction industry has a lot of crossover into real estate PR and interior design PR. Both segments benefit from a detailed understanding of homes and buildings. O’Reilly DePalma specializes in both aspirational and technical products and services, so the biggest difference is in our deep bench of expertise about how homes and buildings work.

Building the Story: Nora DePalma

We also have to help our clients target their messages for the many different stakeholders who influence homeowners, from retailers and wholesalers to showrooms and studios. And the plumbers, designers, installation contractors, builders and remodelers, who each own a different segment of influence. For building owners, we need to be able to demonstrate efficiencies in installation, building operations and maintenance. And then we still have to be able to speak to design trends and the visual impact of designed spaces.

What are the inherent challenges in representing clients that are not a natural fit for consumer publications and TV/video opportunities?

We’re certainly a natural fit for shelter magazines and HGTV. But it is definitely more of a challenge for more general media, such as morning television shows. The set-building alone is often a barrier to interest for some broadcast opportunities. It’s important to have a good story, and in our industry, it is beneficial to support our client’s story with either on-set props and vignettes or images and b-roll. For example, last month, we scored a great segment for a closet-organizing client on the local morning news because the client had awesome visuals we could use. There are few things more important in marketing home and building products than great images and good video.

How have you developed offerings outside of traditional PR to make up for this?

Yes, that’s why we offer content marketing to our clients: to help them reach prospects directly during the latter’s buyer journey with helpful and inspiring content. And in many ways, the hybrid of pay-to-play (P2P) and earned media opportunities has evolved as a real opportunity for our clients. While it was virtually impossible before now to earn coverage for building products on a celebrity TV show, we just got one of our clients with a self-cleaning toilet into a Super Bowl party feature on a national TV show because we pitched a good story — yes, a truly super bowl — and then paid a small fee to make it happen.

It seems like you fulfill a combination of PR, marketing and sales support. How do you determine what the appropriate mix of the three is for each client?

We do offer a complete solution for building products brands. We want PR to finish the job it starts, connecting interest to action, such as clicks.

Building the Story: Nora DePalma

The mix is determined by the client’s revenue growth projections. For more rapid growth, we weigh our counsel toward more paid and controlled message distribution focused on connecting with active purchasers. We think one of the most important elements for all stages of business growth is to build trust among stakeholders. That’s why PR remains the core of our business.

You got your start working for another agency. Did you have any specialized training in your area before that?

Boy, I really did not! I actually left corporate at 26 to go to an agency because I felt like I would learn the best practices in an environment that fields challenges across many sectors and industries. I was right about that then, and I think it still holds true today. My three years of agency life in my 20s made me much more valuable when I returned to corporate three years later.

One agency account was particularly crucial to my professional development: Minwax wood finishing products. That was my entry into building products. I was the account executive on that account and not only met journalists we’re still working with today, but I also learned the value of buyer education in the purchase process. It is that classic Minwax Tips Booklet that first introduced to me to the intersection of PR and lead generation. Lesson learned and continuing to be applied!

What’s the biggest misconception people have about your business?

That our deep expertise and history with building products means we do not have the advanced knowledge of social and digital marketing practices. Or that our clients’ B2B prospects aren’t engaged in social and digital marketing. People who join our industry from other sectors often bring misconceptions about construction professionals that require a bit of retraining and rethinking.

Did this niche exist before the Internet? How has the evolution of digital and social changed it?

Creating the right spaces to live and work has always been a part of the human condition, and has always been a considered purchase. I’m pretty sure ancient kings needed to take some time to consider their stone and tile selections. Even on the B2B side, each purchase decision takes a lot of research.

Building the Story: Nora DePalma

The Internet has definitely made it easier because we can answer questions and engage in real time. We can also find out what prospects are searching on and then develop content that specifically answers their questions.

Do you produce content for social channels as well, or just for digital?

We are the complete package, developing content for each stage of the buyer journey and amplified by all channels: paid, earned, shared and owned.

What are the hottest topics in this niche — at this moment?

The biggest topic by far is smart technology. How much — or how little — technology do we want in our homes and buildings? What makes lives better versus more complicated? What is a true advancement versus just a cool new widget?

The second emerging topic is designing homes for wellness. “Well buildings” have long been on the radar in the commercial construction segment, but we’re seeing it emerge as a strong trend for homes. How do you design kitchens to promote healthy eating? How do you create spa-like bathrooms for relaxation and rejuvenation?

The third topic is the industry’s workforce development. There literally aren’t enough tradespeople to support demand for new and remodeled homes and buildings. Youth are not encouraged to pursue trade careers, and high school shop classes are a thing of the past. The whole industry needs to change the perception of these often-lucrative career paths.

What is the biggest challenge you face in client communication?

There’s sort of an evergreen lack of understanding about how PR works. Influence can be hard to capture in a dashboard. I think the PR industry has made great strides in helping to make the business case for PR to the C-suite, particularly the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). As an agency, we’re very disciplined about PR measurement, because we believe that helps clients to understand what PR delivers.

Do you ever get hands-on — for example at job sites, manufacturing plants or quarries — in order to understand your clients and products better?

We are on job sites a LOT. Here is my partner John O’Reilly doing a case study video.

What do you like about this niche enough to make it your entire career?

The people. I guess that sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. The designers, contractors, architects and other professionals who are driven to make our spaces special. The journalists and subject matter experts who advance the public’s understanding of homes and buildings. The product developers and designers who constantly innovate. I learn something new every day, and our agency is part of what helps people literally where they live.

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