Should you abandon the broad highway of generalized freelancing and take the road less traveled?
Should you restrict yourself to working with a particular type of client, who has a particular need?
Will “finding your niche” set you up to be in high demand and able to charge premium rates?
What is a niche?
The dictionary defines a niche as a specialized but profitable corner of the market.
Let’s deconstruct this:
There are two factors that go into niching yourself:
- Specification. Some technology, framework, or method that sets you apart from generalists in your field. You might be a copywriter who specializes in PPC ads or a developer who specializes at integrating with obscure payment gateways. For example, I’m a developer who happens to know a lot about marketing and sales, which has helped me tremendously in my consulting business.
- Focus. A particular industry or vertical that you have experience in. Maybe you’re a designer who happens to know how to design amazing chiropractic websites, or a marketer who has a track record of helping eco-friendly businesses.
A niche business is created by taking a specification or focus and coming up with a unique selling proposition, or USP. And an even better niche business combine the two to come up with a powerful USP, like serving online retailers (focus) who want to increase their conversion rates (specification).
Why should you niche?
I like to always try to look at things from the perspective of a possible client, and if you don’t do this yet, I’d encourage you to start. (My free email course on pricing can help you understand a bit more about how to bake this into your sales process.)
Imagine for a moment that you run a healthcare clinic and you need a new website. You look for people who can build websites and come up with two candidates: Bill the Generic Web Designer, and Sarah the Niche Specialist.
Bill’s marketing website is all about him — the technologies he specializes in, a portfolio of all the various projects he’s worked on, his biography and background, and a contact form. He’s obviously capable of designing and building websites.
But then you look at Sarah’s website, and it sports a rather bold headline: “Websites for healthcare clinics who want more patients.” The case studies and language found on her site uses words familiar with me: patients, HIPAA-compliance, appointments. Sarah can design and build websites, but she seems to really understand building medical websites and the needs medical companies have.
If you’re going to spend money on a website that you’re hoping will help bring more business to your clinic, who do you you’ll hire? And if you’re siding with Sarah (which you should!), do you think you’d be willing to pay her more than Bill’s asking?
Clients are risking a lot when they hire you. Unlike buying a material object from a store, they can’t touch, feel, and sample your product before they make the decision to pay. They’re weighing the likelihood that you’ll fail against the chance of you succeeding (in getting them more walk-in patients, for example.)
By niching yourself against a particular type of client or problem, you’re signaling that you’re lower risk because you have some combination of experience and understanding of the client and their business.
Doesn’t niching mean exclusion?
A common objection to niching is that we don’t want to limit our client base. If we become the web designer who specializes with medical clinics, doesn’t that mean we’ll repel everyone else who wants to work with us? Shouldn’t we generalize ourselves as much as possible so we don’t end up excluding any potential client?
One of my favorite marketing gurus, Sean D’Souza, gave a really interesting case study of why specificity is a good thing in his book, The Brain Audit.
Sean was describing an allergy clinic he had been approached by. The clinic helped people who suffered from all sorts of allergies, and they intentionally generalized their website’s marketing copy to reflect this. It seemed like this was the right thing to do; no one is left out, and a prospective patient could be led in through a general headline about fixing allergies, and later shown that her specific allergy could be addressed.
But this clinic’s website was doing a pretty crappy job at getting new patients. Something obviously wasn’t working.
After being hired, Sean recommended that they focus on their ability to solve a specific kind of allergy. Here’s his reasoning:
“The customer needs to be alerted to a single problem at a time. And the customer has to be taken through one ‘room at a time.’ Yes, you have many ‘rooms’ in your home. And each room represents a product/ service. But when someone enters your home, do you rush them through all the rooms? Or do you take them through a front door?
The front door could be any of your products or services. First get them through the front door. Then move the customers systematically through the rest of your products and services.”
And this worked. It worked really, really well for this clinic. It strongly attracted people with the allergy that the website focused on, but also brought in plenty of other people who suffered from different forms of allergies.
By putting front-and-center on your website a specific example of a specific problem you’re capable of solving, you can then tell a story. You can show somebody how you took a problem and systematically solved it. And later on, you can showcase everything else you’re capable of doing.
Highlighting a niche — a problem for a particular kind of business that you’ve solved — will help you sell to similar businesses, even if their needs aren’t 100% identical to the problem your niche offering solves. Don’t make the mistake that the allergy clinic made in thinking that focusing on a single problem will turn away everyone who doesn’t have that problem.
How do you create a niche offering?
Now that we’ve defined what niching is and how it lowers your risk, let’s talk about how you can identify a niche offering of your own.
I’m not that huge of a fan of seeking out a niche based on your passions or the kind of projects you’d like to one day work on. This approach can be dangerous; you might end up with an offering that you’re passionate about and excites you, but that no one cares enough to seriously spend money on.
As I’ve been working on the sales site for my new agency, here’s the process I’ve gone through to help refine what it is we’re selling:
- Catalog and normalize the problems you’ve historically solved. Go through each of your past clients and list out the kinds of business they run and the problems you’ve solved for them. Really think about why they came to you and what solution you ended up delivering for them — don’t worry about the technicals of your engagements. After you’ve done this, normalize (reduce) this list to a few core challenges you’ve solved.
- Identify your most successful case study. Once you have a clear understanding of the sort of problems you’ve worked with throughout the course of your career, choose one to use as a case study for selling your niche service. You want to back your niche service with an example of how you’ve successfully executed on this in the past. (You don’t need to necessarily limit yourself to past consulting clients of yours. When I first started consulting, I designed landing pages for mortgage brokers. I had learned about the mortgage industry, its needs, and its frustrations after having been employed by a software company that built software for the industry.)
- Highlight the benefits, not the features. Use their jargon. When describing your offering, use the language of the type of client you’re speaking to. If they’re a medical clinic, talk about their patients. If they’re a law firm, their clients. A retail shop, their customers. Speak about the benefits that you’ve delivered to your past clients. Sarah’s going to want to talk about how an optimized medical website can create more patient leads and help her clients get more walk-in patients. The website and its technicals take the backseat.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of your ideal client, and the kind of client who’s hired you in the past. Are you convincing them that you’re able to solve problems that are their own, or similar to their own? Or are you giving them a technical smorgasbord of options, and leaving them to independently determine whether or not you can help them?
Ultimately, the closer you get to providing that product-for-one, the better it is for the buyer. We all want that product or service that was made just for us. By niching your services, you’re able to move closer to that ideal. And as you move closer, you become less risky — because you’re selling exactly what somebody needs, and you’re showing them how you’re solving their issues.
As you become less risky to your clients, they’re more likely to hire you and pay you more money. And this is why you’ve probably been advised from a trusted freelancer friend or colleague to niche, because it can increase demand and put more money in your pocket. But if I’ve done my job, why you should niche is now obvious. And, most importantly, you’re now equipped with what you need to begin niching yourself.