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Should You Niche Yourself?


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

  • Josh

    My dad owns a hardware store with a small repair business. For years he’s struggled to keep it afloat. A few years ago he decided to solely focus on commercial lawn equipment and market it to larger companies that way. Since then he’s had to hire 6 full time mechanics and they consistently have a backlog of one month or more work to do. Strangely enough, every aspect of their repair business is now thriving. Thanks for a great article!

    • Kudos to your dad, Josh!

      • Your the man Brennan. Im going to be like you one day.

  • blair wadman

    Perfect timing Brennan! This is something I’ve been struggling with recently, particularly around narrowing down the focus on the particular vertical/industry.

    • Awesome Blair 🙂 I’m guessing you’re still going to be doing Drupal consulting – is the plan to provide Drupal consulting for a particular industry or will you be targeting a type of problem?

      • blair wadman

        Still doing Drupal consulting and targeting a type of problem – essentially clients not getting the desired business results (leads, sales, accounts etc) from Drupal sites. I have a few specific packages: A week long SEO/CRO improvement service, a monthly continuous improvement service, training and the existing custom development (using weekly billing). I’m not specifying an industry, but I have mostly worked with large publishers, so am targeting them for outreach. After reading this article, I changed it around so that I’m leading with the SEO/CRO service. The service landing page can be found here: http://befused.com/drupal/services

        Where I am struggling with the industry is a separate entity from my Drupal consulting. I want to start targeting businesses that aren’t looking for platform specific stuff (Drupal) but want more qualified leads/customers. I’m building a separate site and email list for this. At the moment I’m planning on launching it asap, talking to local businesses about it (going to local business groups & hosting events – inspired by yourself of course!) and then have landing pages for specific industries a bit later. Sound sensible enough?

  • Franz

    I do not yet understand how you would structure your website for that kind of approach. Does Sarah have also Landing pages for other niches and links to those via the menu?

    • Sarah is hypothetical, but I’ve seen it done a few different ways.

      I’ve seen dedicated landing pages that can be linked to in contextually relevant places (e.g. an ad in a publication for people who own ecommerce stores might point to domain.com/ecommerce), all of which are accessible from your navigation.

      You can also take the separate domain approach. My friend Kurt does this for his “Shopify website rescue” service: http://websiterescues.com (which is separate from his general website: http://ethercycle.com)

  • Andy

    Here’s my dilemma: Smart people tell me to “niche”. But when I look back at my 2 years of generalist freelancing, I don’t have any solid patterns. I’ve done a little of everything. I could pick one and run with it, but I have 2 fears:

    1. How do I know there are people who want this particular problem solved?
    2. How do I find those people and market to them?

    Most of my leads find me via referral. Being generalist allows me to field their questions. If I go niche, do I need to establish an entirely new marketing strategy to draw those specialized customers in?

    In short, I worry that by going niche I’ll starve myself before I find & sell to the niche clients.

    • You don’t need to confine yourself to a particular niche. I think it’s smart to put focus on one (the “front door” analogy in the article above), but it shouldn’t exclude anything. Think of niching as additional, stronger acquisition channels, and not a wholesale replacement of your current sales process.

      • Andy

        Gotcha, that makes sense. Stay open to general inquiries, but have specific landing pages & marketing for a niche you’re targeting. So you’re not “all in”.

    • Hi Andy,

      The way to learn how to nice is with customer discovery interviews:

      http://www.slideshare.net/evanish/how-to-do-customer-development-interviews
      http://startupweekend.wistia.com/medias/tao3s8hf7l

      The great news is that:

      1.) It’s much easier to find people who are willing to be interviewed about their business and their business challenges than it is find people who are willing to let you try and sell them something, and

      2.) Once you get used to the process its a tremendous amount of fun because it ends up providing you with epiphany after epiphany about potential areas in which you could niche your services. And, who doesn’t enjoy a really good solid epiphany?

      BTW, customer discovery is a important part of The Lean Startup model, which is to stay that is proven to work. Good luck!

      -Mike

  • Currently narrowing my services down to a niche market in which I see a need, and in which I have had success in the past. I’ll have to let you know how it goes! Thanks for the timely post 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Anna. And do keep me in the loop!

  • Wow, what a timely post Brennan! I have been struggling to get consistent clients by branding myself as an Ecommerce Consultant since I didn’t wanted to loose certain set of clients. It’s very general as I do a little bit of everything in Ecommerce. I think I would be focusing, this month, on branding myself and my blog from Ecommerce Consultant (General) to Ecommerce Conversions Specialist (Specification).

    I also think “niching yourself” requires a change in mindset too as I keep getting these thoughts about the clients I would NOT get instead of the clients I would get by being a specialist and the additional services I can offer to them.

    I’ll work on this and keep you posted 🙂

    • Sagar, glad to hear this was timely for you. Yeah, what’s interesting about being an “ecommerce CONVERSION specialist” vs just an ecommerce consultant is that *every single ecommerce client* is going to want more conversions. You won’t be repelling anyone; rather, you’ll be presenting a much more enticing offer.

      Let me know how it goes!

  • This is an excellent post Brennan.

    I’ve mentored a lot of entrepreneurs and freelancers and I’ve been telling people for years the need to identify and specialize in a niche. But it scares people and they fear they “will miss a project they could have otherwise gotten.” What they rarely realize is that by being so broad means they miss far more opportunities because when you are a little of something to everyone you are effectively nobody special to anyone. If they instead specialized they could become very valuable to those they target and they could double their freelancing rate! (see what I did there…? 🙂

    Another anecdote; one time someone posted a question to a forum asking how to convince customers that his higher price than his competitors “was worth it.” And most people responded with platitudes about how to explain that he was worth it. My advice, which he later told me was some of the best he’d ever gotten was that he was asking the wrong question. I said he should be asking himself “Which of the types of prospects that I previously pursued should I stop even considering”, and to ask himself that question on an ongoing basis. Figuring out who you won’t offer services to is a way to back into identifying your niche, and it was one I felt would make the point better for this specific person.

    That said, your post is now bookmarked; next time I need to give advice to focus on a niche I’ll just save the time and send them here; you’ve made the case far better than I ever could. Thanks!

  • Great article as always Brennan!

    I’ve heard a lot of opinions on this topic over the years and it generally seems to favour the niche route. While I agree that targeting a niche audience can work extremely well in some cases, I don’t necessarily think it’s for everyone. I guess it depends on how we class the term niche and how deep the term goes.

    I’ve heard people argue that if someone markets themselves as a “designer” they’re being too general. Well how about “web designer”‘ then, or maybe “visual web designer” or “UI/UX designer”? Where does it really end?

    Personally speaking, I provide branding, graphic design and web design services. Does that make me a “generalist” or a “jack of all trades”? I’m not so sure. If I am equally good in all of these areas, why should I specialise in just one? Sure, I could decide tomorrow to focus solely on logo design and make that my niche, but I’ve found that clients love the fact that I can help solve their business problems in many aspects/areas. The fact that they don’t need to hire multiple professionals for each particular requirement they have helps us build strong, long-term relationships.

    I can’t speak for others, but I’m not sure how many healthcare clinic website projects I could work on before boredom started to set in? I love that I’m able to help a variety of clients and I also enjoy the variety of the projects I get to work on.

    Perhaps people need to start focusing more on the type of clients they want to target and want to work with (e.g. startups or SME’s who value design etc), as opposed to what specific specialty service they provide?

    • Since Brennan has not answered yet, maybe I can take a stab?

      > While I agree that targeting a niche audience can work extremely well in some cases, I don’t necessarily think it’s for everyone.

      Hmm. Are you sure that you are not trying to justify staying in a comfort zone? Not challenging you, just asking you to be introspective.

      > I’ve heard people argue that if someone markets themselves as a “designer” they’re being too general. Well how about “web designer”‘ then, or maybe “visual web designer” or “UI/UX designer”? Where does it really end?

      Well each of those are more specific than the latter, and that means the people in those specific areas can become better in their area of focus than the person who spreads themselves across the board. Consider a general practitioner doctor and a heart surgeon; if a family member need bypass surgery you would damn well prefer the specialist; why should it be any different for people hiring designers to want to get the best (and be willing to pay more for) the person who specializes in exactly what they need?

      > I provide branding, graphic design and web design services. Does that make me a “generalist” or a “jack of all trades”? I’m not so sure. If I am equally good in all of these areas, why should I specialize in just one?

      Because if you specialize in just one you will get 3x the experience in that area and thus you will be able to recognize patterns and gain expertise that the person who doesn’t specialize does not.

      > Sure, I could decide tomorrow to focus solely on logo design and make that my niche, but I’ve found that clients love the fact that I can help solve their business problems in many aspects/areas.

      It’s possible the client you’ve found are the ones that would love the fact you can help them in many areas. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best (or best paying) clients.

      > The fact that they don’t need to hire multiple professionals for each particular requirement they have helps us build strong, long-term relationships.

      It can, but the organizations that can only afford to hire one freelancer professional across many areas if likely to be one that doesn’t pay the highest rates.

      > I can’t speak for others, but I’m not sure how many healthcare clinic website projects I could work on before boredom started to set in?

      I love that I’m able to help a variety of clients and I also enjoy the variety of the projects I get to work on.

      And therein is the rub. Most designers I have met like new and different projects starting with blank slates so they can have the freedom to create anew. And specializing limits that, meaning you are building upon your prior experience; for many designers that’s just not as “fun.”

      So what it really comes down to is this: A.) Is it more important to you to experience variety in your work and enjoy what you are working on, B.) or is it more important that you double your freelancing rate?

      And only you can answer that. If “A” is your priority then don’t specialize. If “B” is your priority, it might be time to rethink what you find enjoyable?

      > Perhaps people need to start focusing more on the type of clients they want to target and want to work with (e.g. startups or SME’s who value design etc), as opposed to what specific specialty service they provide?

      And actually, this is where you can make more money as a freelancer, by specializing in a business niche and offering greater value for the clients you target vs. necessarily subdividing your experience by the type of design service you provide. The former can grow your value as a service provider in the business niche whereas I think the latter grows your value as a subcontractor to agencies and/or as an employee. JMTCW.

      • Hi Mike, thanks for your reply.

        I take your point and agree that specialising in a particular area will allow you to gain more expertise/experience in that particular area over time. On the flip side though, I think it’s often beneficial to have solid experience in other complimentary areas also. Although I have a background in coding, I simply choose not to provide web development as a service. So in that sense I would see ‘design’ as my specialty. It allows me to focus on what I’m best at and therefore provide more value to my clients. I don’t necessarily believe specialising is the only way to provide greater value to clients, but I do understand where you are coming from.

        So if I had to choose A or B above, I think for me personally it’s more important that I am passionate about what I do and find enjoyment in my work rather than sacrificing that to earn more money 🙂

        • Hi Sheena,

          Let me try to explain it more succinctly:

          The point of specializing in a niche is to improve your ability to charge higher rates to your clients.

          So there’s nothing wrong with not specializing in a niche. You can still provide value to clients without specializing; maybe people do that and many clients are happy with that.

          But when Brennan says “niche yourself” he’s explaining how you can make more money.

          Why can you make more money in a niche? Because specializing allows you to develop niche-specific expertise which has greater business value to clients than those who offer branding, graphic design and web design services to any type of business.

          You can also make more money because specializing means you are less likely to be competing on price because fewer competitors will likely be able to match your offerings.

          Lastly, niching means you can identify patterns for reuse, and even create products. For example, if you specialized in doctors office websites you might (have someone) build a patient scheduling module for the website that you can then “theme” differently for each of your clients. The business value of a scheduling addition to their website would be many times more valuable to your client than the time you spent to theme it and thus you’d be able to charge orders of magnitude more for your time.

          So in summary, keep doing what you are doing, there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless of course you find yourself wanting to charge more for your time.

          • Gokhan

            Thank you Mike, your posts are as valuable as the article.

    • Luca Paltrinieri

      Hi Sheena,
      I think niching yourself would not mean leaving “Graphic Design” for “Logo Design”, but switching to “Graphic Design for Lawyers/Real Estate/BLoggers/…” instead.

      • I agree Luca. I think it’s better to focus on a type of client as opposed to a specific service, though I would see that as a type of business (such as small businesses, large organisations or non-profits etc) as opposed to a specific industry such as real estate.

  • This was very helpful. I’m doing the exercise now of cataloging the clients we’ve worked with…

  • clapas

    Excellent post. In the begining, it seemed to me a little counterintuitive when you say that narrowing your niche can get you more clients, but it makes a lot of sense now that I look at it from a different angle. The key is that being specific helps people identify their problems with those that you solved before. Thank you!

  • depends on the type of business and industry, but diversification is very important.

  • Hi, Brennan & everyone! Excellent advice! The comments are great too! I’ve interviewed 10+ freelance creatives about their decision to pick a niche. Everything from building websites exclusively for photographers (Alex Vita) to work solely with wine & spirits (Pere Pàga). So far, everyone tells me it was a good decision, definitely businesswise, but also creatively speaking.

    I’ve collected all my interviews on the page “Design Niches Actually Picked.” I continuously add new ones. I hope my interviews will provide some inspiration and guidance for anyone who hasn’t taken the niche leap yet!
    🙂

  • Really helpful article and has given me a lot more perspective on niche areas. I’m on the fence right now about experimenting with a full-on niche service on the side, to see if it works.

    Currently, I’m a web designer who specializes in WordPress sites for (mainly) small businesses. Although, since I’m pretty desperate for work, I’ll take just about anyone who will pay. I’ve been struggling for years trying to find clients and market myself.

    Personally, I feel like I’m in an oversaturated industry. There are so many web designers now and although not all of them are good, the general person probably won’t know that and just cares about price. It seems the way to go is to specialize yourself and try to be something different.

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