What if everything you’ve been told about positioning (or niching your business) was wrong?
Or maybe not 100% wrong… but at least super risky and prone to failure, especially if you’re thinking that specializing is going to lead to fixing your lead generation problems?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a group of early access customers go through the first few modules of my newest course, The Blueprint.
I start the course out by focusing on positioning: Who are you selling to, What do they want, and Why should they hire you?
The feedback I’ve been getting from these students is outstanding – and my attempt to show that traditional specialization/niching/positioning wisdom is flawed is going exactly as I was hoping it would!
Let’s get on the same page: here’s what positioning is – and why it’s a Very Good Thing
Most of us are pretty good at answering the Why (“Why should I hire you?”) After all, the whole exercise of meeting with prospective clients and then pitching them with a proposal is a giant attempt at making a case for working with you.
But the Who? (“Who am I selling to?”)
And the What? (“What does my ideal client need from me?”)
For most freelancers and agencies, those are… well, a bit nebulous. You could theoretically work with any number of different types of clients, who have any number of needs.
After all, you’re selling your expertise and your time – so why pigeonhole yourself?
If you’ve been doing the freelancing thing for a while now, you’ve undoubtedly come across advice telling you to “choose a niche.”
The idea is simple and makes a lot of sense: clients ultimately want to hire whoever’s best for the job, and what client wouldn’t want to hire the designer who specializes in e-commerce redesigns to redesign her online store?
Since clients seek experts, the natural takeaway is to niche, or to specialize.
Rather than advertising yourself as a copywriter, you’re now a copywriter who specializes in writing SaaS onboarding sequences.
Again, it all makes sense.
As someone in the SaaS world who occasionally hires copywriters, please find me the specialist. I’d rather have someone who knows my world and more-or-less knows what I want, rather than the sales copywriter who’s scratching his head and asking, “Sass? What’s that?”
But is positioning all-or-nothing?
Over the years, I’ve helped hundreds of freelancers and agencies figure out their positioning.
In retrospect, I made a huge mistake at first.
I discounted just how emotionally jarring and downright risky positioning is. I was too theoretical about positioning – I approached it like I did a few sections above: “Clients want specialists, duh. Just make yourself a specialist!”
But if I’m asking someone to go from being a generalist coder to a specialist coder, I’m asking them to gamble.
- Does anyone actually need that sort of specialist coder?
- If so, are there enough people who need that?
- Will I enjoy doing this – and only this – again and again?
- Am I really that qualified to call myself an expert in this field?
Positioning requires you to say “no” – or at least be OK with actively disqualifying people. And since most people think about niching because they’re struggling to find high-quality work, should you really be saying no?
So many people that I tried to help went missing-in-action when we started talking positioning.
The problem? The fear of going all-in.
What if it doesn’t work?
The chasm was just too great to cross, and it proved to be easier – and more comfortable – to remain a generalist.
Positioning is just marketing – stop overthinking it!
What I teach in The Blueprint is to think about positioning as an additive, rather than something limiting.
It’s a framework that might garner some flack from positioning purists, but in my experience is ultimately the safest and most prudent way to do it.
Think about the last proposal you wrote…
You positioned yourself and your services, right?
You aligned (which is what mean when we say positioning) your skills with their needs. “I’m Brennan Dunn, and here’s how I can help you achieve X and Y by doing Z.”
You didn’t outright reposition your entire business, right? For this specific client, you reduced everything you’re able to help with and made it appropriate and sensible for them.
When I now teach positioning, it’s all about positioning your sales funnel. It’s about creating one (or more) pathways that lead someone ultimately to working with you.
This means a web designer might have a few different channels that all lead to her:
- Helping e-commerce companies who are struggling to convert visitors into customers leverage conversion-focused design to increase sales
- Working with legal firms who want to generate more leads from their website.
- Referrals from satisfied past clients or industry peers
Positioning, at least within the framework of The Blueprint, is all about setting up boundaries for your marketing.
Let’s say you’ve always been a generalist. You’re a marketer and you have a portfolio website that lists out your services, and most of your work comes via referral.
Rather than thinking that you need to turn your business upside down and teardown your entire site and say no to any referrals you might get in the future that are “out of scope”, you instead:
- Come up with a hypothetical type of client and/or problem companies have. We’ll call this a market.
- Go through and validate the viability (at least initially) of this market via customer research and interviews.
- Create a new marketing channel that targets this market and brings them through a specific funnel that leads to a very specific service offering sales page that you provide this market.
So you’re not replacing or reinventing your business; you’re adding a very focused, well-positioned marketing funnel to your arsenal.
Positioning here is just a constraint.
It’s only job is to keep your marketing in check: is this appealing to my target market? Am I using the right language? Am I empathizing with a problem I know they have, and really focusing in on how I can help solve it?
It doesn’t define you. Instead, it scopes out a specific channel that leads work to you.
And you can create multiple niched marketing funnels – again, all of which lead to you.
Positioning your business, or planting a flag in the ground that states who you’re working with and who you’re not working with, can (and, in my opinion, should only) happen after you’ve had a solid track record with an existing market, are fully satisfied with working with that market exclusively, and you’ve discovered that market is both plentiful and profitable.
But jumping the gun and transforming your business to serve a new market overnight? Way too risky.
And don’t just take my word for this. Here’s what Ari, one of the early access students for The Blueprint, had to say:
“I thought it was a brilliant approach. It allowed me to maintain ‘who’ I am while positioning ‘what’ I do to different market segments or verticals. I have taken dozens of online programs, but this is the most comfortable approach to date. I didn’t have to totally revamp my website, my copy, etc. I just focused my strengths toward a specific vertical. It also ‘feels’ lower risk, i.e. if it doesn’t work, I just reposition the offer RATHER THAN reposition ‘me.'”
SO STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR POSITIONING!
Think in terms of niched marketing funnels, and possibly a handful of them.
When, and if, one of these funnels works really well and it’s super profitable and fun to work in, then go all-in on that positioning.