One of the biggest factors that holds back new and aspiring freelance writers is the idea that they have to find their niche before they launch.
This “niche quest” tends to do more damage than good. It creates confusion, stalls progress and kills momentum.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a niche or a specific target market is a good idea. But it’s not a prerequisite for launching your commercial writing business.
In this episode I give you a simple framework and a series of questions to determine if you should define a niche … how to find one that makes sense … and what to do if you can’t come up with anything viable.
The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or on Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.
Remember When You Were 21?
How good are 21-year-olds at making career decisions? Do we know enough at that age to make definite decision about our career?
Not really. So why do we ask them to declare a major in college? Are they that confident that they’ll love being attorneys, accountants, engineers, teachers or financial analysts?
Some students get it right. But they’re in the minority. Most students choose a more generic major and realize they’ll just have to find their way in the workforce. They’ll have to get out there and see what they like and don’t like.
Only after several years’ worth of real work experience then will they be able to decide if an MBA makes sense. Or if that law degree is really what they want.
It’s the same with picking a niche or a target market. When you’re starting out, you may not yet know what’s going to work best for you—what you’ll like and not like. So unless you have solid experience in a field or a specific type of writing assignment—and you really love that industry or that kind of work—it may be smarter to start out as a generalist and define your niche over time.
Niche vs. Target Market
First, let’s get clear on some definitions…
There’s a difference between “target market” and “niche” or “specialty.”
Target market: a defined group of prospects you often go after (e.g., hospitals, food companies, heavy equipment manufacturers, accounting firms).
Niche or specialty: What you’re known for (or want to be known for).
In my case, I write all kinds of copy and can work on a variety of different projects—white papers to case studies, web copy, lead generation emails, brochures and direct mail. But what I’m REALLY known for is white papers, case studies, and bylined articles. So that’s my specialty. My target market is enterprise software companies.
You do NOT need to have either at this point (or anytime soon). If there’s something in your background that screams “I have to focus on this particular industry inside B2B because of my work history and contacts,” then by all means pay attention to that nudge. Or if you absolutely love writing case studies and that’s all you want to do, that’s fine as well.
But you DON’T need to have either one. You can keep it focused on offering B2B content and the corporate market, for example. That distinction alone will be enough to get you started. And once you find your way through the business, you can then decide an area or market to focus on.
Having a niche is a very smart thing. In the long run, it can help you land better clients faster. And it can help you earn higher fees, everything else being equal. But again, it’s NOT something you have to establish early on in your business.
How to Pick the Right Focus
Three-and-a-half ways to narrow your focus:
1) A specific target market or markets
2) A specific project type or types
3) Aptitude, skill or knowledge that make you different from most
3.5) A combination of any of the above
#1: Specific Target Market
Start this process by looking at your professional background. Have you worked in an industry that markets and sells products/services that are:
These 3 factors are what you need to have a real demand for content and copy. You need at 2 out of the 3 to have a viable market for your B2B/commercial writing services.
Not sure how to determine if what they’re selling is new, expensive and complex? Here’s another way you can find out. Look through the websites of at least a dozen companies in that industry, and see if they have a lot of marketing content posted:
- White papers
- Case studies
- Other marketing collateral
This is a clear indication that the industry is marketing products and services that don’t just sell themselves. They need to be actively marketed and sold. Which means that their products services are probably new, expensive and complex (or at least 2 out of the 3).
- High-end professional services
- Medical equipment
- Architectural, engineering, construction
- And so on (there are many others)
Has it been a while since you worked in that industry? That’s OK, as long as you were there long enough to know the business well, develop relationships, develop credibility and relevant knowledge/experience.
When I was launching my own writing business, I was torn between the wine industry and the software industry. I had software industry experience. But I also have a passion for great wine. And I thought that writing about it would be fun and glamorous.
In the end I realized that wine is not new, expensive and complicated. It is, to some extent. But not in the way we’re talking about these factors. It doesn’t require a ton of content marketing. It’s more of a brand-marketing play.
Software, however, is constantly changing. It’s new, expensive, complex, and it needs to be heavily marketed and sold to business buyers. That requires a lot of marketing content—and someone needs to write that!
Two More Important Questions
- Is this market large enough? Example: Waterworks industry is very large. But focusing on a very specific sector of the waterworks industry (a specific type of control equipment that has maybe 20 total players in the whole world), no—that’s way too narrow.
- Does it interest you? Don’t be too scientific about this “niche” decision. Don’t just look at pure demand. Make sure you have a real interest in the topic, industry or project type.
#2: Specific Project Type
Do you have relevant experience writing any of the most common and in-demand business writing projects today?
- White papers
- Case studies
- Blog posts
- Web copy
If so, that may something to consider. If you’re going to specialize on a specific project type or types, make sure you really love that kind of work, because you’ll be doing it all the time.
- Casey Hibbard writes only case studies
- Gordon Graham spends 80% of his time writing white papers
- Some writers focus on speechwriting for executives
- Other do mostly long-format (100+ pages) research reports
You have to really love the work you pick because you’ll be doing that type of writing most of the time.
#3: Aptitude, Skill or Knowledge
Finally, you can simply choose to focus on a specific skill, knowledge or aptitude that make you different from most writers.
This is not so much about focusing on a specific target market or developing a project specialty as much as it is communicating your difference.
And frankly, it’s something I recommend you do anyway, regardless of whether or not you’re going to start out as a specialist or generalist.
Here’s an exercise to help you uncover some ideas to work from?
Make a list of the following as it pertains to you:
- Specialized knowledge
- Achievements, accomplishments, awards
- Likes and dislikes
Make a thorough list of what attributes you may possess under each category. And don’t rush through this exercise. Take your time. You won’t think of everything the first time.
Connect the dots
- After a few days of adding to the list, take another look and see if anything pops out.
- For some of you, your “difference” will be fairly obvious. For instance, you’ve been working in the medical equipment field for 8 years. Or you’ve been a journalist for 17 years and have spent much of your career writing about chemicals and manufacturing.
- Or maybe you’ve done written dozens of research reports over the years as an employee. Or you’ve been a corporate marketing communications manager.
- In other words, what you’ve done over the last 10 or 20 or more years has left some pretty obvious clues as to what you could bring to the table as a B2B writer. If that’s the case, then, that may be where you’ll want to focus.
When I was starting out I saw two things that stood out for me. One of these was my experience in the software industry. I knew that business pretty well after working in the industry for a number of years.
The second attribute that stood out for me was my sales background, experience and track record. I decided to talk about how I brought my street-level sales experience to bear in my marketing writing. And how I approached copywriting from the viewpoint of the people who would benefit from it the most—the sales team. That made me very different from many of the other writers out there who may have had more experience writing, but little to no experience out there in the trenches doing real face-to-face selling.
Give this exercise the time it deserves. It will help you uncover patterns and connections that bring out your biggest selling points. For example:
- A demonstrated experience and passion for working with disabled children probably shows that you have a highly empathetic personality. That could make you an ideal freelancer for companies that need to communicate a very empathetic tone in order to strike a chord with their target audience.
- A coaching client of mine is an actor and writes screenplays as a hobby. So he’s positioning himself as a writer who knows how to bring the powerful elements of story and character to business writing in order to make it more compelling.
The Bottom Line
If there’s something in your work background that screams, “Pick me, pick me!!” then pay attention. That may be a target market or area of specialization you may want to focus on.
But if after some searching and digging you’re not uncovering anything obvious, that’s OK. Again, it’s much better to start today as a generalist than to stall and never get started. I’ve seen it over and over again with new freelance writers—they spend WAY too much time looking for their “niche” and that becomes a crutch, an excuse to put off their business launch.
As your business develops, you can always choose to position yourself differently and pursue specific markets or projects that you enjoy more. In fact, this is one of the most common paths to success: get going and you’ll just “find your way.”
Just like a college student finds his or her way after getting a plain-vanilla degree and going out into the workforce. Once they’ve been out there for a few years, the clarity comes. And that’s when it makes sense to focus further and possibly go back to school or look for a more focused career path.
But up until that point, all decisions can only be based on guesswork.
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Till next time,