“As a freelancer, how do I choose my niche? And do I need to niche down at all?”
As I coach other freelancers and consultants, and follow discussions on social media, I see and hear a lot of questions about niching.
It’s not a challenge that only new freelancers face. It’s a question you’ll keep asking as an independent.
Some freelancers avoid choosing a niche because it feels risky: “What if I choose the wrong one? What if I get bored with my niche?”
Others agonize over this decision and end up choosing nothing – which is also a choice.
Still others put their marketing on hold for months while they try to figure it out.
Of course, the market is not waiting for you to decide on your niche. If you’re putting your marketing on hold, you’re losing time and losing ground. If you’re not choosing at all, you’re marketing to a broad target, and some of your effort will be wasted.
About This Post
The premise of this post is that niching is absolutely something you should consider as an independent consultant or freelancer.
I’m not saying you must niche down. I’m saying it’s worth your consideration.
Niching – and its close cousin, targeting – are forms of focus. And focus is one of the most effective ways to carve out a business for yourself.
And with more and more people realizing the benefits of self-employment, there is ever-increasing competition. Niching is one way to stand out from the pack and to appeal to the kinds of clients you’d most like to serve.
This post is also a reaction to some disastrous advice I’ve seen on this topic. For example: “Your niche will find you.” I wouldn’t bet the future of my business that the universe will provide for me. I prefer deliberate action.
This post will answer the following questions for you:
- What is niching?
- What are the benefits of niching?
- How do I choose my niche?
- What are the arguments against niching?
As we proceed, please bear in mind that this post is written for freelancers and consultants who are on the path of “fewer, larger projects,” which is the default mode I prefer and recommend. If you’re doing dozens of small gigs a year, niching is less important to you; what you need in this case is a wide net.
But if you seek projects of greater scope, depth and revenue, as well as authority and expert status, niching is a useful tool – and one that can greatly increase your odds of success.
To Niche or Not to Niche: A Tale of Two Designers
Meet two designers: Vague Virgil and Precise Priya.
Virgil and Priya are imaginary, but their words are based on actual conversations I’ve had with designers I was meeting for the first time.
My goal in these conversations: To understand what they do and who they do it for, so I can decide if I can refer them or partner with them.
I ask Virgil about his areas of specialty. His reply:
“I can do it all.”
Okay. I ask about his ideal client. Virgil says:
“I don’t really have one. I’ll work with anyone who can pay me.”
When I ask Priya what she specializes in, her answer is so clear that it shapes the rest of our conversation:
“I specialize in top-to-bottom visual identity for retail food brands with revenues of at least eight figures.”
If I knew nothing else about these two, and I had to bet a chunk of my own money on one of them, I’m going with Priya all day long.
Why? Because I have a clear mental slot in which to place her. I know her niche, her primary offer and, presumably, her price point. She’s focused.
I have no idea what to think about Virgil. And the intent behind “I can do it all, for anyone” – which is to keep his options open – actually has the opposite effect. If a colleague comes to me looking for a referral, it won’t be Virgil, because my colleague is almost always looking for a specialist and almost never looking for “a designer.”
There’s a marketing truism:
If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up meaning nothing to anyone.
Virgil exemplifies this problem. He thinks he’ll get all the phone calls, but he’ll get very few, because he’s unclear about his offer, his target and his niche.
We’ll see Virgil & Priya again. Now, let’s take a moment to define our terms.
Let’s start with what niching is not:
- A skill set is not a niche.
- An offer is not a niche.
- A tactic is not a niche.
- A target isn’t even a niche.
In the recent discourse about niching, one thing is clear: Some opponents of niching don’t seem to know what a niche is.
The definition of a niche that I’m about to share with you is not a breakthrough. Nor is it an attempt to put an unnecessarily clever spin on things. It’s a commonly-held definition, one that’s been in use for decades. Here it is:
A niche is a subset of a larger market that is characterized by unique identity, needs or preferences.
That’s it. So when you “niche down,” you are simply making a decision to serve a particular slice of the market.
There is, of course, an interplay between your niche and your product or service. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to these as your “offer.”)
For example, if you’re in the business of productivity software, you’d build something very different for cross-functional teams in Fortune 500 companies than you would for the self-employed. And you’d build something different for a self-employed handyman than you would for a self-employed consultant.
If you’re a wine educator, your offer for a certified sommelier would be very different than your offer for someone who takes a plastic cup, fills it with ice, and dumps some sweet Moscato in there.
Your niche shapes your offer.
Importantly, a niche is a strategic decision. It’s not something you magically “find.”
I find this little switch in the language – it’s a proactive choice, not something that you stumble over – makes it something you’re more likely to manage with purpose. And it’s a reminder that you’re not restricted to your niche. If your niche is not working for you, act like an owner and make a new choice.
Niching vs. Targeting
What’s the difference between niching and targeting? They’re related, but not identical. A personal example may help:
My niche for my consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, is “second stage or later” challenger brands. The P&Gs and Apples of the world don’t need me. But challenger brands have common needs that differ from those of the market at large, and I can help them with those needs.
My target, on the other hand, is leaders of such challenger brands in my existing network and in Chicagoland. These are my most likely buyers, and this is where I focus my marketing efforts.
Can you target without niching? Sure. Let’s say you manage a candy brand with mass distribution, but a bullseye target of “16-year-old boys in major metros.” As a mass brand, niching is not a strategic priority for you, but targeting sharpens your creative and your media buying.
Please note: As an independent, you have very little in common with a mass brand. So don’t assume you can do without niching based on the above example.
Generally speaking, the more focused your offer and targeting, the better off your business will be. Some focus is always better than none. No focus at all leaves far too much to chance, as we’ll see below.
Niche and Offer Combinations
The interplay between your niche and your offer will place you and your business into one of four categories. Three of them are viable, and one is dangerous as hell.
In the grid above, at the top right, we have “a narrow offer for a defined niche.” I’m calling this a Focused Specialist.
This is where Precise Priya lives: “I specialize in top-to-bottom visual identity for retail food brands with revenues of at least eight figures.”
Another example: “I build landing pages exclusively for creators.”
The trade-off here is that your offer won’t be a fit for a lot of people, but it will be perfect for some. And you only need a certain number of those people to hit your financial targets. Your marketing is sharper because it’s focused only on these people.
At the bottom right of the grid, we have a narrow offer for an undefined niche. I’m calling this a Mass-Appeal Specialist.
Here, instead of building landing pages exclusively for creators, you’d be building them for “anyone who needs a landing page.” That’s a lot of people; you’re not niching. So your expertise will be tied to your offer, not your niche.
You’ll have lots of opportunities to make a buck. But be aware: Since your market is so broad, you’ll still need to do some targeting. Everyone in the market doesn’t have an equal need for landing pages. If you don’t target, you’ll waste a lot of time and money.
At the top left of the grid, we have a broad offer for a defined niche. I’m calling this a Focused Generalist.
An example would be a firm that offers full-suite marketing services to a specific vertical – for instance, financial advisors.
Here, the client gets to access a bundle of services with a single phone call. She’ll need to trust that you can do everything she wants you to do, and you’ll need to find a way to be good at a lot of things. But if you do so, your niche knowledge will give you an edge over other “full-service” agencies.
The three examples above are all viable paths. You won’t have to look too hard to find examples of each. And, like any strategic choice, they all have their trade-offs.
Also note that one of the three – the Mass-Appeal Specialist – does not involve niching. As I said at the top of this piece, niching is something you should consider, not something that you must do. Just make sure that you have a strategic rationale for your decision.
The area that I want you to avoid is the bottom left: A broad offer for an undefined niche. This is the Land of the Vague, and it’s the death zone in which Vague Virgil has chosen to pitch his tent.
I’ve spoken with many Vague Virgils. And I left every one of those conversations with no idea what they were best at, or in what situation they would be the best person to call.
The goal is to “keep my options open.” But that’s not how marketing works, because it’s not how human psychology works.
People need to be able to attach you to a specific idea, and “designer” doesn’t cut it. Which means they’ll forget about you. And if they forget about you, they can’t hire you.
Since niching is an aspect of two of the three viable avenues above, let’s dig into the benefits of niching.
What Are the Benefits of Niching?
Those who have successfully niched down report a number of benefits. Here are five to consider:
Niching focuses your marketing and shapes your offer.
As discussed above, niching keeps you out of the “all things to all people” game, in favor of “an offer that’s right for a specific group of people.”
It improves your marketing by giving it focus. When you’re specific in your messaging and voice, a prospect is more likely to recognize herself in your marketing. If they don’t recognize themselves, they’ll quickly move on.
And niching shapes your offer in the many details that come from depth of experience. These details are often the difference between a “hell yeah!” and a “meh.”
People tend to hire specialists, not generalists.
When you want to install new hardwood floors in your home, do you look for a “house guy”? No. You look for a hardwood flooring specialist.
When I was the brand manager of Airheads candy, and we planned to launch the brand’s first-ever national TV campaign, I didn’t search for “an agency.” I searched for an agency with demonstrated expertise in emotionally-driven broadcast advertising. I hired GSD&M in Austin, TX, and they were terrific.
But: When we later needed a promotions agency, we didn’t hire GSD&M for that, even though they pitched for it. It wasn’t what they were great at. We hired a promotions specialist.
Clients are looking for specific expertise. Agencies often claim to be “expert” at a dozen disciplines or more, but clients know that even very large agencies are rarely great at more than two or three.
Have you ever lost a competitive bid because the other party had more industry experience? That’s the client saying that niche expertise matters.
Niching helps others know how to think about you.
And when they know how to think about you, they can do your marketing for you.
If you’re a freelancer, you’re talking to a lot of people about what you do. And what you say determines how they’ll mentally “file” you (and whether they file you at all).
Whatever terms you use, you must be clear about your What and your Who, at a minimum. Be a Precise Priya, not a Vague Virgil.
Niching creates competitive advantage.
When you get to know a niche on a deep level, you enjoy advantages that your generalist competitors can’t match.
- Speak the language.
- Leverage relevant experience.
- Generate deeper insights.
- Network more efficiently.
- Contribute more quickly.
Niching brings you more of the work you enjoy.
The assumption here is that you’re aligning your niche with your passions. (And why wouldn’t you?)
For all the objections about growing “bored” with one niche, I think a more troubling outcome would be failing to niche, and thus attracting a broad spectrum of work – some of which is guaranteed to not be your cup of tea.
How to Choose Your Niche
Let’s start with a few examples of what successful niching can look like.
When I lived in Cincinnati, there was a realtor who worked exclusively in the most affluent central neighborhoods. If you were looking for a pricey home across the river in Northern Kentucky, he wasn’t your guy. But if you wanted to be in certain Cincinnati Zip codes, he promised the greatest depth of knowledge and the highest level of service. His team regularly had the highest production per agent in the city.
I’ve also known a small accounting firm that specialized in start-ups and fast-growth companies. In its geographic market, it was a given that if your company was on the fast track, you needed to speak with this firm.
One of my newsletter subscribers, David Bisek, started out as a generalist, literally going door-to-door for small businesses he could help. He grew frustrated with this approach, so he niched down his consultancy, Food Rise Marketing, to focus exclusively on packaged food brands. In David’s words:
I’m more effective at marketing my business. I know who I’m talking to. I don’t need to learn about every industry – I have one – and I read the trade mags, go to the conferences and network with others in the industry. BIG WIN! It’s helped me gain referrals and become an “expert” in one area. AND it’s allowed me to know what to say no and yes to.
See? Niching is not complicated. Let’s talk about how to approach it without agonizing over it.
The Segmenting – Targeting – Positioning Model (And Where It Falls Short)
In marketing, there’s the STP Model. STP stands for “Segmenting – Targeting – Positioning.”
It rose to prevalence in consumer packaged goods marketing, where it’s still used extensively today.
The model dictates that we:
- Start with segmenting, which is the process of sorting the market into a set of clusters.
- Move on to targeting, in which we select one or two segments on which to focus our marketing efforts.
- Decide on positioning, which is what we aim to stand for in the minds of people in our chosen target.
Here’s the catch: For a mass brand, segmenting alone typically requires primary research, months of time, and a six-figure investment.
That last bit is where the model falls short for me, and probably for you.
But what I want you to take away from this model – what we can apply as independent consultants and freelancers – is the following:
- Everyone is not the same. Different people have different needs.
- You can’t successfully target “the universe.”
- You can’t position yourself without knowing exactly who you’re trying to serve.
Let’s apply these principles to a process we can execute (and afford).
Questions to Ask to Define Your Niche
In the absence of a massive budget, we’re going to have to make some assumptions. Welcome to self-employment!
This means, in most cases, you can toss the idea of “knowing what the perfect niche is” right out the window.
Don’t let that paralyze you. Instead, focus on increasing your odds of success.
Here are some areas of consideration to help you define the right niche for you (with some personal commentary):
Problems you can solve.
I help challenger brands to dramatically increase their clarity about what they stand for, because that’s a problem I’ve solved many times.
What are the problems that you have solved, or that you’re equipped to solve? What’s in your knowledge base and skill set, and how could this be leveraged to improve your clients’ conditions? Is there a sub-group of the market that you know a lot about (or are a part of)? In which areas do you have the most credibility or authority?
Feedback you’ve received.
People tell me I’m good at making branding clear and actionable, which is a need that many challenger brands have.
What have others said you’re good at? In what situations do they say you shine? If you’re stuck, create a feedback loop: Send a brief survey to 15 people who know you well, asking what they think you’re particularly good at.
Your existing network.
Who do you already know? What are some common problems they have that you can solve? Again, you may wish to survey your network. Like a good marketer, start with their needs, not your offer.
Your interests and passions.
I’m more energized by working with underdogs and disruptors than with market leaders.
What are the industries or brands you’re fascinated by? What would energize you to be a part of? Who are the people that you’d love to work with? Which companies share your values? Chase the stuff that excites you.
How large are the companies you prefer to work with? What industries are they in? Where are they located? At what level of the company do you prefer to interface? Who can afford your services? What are their values, purpose and mission? What kind of working style do you prefer?
Note that some of these desired characteristics (like geography and size) lend themselves to targeting, while others (like values and interpersonal style) are best used as filters in the sales conversation.
I recommend brainstorming each of the above considerations individually. Then review your output, looking for common themes and areas of particular interest.
Your goal is to define your niche in a simple statement. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to sing.
Again, my niche definition for my consultancy is “second stage or later” challenger brands. When I pair this with my target – leaders of such brands in my existing network and Chicagoland – I have a manageable and accessible niche that is sufficient to sustain my business.
Choosing Your Niche: Four Filters
It’s not uncommon to have more than one niche that feels viable. And it’s a good problem to have. If you find yourself choosing between several “good” options – not just “good” vs. “bad” options – then you’re doing strategy more thoughtfully than most.
Here are four filters I recommend for choosing the niche that is best for you:
A proverb states, “If you chase two rabbits, you’ll catch neither.” Have you clearly defined who’s in this niche, and what’s not?
You want a niche that’s precisely defined, but not so small that it can’t sustain you.
Again, in most cases, the operative question for us freelancers is not whether there’s enough demand in our chosen niche, but whether we’ve designed the right offer and outreach to harness that demand.
Can you do this? Do you have the plan & the resources to win in this niche?
Importantly, can you reach this niche as you’ve defined it? If it’s not accessible, there’s no point in selecting it as your niche.
Do you want to do this? Since it’s how you’ll be spending half of your waking hours, it doesn’t make sense to pursue a niche that doesn’t interest you.
Don’t jump into SaaS just because it’s hot, only to find a bunch of your competitors – who are more passionate about SaaS – have made the jump too. Be there because you really want to.
If you’ve gone four-for-four with the above filters, you have a niche definition that should work for you. “Two out of four ain’t bad” is not the game to play when the success of your business is at stake.
Common Objections to Niching (And the Occasional Snarky Reply)
In researching this post, I came upon several objections to niching. Here are some of the most prevalent objections, sometimes verbatim, and my responses to each.
“In the first few years, do not niche. Pitch anything that moves and take every bit of work that you can.”
As far as blanket advice goes, I find “DO NOT niche” rather more dangerous than “you MUST niche.”
If you have the luxury of exploration, I’m all for it. You have a life, not just a business. But if creating specialized expertise is important to you, niching will serve you better than not niching. And the sooner you start building your expertise, the better.
And, as any experienced freelancer will tell you, taking “every bit of work that you can” guarantees at least some misery. You need some standards.
Just like targeting, focused pitching will serve you better than fuzzy pitching.
“My niche will find me.”
This is an extremely passive stance on which to bet your entire business.
“I’m agonizing over my niche and I’m not doing any marketing until I figure it out.”
First, this is not a problem with niching; this is a problem with your inability to make a decision. You’re a business owner now, and making difficult decisions is something you signed up for.
Second, the market is not patiently waiting for you to decide what you want to be. And doing zero marketing guarantees a bad outcome.
So make an educated choice and get out there. Learn. Revise. Repeat.
You’re not going to figure out your niche in the comfort of your home office. A little reality beats a lot of guessing.
Take advantage of one of the wonderful things about self-employment: If a change needs to be made, you can make it. You don’t need six months of meetings and approvals. You can do it this afternoon.
“I’ll get bored with my niche.”
When selecting a niche, your personal interests are an important factor. And if your interests change over time, you can pick a new niche. It’s your party.
Personally, I chose to niche by client situation (challenger brands) instead of by industry. I get to learn new industries all the time, while applying timeless branding principles. I’ve yet to be even remotely bored, and I’ve been doing this since 1997.
Bear in mind that no matter how sharply you niche, you will always attract some prospects that aren’t a perfect fit. Whether you choose to accept those gigs is up to you. If, as a business owner, you decide on a mix that’s “80% my niche, 20% pot-luck projects,” that’s entirely your call.
One very important role of niching is to focus your marketing efforts in a way that increases your odds of success. I find this to be a more pressing concern than the as-yet-unrealized scenario of “my clients might all be the same, and then I’ll be bored.”
“If my niche is too narrow, won’t I limit my earning potential?”
Only in extreme cases. If your niche is “left-handed florists in Topeka,” that’s probably too narrow to sustain you. But most of us aren’t making choices like that.
The operative question, usually, is not whether there is demand for our services; this has almost always been proven. The question is how to harness that demand, with the right offer in the right place for the right people. Niching helps you harness demand.
“Some very large brands don’t niche, so you don’t have to.”
This is what I call a “Ben Shapiro argument”: It sounds smart until you think about it for about five seconds.
Some very large brands don’t niche precisely because they are very large brands. If you’re Coca-Cola, there’s no strategic benefit in niching. Coke is a pleasantly inoffensive brand with a strategy built on ubiquity.
But you, my fellow freelancer, are not Coke. And those of us who are looking to carve out some turf are better off not looking at the Cokes of the world, but at brands that have successfully challenged them. None of them have Coke’s revenue, but several have created businesses that you wouldn’t mind having.
Apple’s not doing much niching today. But in its early days, Apple definitely niched.
“I niche by my skill set, not my market.”
Remember the definition of niching: A subset of a larger market that is characterized by unique identity, needs or preferences.
Your skill set is related to your offer, and your offer by definition is not a niche.
When you decide who that skill set and offer will benefit, you’re talking about niching and targeting.
“New companies pivot all the time, so you can too.”
Yes and no.
Yes: You can certainly pivot. Your niche is not carved in stone.
No: I do not advise pivoting all the time, as this will confuse your audience.
Have you ever known a “serial career pivoter”? The kind of person who, in a span of two years, has been a realtor AND a life coach AND a yoga teacher AND a travel blogger? They’re not building expertise and they’re not sticking with anything long enough to see the results. And it’s tough to do business with someone you don’t trust will be around in a year.
You can’t build a reputation by hopping to a new lily pad every 3 months. If you’re not ready to commit, you shouldn’t niche down in the first place.
“I read an article by a guy who made it big without niching.”
I don’t doubt this. It’s a big world with a big internet.
But if you want to increase your odds of success, niching is worth your consideration.
“Niching has become a cult.”
Summary: Niching for Freelancers and Consultants
To revisit the premise of this piece: Niching is absolutely something you should consider as an independent consultant or freelancer.
A niche is a subset of a larger market that is characterized by unique identity, needs or preferences. It’s not more complicated than that.
As a one-person operation, you can increase your odds of success by focusing on a specific niche that can sustain your business and position you as an authority.
Some other benefits of niching:
- Niching focuses your marketing and shapes your offer.
- People tend to hire specialists, not generalists.
- Niching helps others know how to think about you.
- Niching creates competitive advantage.
- Niching brings you more of the work you enjoy.
Niching is not mandatory, in the same way that positioning and planning are not mandatory. But dismissing them entirely is a risky move.
Every business, including yours and mine, is a hypothesis. We’re saying, “If we do these things in these ways for these people, we can make them happier and earn a buck in the process.”
I believe that niching is worth your consideration because it’s one way to bring a better hypothesis to market.
That’s one man’s opinion. I’d love to know yours.
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Copyright 2021 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved.