I want to share with you something I've learned over the 16 years or so since I started marketing my small business back in 2001.
You will have been told to do it time after time, and on the face of it you know it makes sense!
But you still haven't done it. Betcha.
Define your niche. Narrow. Specific.
And, um, just a bit scary.
You see? Told you. I wonder how many times you have heard that piece of advice.
Fine on the surface, but in reality massively challenging for a number of reasons.
First, well, how?
"It's all very well telling me to 'define my niche'", I hear you say, "but that's just meaningless marketing flim-flam! It doesn't actually tell me anything useful. Like, um, how to do it, for example."
Well, it's scary. It sounds like you will be excluding a whole raft of potential customers, and that doesn't sound like good news for someone marketing any business - let alone marketing a small business like yours!
So in the next few minutes I hope I will be able to debunk a few things and shine some daylight on this murky, confusing and mis-interpreted issue...
Now, I think the first step to understanding is sometimes to change the language.
So I'm not going to talk about 'niche'. I'm going to talk about 'specialism' and 'crowd' and 'persona'.
(Ooops - Am I creating a whole new category of marketing flim-flam? I hope not! Judge for yourself and let me know...)
I'm going to start with 'crowd'...
Most people would refer to this as your 'Market'.
So why should I suggest you think about it as "your crowd".
Because when I look at my own business, I don't really see anything that looks even remotely like 'a market'.
What I see is a crowd of people who like to hang out around me and my business.
I like them. They like me.
I 'get' them. They 'get' me.
And some of them take me up on the things I have to offer.
Now this is important:
If they don't like me, or I don't like them, then they aren't really part of my crowd and we probably won't hang out together.
And if I don't 'get' them, or they don't 'get' me, then likewise.
The thing is, if you are running your own business then you really owe it to yourself to let it be pleasurable! After all, you have that choice.
And why would you want to hang out with people you don't want to hang out with? Even more puzzling, why would you want to twist yourself out of shape so those people are attracted to you and start to hang out around you?
There is someone else out there who suits them perfectly.
And there are plenty of people who would just love to be in your crowd. With you. That is, the real you - not some unhappy, twisted-out-of-shape, have-to-please-everybody you.
I hope that makes sense, because it's really important - and really practical.
Because now you don't have to create some imaginary, theoretical 'market'. You can simply look around yourself and gather real evidence: what sort of people do you like to hang out with in your business?
It's that easy.
Of course, it's easier if you have some clients - you'll know easily which ones you like to work with and which ones you don't so much.
And if you're just starting out, then you might have to use your imagination to start with, but the fantastic thing is that there are so many business networking groups, interest groups and whatever that it's actually quite easy to go and hang out with them in reality and see if you've got it right!
And remember this: your understanding is going to grow and develop and mature over time anyway. So it doesn't have to be 'Right'. it just has to be 'Helpful'. I know we all spent our school days having to be 'Right', but to be honest it's much more useful in real life to be inquisitive, perceptive and open to change.
This might be a little difficult to hear, but it's important to say it: you are running a business, not a charity.
That means that, so far as your business crowd is concerned, there is one characteristic they absolutely must have. They must have enough money to be able to afford to pay you. That's what a business is.
Does that mean you have to be mercenary and cold-hearted?
Of course not.
If you serve your crowd well, they will reward you well. And then you can afford to give your help freely to those in need.
This is where people start to get resistant.
I'm going to tell you to choose a specialism.
One that will, of course, appeal to your crowd and be easily understood by them.
So let's say you're an EFT practitioner. Your specialism might be, say, phobias. Or childhood trauma. Or PTSD.
Let's say you bite the bullet and choose 'phobias'.
And all your marketing is around phobias.
And when you meet people, you say you specialise in phobias.
And you hand out leaflets with testimonials about phobias.
Now, you might think that you are limiting your market - because, as we all know, most people don't have phobias.
Here's my experience.
Whenever I have spoken to people about a specialist area, invariably a conversation starts, because it is very clear and simple and easy to grasp. Even if someone doesn't have a clue what, say, EFT is, they know what a phobia is and they will begin to ask you questions and give you a platform to explain more about what it is that you do.
And in many cases, that conversation leads on to "could you help with...?"
And the answer is, more often than not, "yes".
Does that make sense to you?
So the point is that although you may be presenting yourself as a specialist, you will be initiating conversations that lead to more general business (if that's what you want).
Try it for yourself and see - I'd be interested to know how you get on.
It's even true in Corporate work.
For example, I had one client for whom I delivered very specialist - and rather technical - training for some years.
When the person I had been dealing with (let's call her Jane) moved to a different company, I received a phone call from her: "Jim, we're putting together a Management Development programme and a Graduate Programme, and I'd like you to create and deliver two modules of each."
As it happens, the modules were presentation skills and communication skills - nothing to do with the technical training I had been delivering before.
The point is that, over the course of our business relationship, Jane and I had discussed the other areas of my work and the result was a substantial amount of business outside what had previously been my 'specialism'.
So the fear of limiting your business by 'specialising' is unfounded. Your specialism is simply the door opener, and many wider opportunities will come to you.
Now, consider the opposite approach.
Let's say you're at EFT practitioner and you don't choose a specialism.
You start a conversation with someone.
The only route open to you is to start to explain what EFT is.
Which is really hard! And probably not very interesting. Much more interesting to talk about other people and their problems than yourself and your technology!
And it's hard for the person you are talking to as well! In fact, they will probably ask you "and what's your specialism?" or "and what sort of people do you work with?" just to help them get a grip on what you actually do!!
So there you are - I hope that's been helpful.
Just to summarise, though:
Although it sounds a bit scary, understanding your niche is a really important aspect of small business marketing. But remember to cut through the flim-flam and change the language to something that makes more sense.
So when people tell you to think about your 'market' and your 'niche', make life easier for yourself.
Think about the crowd you want to hang out with in your business, and the specialist area you are going to open conversations with.
Simple as that.
So give it a go!
Judge for yourself, and let me know how you get on...
Every small business marketing guru I've come across has talked about 'avatars'. What on earth is an avatar! I've never met one. I was going to talk about that issue as well here, but I think it deserves debunking in an article of its own - especially since this one has gone on and on!
Reading this reminds me I need to explain something about another marketing flim-flam word as well - 'differentiation'. Coming soon to this blog...