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“Niche or Die!” (Really? You Sure About That?)

So, I’m in the midst of series #5 of my commercial freelancing group coaching program (as I write this) – geared towards business copywriters just starting out. Not surprisingly, one of the BIG bugaboo issues for newbies is “niche.” Seems you can’t spit these days without hitting a guru or two who’ll adamantly assert, chopping the air for emphasis, that you absolutely, positively must differentiate yourself in the marketplace by way of a well-delineated niche.

If you don’t, they’ll continue, you’re on a one-way road to professional oblivion (with financial ruin swiftly on its heels). So many new copywriters agonize over this one, so afraid to hang out a shingle without a laser-specific professional focus. Sorry, but as an across-the-board strategy, I don’t buy it.

(Note: we did touch on this subject a year or so ago in the Generalist vs. Specialist debate, but I’m taking a bit of a different spin here, and looking for slightly different input from you experienced folks).

Here’s my take: If you have a well-defined niche you can pursue, by virtue of past career experience, track record or education, by all means, go for it. Having a niche absolutely can set you apart – AND earn you more money. Even if you don’t have a big portfolio of work in, say, Industry A, if you know all about Industry A by virtue of 10-20 years in the business, you’ll be attractive to writing buyers in that industry (who’ll translate that experience into “minimal learning curve”…).

Even if you hate the field in which you’ve spent a decade or two, if you’re trying to get started as a commercial copywriter, I’d still recommend you leverage that experience out of the gate. You don’t have to write about it forever, but it’d be nuts to not parlay that into work until you get established.

Remember, even if you don’t love your industry any more as a field to work in, writing about that field from the comfort of your home in your sweats is a whole other ballgame from having to go to work every day (i.e., commute, endless meetings, office politics) in that same field in a job you loathe.

But what if you don’t have a 10-20-year track record in some field? Listening to the experts, you still need to create a niche. But what niche? Pull one from thin air? Flip a coin? Declare yourself an expert on X, but without the background, training or samples to back it up? What’re you going to say if someone asks for those samples? I’m afraid I just don’t see a whole lot of sense in that approach. If a niche isn’t occurring naturally to you, it’s probably not there, so don’t force it.

So, Plan B is to build your business sans niche as a generalist. Something I’ve been doing for 17 years, incidentally. Sure, I had a sales/marketing background, and I did make sure people knew that, but most of the projects we commercial writers do are marketing-oriented anyway, so is that a clearly defined niche? Debatable.

Sure, it’ll be tougher with little to leverage. But, if the alternative is touting yourself as an authority in an arena where you’re really not, I say the anxiety level with that scenario will likely top that of someone going niche-less. And in the latter situation, if you’re a really good writer and go out of your way to be overly professional, reliable and easy-to-work with, those things will set you apart (assuming you’re reaching enough people with your marketing efforts).

What’s your take on niche?

How important do you feel having a niche is for someone starting out?

Did you have a niche when you began? If not, how did your story unfold?

Do you feel strong writing skills, professionalism and reliability can be a “niche” of sorts (given how relatively rare they are)?

Simon Says: “People Don’t Buy What You Do; They Buy Why You Do It…”

A little intellectual gymnastics – with possible real-world application to the commercial freelancing business….

So, I was clicking through a few links I found on a writer friend’s web site the other day, and came across this guy, Simon Sinek (pronounced, unfortunately, “cynic,” though he’s anything but that…), whose site is “Start With Why.”

Very provocative stuff, methinks. Check out the video on the home page of Simon speaking (next to the words, “The Golden Circle”). It’s 18 minutes and change, but well worth it for the mind-buzz factor…

Simon’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement on his site:

All organizations and careers function on 3 levels. What you do, How you do it and Why you do it. The problem is, most don’t even know that Why exists.

True enough. And when you have a powerful “Why,” it drives the “How” (the actions taken to realize the “Why”), which in turn, yields the “What” (the tangible end results). Along around minute 11 of the video, he says the following (aggregated from several places in the video):

People don’t buy from you because you have what they want; they buy from you because they believe what you believe. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you’ll attract those who believe what you believe.

I like it. He cites Apple as a company with a core belief in innovation and being first, and predictably, appealing to similar “firsters” (i.e., the people who stood in line for hours to buy the first iPhones at $600 a pop – with bugs and all).

Now, this stuff goes beyond features and benefits. Though, let’s be clear. If you run your copywriting business focusing on benefits (i.e., those things that matter to your clients), NOT features (i.e., those things about you and your business), that’ll generally be enough to set yourself apart from most of the pack.

But, he’s going deeper here. Now, I’m not saying this is The New Answer for the commercial writing field. Rather, that there simply may be some cheese down this tunnel for folks like us. So, how is his philosophy relevant to us? Well, mapping it on to what we do…

Clients don’t buy what we do (i.e., writing services); they buy why we do it (i.e., ________??).

What might be that compelling “Why” for us to share with our clients and prospects? Sure, we could all have ones specific to our businesses, but nothing wrong with a little brainstorming. So, what would be a powerful belief on our part that would draw to us those who share that belief and do business with us as a result?

Would it be, “I believe in the power of words to dramatically influence buyer action”? Too superficial?

Maybe, “Writing has changed history, so it can certainly change minds.” Closer, but perhaps a bit obtuse?

How about, “Speak honestly and the world will listen to you.” Better, though a bit lofty. Thoughts?

Could this strategy be a way for commercial writers to set themselves apart from the pack?

Do you have such a core belief for your business?

If so, how do you share it? Is it outlined on your site? In marketing materials? Shared in meetings?

If not, what core belief or “Why” could you come up with for your business? Or for commercial writing businesses in general?

Ad Agency’s Solution to Client Pulling Work In-House Sounds Like the Freelancer Model…

It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.

Well, thanks again to commercial freelancer Robin Halcomb (who steered me to a cool resource I included in a comment on my last post) for bringing a most intriguing article to my attention. Entitled “In-house and Outsourced Aren’t the Only Options for Your Clients,” and penned by Sharon Napier, the piece first appeared in Advertising Age on 11/2/09.

The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:

Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.

Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…

So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.

There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.

Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.

So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.

Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.

As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.

Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.

Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.

Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?

Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?

Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?

Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?

Writing This Bad Highlights a Whole Other Writing World

Let’s dispense with weighty commercial writing matters for a moment and have a little comic relief. A few weeks back, an accomplished writer friend of mine sent me a link to an article, along with this note: “Holy crap, this is what passes for writing these days?!”

Here’s the link.

I read it, my jaw slowly dropping, then dashed off a note to the webmaster. I won’t bore you with my entire note, but here are a few snarky highlights:

As a professional copywriter for 16 years, I was appalled that a web site that appears to be a legitimate purveyor of information would actually post such breathtakingly bad, awkward and incoherent writing. Simply put, it makes your site look like a low-rent operation. Why you’d spend what was clearly a pretty penny to create a logo, brand, and attractive-looking site only to fill it with such crap is beyond me. Talk about sabotaging an investment. I’d wager good money you’re paying bad money (what? like $5 an article, perhaps?) for such content. Though, that said, if you’re paying any more than that, you’re getting ripped off.

I actually got a note back from the webmaster, who wrote:

Wow that was some email. But it does come as a reality check to us and I assure you we will try and put out better information in the future. Thanks for the honesty, really. I will review every article before it goes live from now on.

Well, guess what? He actually did revisit it. In fact, the link I sent you is the copy AFTER it was “revisited.” I know, it’s hard to get your arms around the idea that it was actually worse before, but trust me, it was. Here’s an excerpt, untouched. You ready? You sure? Okay, I warned you…

If you want to have a coffee table in your garden or you want to sit there at night then have a rightly sized corner specially designed with a small table and chairs or if you want to have a swing in your garden then have some creeping vines grow on the swing to make it look as if the swing grew there too.

Words fail (in more ways than one…).

My friend tells me sites like these are known as “blog networks” (not “content mills,” that’s something else, though these no doubt pay just as badly) and are largely – you ready for this? – self-edited. And as she put it, “As long as they’re getting the clicks, they’re happy. It’s all about page views in a networked blog.” I don’t even want to get to a point where I actually understand that particular kind of thinking.

One thing quickly becomes clear: what these people do and what we do may both involve quote-unquote writing, but it’s there the similarity ends. Sort of how racing could refer to both what kids do with Tonka Toys and, oh, say, Formula One?

I know, it’s not very nice of me to make fun of bad writers just trying to make a no-doubt bad living in an arena in which they’re a bad fit (or maybe not…). But, just remember this the next time you hear someone saying how hard it is to make a living as a writer with rates so pathetic for writers. No, not all writers making $5 an article are this bad, but when this is how low the bar is in so many places, a decent writer is truly throwing pearls before swine. But hey, they’ve got options. If they don’t choose to exercise them, not my problem.

Ever had any contact with this world in your travels? (Or is this about as foreign to you as Pluto?)

Have you come across some equally bad examples?

What might you tell someone who whines about not being able to make a living writing?

What might you have told the webmaster if you were writing a note?