Yesterday I had a meeting with a friend of mine and he said, “When I read your blog posts, I feel like you’re speaking directly to me.” I replied, “I am speaking directly to you.”
More precisely, I’m speaking to people who share a common set of characteristics, challenges, and problems, and he happens to fall into that group.
If somebody visits my blog and they have different problems, they’re going to click away — “This isn’t what I need.”
And that’s the goal.
There are so many people fighting for attention online, the more you understand a specific person’s problems and speak directly to them, the more likely those people will pay attention.
The amazing part is, when you’re so specific in describing someone’s problem — they automatically perceive that you’re the one to help them solve it. I’ve written blog posts that inspired complete internet strangers to reach out to me and hire me. There was no drawn-out “sales funnel” or “nurturing the relationship through email sequences” or anything like that. The words resonated, I hit on a pain point, and they took immediate action.
Trying to address all the things with all the people means they’ll all get confused, and your message will go unnoticed by everyone. You won’t be seen as an expert in any specific area, so you’ll be in direct competition with every other generalist out there.
If you offer a service, and you’re looking to attract clients online (versus in your local market), it’s pretty crucial to get specific about which part of that big ocean of people out there you want to attract.
But defining your niche ain’t easy
This is one of those areas where people get stuck, and oh lordy I’ve been there. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and it took me a long time to get real clarity about my niche. The main problem I had was that I love working with all sorts of niche groups and it was hard to loosen my grip on any one of them.
If I targeted authors, that meant I wouldn’t get visible with non-profits. If I targeted solo professionals, that meant I’d no longer be able to work with bakeries and engineering firms and universities and bloggers.*
Focusing on just one meant giving up speaking to all of those other groups I adore because their problems are different.
But, I finally realized, I’d never be able to achieve expert status if I tried tackling everyone’s problems. I needed to become more valuable to fewer people.
And I realized I’d never be able to sustain writing this blog because when you’re writing about generic stuff, it gets real boring real quick. Both for the writer and the audience. So marketing to “everyone” wasn’t an option.
When working with start-up businesses, I see them struggling with the same issues. They’re very good at helping different groups of people, but choosing just one is an impossible ask.
*Spoiler alert: Even though I’ve narrowed down my niche to small service-based business owners who need to attract clients online, people from these other groups still contact me, and I can still say ‘yes’ if I want to.
Fear stands in the way
The big fear is that we niche down and it doesn’t work, right? And that we’ll miss all the other opportunities and options we let go of. THEN WHAT?!
This happened to me a few years ago when I started a project to get visible with authors. I love collaborating with other creative people and I’ve worked with so many of them, it seemed like a natural fit. But when it didn’t immediately work out exactly as I expected, I concluded that I had been wrong about my assumptions.
But back then, I didn’t know as much about online marketing as I do today. My friend describes it as the “If I build it, they will come” problem. I now know that getting visible with anyone takes getting in front of them time and time and time again… you can’t just launch the thing and ask once, you have to apply persistence, consistency, and focus and give it tons of time and patience.
I landed clients from that initiative, so the reality is, it did work. If you can sell one thing to one person, then you have your proof of concept… then it becomes a matter of scaling your efforts. (I learned this from Shark Tank.)
Sometimes the traditional methods of defining your audience aren’t helpful
I have a love/hate relationship with the customer avatar (or persona) exercise. You know the one: you imagine one specific customer from your target audience and fill out a form like this.
In general, marketing questionnaires and forms and checklists and the like aren’t helpful until you’ve sorted things out in your mind enough to make some difficult decisions. And forms aren’t going to help you make those decisions.
At a certain point in the process of creating a client attraction strategy, or a design brief for that matter, creating a customer avatar is useful and practical, and I do use them and here’s why:
- Thinking about what blogs your dream customer reads, what conferences they attend, what thought leaders they follow, etc. will get your wheels spinning about where you’ll need to go to reach them.
- Understanding what they do for a living, their gender, their occupation and their age can give you clues about things like which social media platforms they’re likely to be using and how to target your advertising.
- Thinking about what they’re like as people — what they do on the weekends and what they value — helps you hold a clear picture of a specific person in your mind when you’re creating messages; you’ll more easily be able to start thinking like they think and join in on that conversation.
But. It’s not an exercise that I start with and I don’t introduce if someone isn’t crystal clear about their target audience yet. It doesn’t do a damn thing to help us define who our dream customer should be, and without that clarity — it’s just yet another marketing form you fill out that yields unhelpful, superficial information.
So if you don’t have a customer avatar, or if creating one makes your eyes roll into the back of your head, read on. Here are the things you should think about that are far more important than what kind of hobbies your imaginary customer enjoys on the weekends. But first…
Don’t overcomplicate it
Listen, I know if you’re struggling to niche down, it’s scary as hell. But forget about market size and profitability and demographics and being “practical” for a minute and take a look at your life and your business from 10,000 feet.
When you envision your “dream business” — what does that look like?
Take a pause here, close your eyes, and think about a scenario where you’re completely fulfilled in your work.
What kind of work are you doing? I know you can do a lot of things, but when you think about when you’re happiest in your work, what is it you’re doing?
Who are you doing it for? And I don’t mean “women between the ages of 25-45” I mean what kind of person is it?
These are the questions “marketing exercises” always fail to address … but to me, they hold the key to everything.
I’m not just being “woo woo” here, I’m actually being completely practical.
If you’re not jazzed up and psyched about the work and if you don’t adore your customers, you’re going to have a hard time:
- Sustaining any kind of marketing initiative in the long run
- Creating an amazing customer experience, which means your customers will be “meh” and they won’t go out of their way to leave you five-star reviews and rave about you to all their friends
- You won’t be inspired to “go deep” and develop expertise, skills, and authority
Building a brand that attracts clients means creating a consistent, amazing experience. How you feel, and how they feel matter in that equation. So getting niche starts by getting yourself a vision for how you want your business to be.
As you think about these things, ask yourself the following questions:
What is the problem you solve?
This can be answered superficially too, so let me help frame your thinking:
What we usually say when we’re asked this question is some version of what we sell. I’m a designer, so I might say, “People need websites, so I build them websites.” Or, “People need logos and business cards, so I design brand identity systems.”
But is that really their problem? Is that what they need?
It always takes a bit of digging deeper.
Why do they need a website?
Why do they need a logo?
People have millions of options to choose from if they’re thinking, “I need a website” or “I need a logo” — but there’s always more to it.
Maybe they want to sell books.
Maybe they want to attract clients.
Maybe they want to position their business as the go-to authority on executive recruitment, family law, or pediatric dentistry in their local market.
“What is the future they want?” is one of my favorite questions — it helps you crawl inside their minds and join in the conversation that’s going on in there.
Don’t feel discouraged if the answers don’t come to you right away. It may take a bit of ruminating.
Who do you want to solve it for?
Now you can start thinking about who you want to solve that problem for specifically. Because if you say “anybody with this problem,” you’re competing with everybody else on the planet who solves that problem.
I like to start with personality traits because I think it’s important for you to work with people who you really, genuinely get excited about helping. There are loads of potential customers out there, why not work with clients you love?
What groups or categories do they belong to?
Once you’ve decided the problem you solve, the type of person who you can get excited about working with… think now about what groups or categories they fall into.
What demographic traits do they share?
Do they come from a particular industry?
What size is their business?
Are they business owners? Decision makers? Freelancers? Bloggers?
Is this a viable market?
Just identifying your ideal customer isn’t quite enough. You want to make sure your target group:
- Needs your solution (already knowing they need it is ideal)
- Includes enough people who need your solution (getting “too narrow” is rarely a problem, but it could happen)
- Can they afford to pay you what you need to charge in order to meet your income goals
If you don’t know, do some research. Find people who fit your ideal customer description and ask them. What they’re struggling with? If you were to create a service, what do they most need help with? What would they be willing to pay for that service?
Once you get some answers on these things, THEN when you open up a “customer avatar worksheet”, you’ll be able to fill it out easily and better understand how to use it.
A confession: I don’t use a customer avatar
It’s enough for me to understand the problem I’m solving and for whom. When I sit down to write a blog post, or a Facebook status update, or an email… I’m always thinking of one specific person and they’re rarely imaginary. I know enough people who fall into the “category” of customers I’m trying to attract and I just think about a problem I know someone is struggling with and I write as if I’m speaking directly to that person.
So if you don’t want to fill out a customer avatar at all… you totally don’t have to in order to start taking action. The whole point of it is to get you thinking narrowly and talking to one person from your target audience (rather than “just anyone”). And if you can figure out how to do that without filling out a form, you have my permission to crumple it up and throw it in the garbage. 😜