The other day I met with a prospect over coffee. He’d found me on LinkedIn.

It was the typical first-meeting-in-a-coffee-shop dynamic: the usual exchange of pleasantries, acknowledgement of shared experiences and interspersed sips of latte until, finally, we got down to the business of gauging whether we’re a good fit for each other.

And then the question came — one I’ve heard a gazillion times from a gazillion prospects. (Slight exaggeration, yes.)

“So, what’s your specialty?”

Ah, the niche question. You know you’re going to get this too, right?

And it’s one of the many reasons why every marketing guru worth his salt is telling you to pick a niche. Specialize! Focus! Niche it down! 

BUT! And it’s a big BUT: Nailing a niche as a freelance writer is nowhere as daunting or urgent as many would have you believe. Seriously, it’s not.

Let’s talk through it, shall we?

Generalist or Specialist?

First off, there’s no rule that you have to choose a niche, or that you must figure it out this very minute.

Let me clarify: Targeting a niche will make it easier to market yourself and outperform your competition — that much is true. It will also enable you to make more money in the long run. If you were my little brother or sister, I’d urge you to pick one, but you don’t have to have it figured out from day one.

If you’re just starting out or are unsure what your sweet spot is, that’s ok. Experiment. Take a few different clients or projects for a test drive, get some experience under your belt and note which clients or projects leave you energized, and which suck you dry. Then refine your aim to get more of the former, and avoid the latter.

As you chew on your options, it’s helpful to consider the benefits of niching beyond the marketing advantage:

  • Attracting a steady stream of work you love (and averting work you don’t).
  • Growing increasingly more skilled in engaging specific segments so you can do it  better, faster and with less effort than generalist writers.
  • Establishing your reputation as an authority in the eyes of your ideal clients.

Want a recipe? Here’s one:    

   Your favorite client or project
+ Your past experience or know-how
= Your niche

What skills have you mastered, or what knowledge have you picked up in past jobs or roles?

If you’ve worked in finance for ages, for instance, it makes sense to leverage that know-how to benefit clients in the finance industry. If you grew up in a farming family, I bet you could understand the mindset, lingo and motivation of agriculture clients before your competitors could say “agribusiness.” You see, your niche can be a natural outflow of your past experience or training.

Alternatively, as you experiment with different markets, you might decide to zoom into the kind of work or client that gets your blood pumping and leaves you invigorated, and ditch those that leave you feeling resentful and depleted at the end of the day.

Whatever road you take, your niche may be a specific segment or two (mine are technology and healthcare), or it may be a type of writing (mine is long-form content: white papers, case studies, feature articles, that kind of thing).

I didn’t intentionally pick that focus when I first started. Rather, my early projects fit those criteria, I got good at them, similar clients sought me out and more work followed. Eventually, I refined my marketing and messaging to reflect that focus.

Please hear me on this: Specializing doesn’t mean you’ll refuse all work outside your niche. It just means you won’t go out of your way to pursue it because it doesn’t yield the best ROI for your marketing efforts.

Lucky me, my niches happened to be very profitable ones, which brings me to this next point:

Make sure your niche pays. And well.

I’m often gobsmacked when writers pour a ton of time, work and money marketing to prospects that are, frankly, lost causes.

Lost-cause prospects are ones who (a) have no money; (b) have no understanding or interest in content marketing; and (c) don’t value writers. (The ma-and-pa pizza joint or tanning salon down the street come to mind.)

Put simply, you might love writing for priests or food trucks, but if your niche can’t sustain a healthy income, that’s a deal breaker.

Let me offer a better (and easier) alternative:

You can’t click around LinkedIn without running into prospects with healthy marketing budgets, hungry and eager to invest in good content. (Hint: marketing agencies and marketing director titles, my friend.) No need to educate or convince them of the value you bring — they’re already sold and looking for someone like you.

Think of it like dating: It’s in your best interest to pursue best-fit partners who share your values and goals, and waste no time on dudes (or dudettes) who clearly aren’t into you and would rather watch re-runs of The Walking Dead.

Likewise, waste no time (none!) on prospects who haven’t the slightest interest in what you do, nor the resources to pay fair rates for your good work. (Sounds like common sense, but I swear I see writers do this all the friggin‘ time.)

So how do you identify best-fit targets?

In other words, how do you identify markets whose needs align with your strengths, and pay higher fees?

Fellow writer Ed Gandia suggests this simple test:

Do customers see [your prospect’s] products and services as new, expensive or complex?

“You want to go after prospects (or industries, sectors or groups) that sell products or services that meet at least two out of these criteria,” Ed writes. “That points to a stronger demand for sales and marketing support services.”

Amen, brother. That’s a great tip.

I’ll add three more:

  • Do organizations in the market you’re considering typically have a marketing team or manager?
    (If so, yay! That’s a great sign that they actively invest in good marketing, and have an ongoing need for compelling content.)
  • Do you find a wealth of content (blog posts, white papers and more) on their website?
    (That indicates they’re believers in good content and eager to keep a steady stream of it coming.)
  • When you search for writers that specialize in that niche, do you see lots of paid Google AdWords and Facebook ads?
    (Competition is a good thing! It means there’s money to be made in that segment.)

Put simply, defining a niche is about marrying your greatest strengths with work that makes you happy and pays what you’re worth.

Whatever you decide, be intentional about the clients you want to attract.

Life’s too short for work you don’t love.

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