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WHEN IS A NICHE NOT A NICHE?
C.J. Hayden, MCC

Has your professional services business defined its market niche? You may think so, but a closer look might reveal that your chosen niche isn't as effective as it could be. You may have selected a target market, but have no defined specialty in the services you offer. Or you may be clear on your professional specialty, but vague on who to target as prospective clients.

A clearly defined niche for an independent professional is one that spells out both a target market and a specialty needed by that market. If you include both these elements in your niche's definition, you'll find that not only will your marketing become easier and more effective, you'll build a more sustainable business.

In ecology, a niche denotes the position occupied by an organism within an ecosystem, the point where conditions best allow that organism to succeed and thrive. If we translate this idea to the business world, defining a niche where your talents and skills are uniquely appropriate can create ideal conditions for a sustainable business -- one that grows year after year with a minimum amount of effort. Here are some examples to illustrate why this is so.

Sam, a management consultant, specializes in business process improvement. He helps his clients streamline workflow, redesigning forms, systems, and procedures. If you asked Sam about his target market, he would tell you it was "anyone who needs my services." Sam has a solid specialty for his consulting practice, but no defined target market.

Maria is a computer consultant who works with small businesses in her local area. Her typical client has 2-25 employees and an office within thirty miles of her home. If you asked Maria what she does for her clients, she would say "anything to do with computers." Maria has a specific target market, but no real specialty.

What Sam and Maria are missing out on is the power of a well-defined niche. Claiming a target market is valuable, as is defining your professional specialty. But when you add target market to specialty, what you get is a unique niche -- a position in the marketplace that allows you to become the go-to expert.

Sam struggles to find clients because he doesn't really know where to look. Maria's marketing message is so vague that when she finds a client, she has difficulty communicating how she can help. Neither of them have been able to build a reputation in their field. Unable to attract clients through referrals or professional visibility, Sam and Maria spend most of their marketing time on random networking, direct mail, and cold calling. Landing clients this way is an uphill battle.

Compare Sam and Maria's situation to that of Frederic, a team-building facilitator for information technology companies and departments. Frederic knows both his specialty and his target market. He refers to his niche as "herding cats." He helps IT directors get teams of smart, independent IT professionals to cooperate, communicate, and work together more effectively.

When Frederic describes his niche, not only can a prospective client immediately say, "We need that," but others who meet Frederic often say, "I know a company who needs that." Because Frederic's distinct niche makes it easy for other people to talk about his business, they do talk about it, and Frederic's reputation and referral base continue to grow.

Having a niche like Frederic's makes your marketing efforts more effective because you can focus on reaching particular groups of people with a tailored message. It allows you to use marketing strategies that have more bang for the buck, such as public speaking, writing articles, and targeted networking within one community. You avoid the labor intensive work of attending dozens of different networking events, or calling and mailing people who never heard of you.

The above examples describe independent professionals with business clients, but the same principles apply when marketing your services to consumers.

Greta is a life coach to busy baby boomers. She helps her clients find more personal fulfillment, make changes, and achieve goals. Greta has a known target market, but no clear specialty. Her offer is so broad that it's difficult for prospective clients to find a compelling benefit. Greta is able to locate plenty of prospects, but few of them ever become clients.

Liam, a hypnotherapist, helps people break unhealthy habits such as smoking and overeating. He has a well-defined specialty, but hasn't identified his target market. He spends a lot of time and money on hit-or-miss advertising and scattered networking, hoping to attract or meet people who might turn out to need him.

Compare Greta and Liam to Sally. Sally is a professional organizer who helps homeowners with young children find a place for everything and regularly clear away clutter. She has both an identifiable target market and a specialty people can remember. Sally's unique niche enables her to generate a steady stream of referrals, build a wide reputation, and attract prospects eager to become clients.

With unique market niches like these, Frederic, the herding cats guy, and Sally, the clutter clearer, can determine exactly who might be a good referral source for them, and which networking events make sense to attend. They can also easily reach their prospective clients through credibility-boosting strategies such as writing articles or public speaking.

Sally writes for parenting magazines and websites, while Frederic writes for IT journals and ezines. Frederic speaks for IT conferences and training industry meetings on his "herding cats" topic. Sally gives workshops at schools, churches, and community centers on the subject "Kids and Clutter - Must They Always Go Together?"

Frederic and Sally not only find their marketing to be easier and more effective, they're able to build sustainable business models around their respective niches. Frederic returns to the same companies over and over, as the makeup of teams changes over time and new members need to be integrated. His introductory two-day program can be spun off into quarterly tune-up sessions, off-site weekend retreats, and self-study packages of audios and workbooks.

Sally returns to her clients' homes year after year as their kids outgrow clothes and toys, and their hobbies and interests come and go. Because the solutions she develops will work for multiple clients, she is a reseller for closet systems, modular shelving, and other organizing tools. Selling these products not only earns her some passive revenue, it creates more billable work for her as clients ask her back to help organize their items into the systems she sells.

So if you think your business has a market niche, look again. Have you defined both your target market AND your professional specialty? If not, maybe it's time you got more clients by getting more specific.

Copyright © 2005, C.J. Hayden

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