First, here’s your permission slip.
To niche is a b*tch for some of us. Don’t make us pick one thing. We refuse to choose.
And personal branding, don’t get me started.
At a conference twenty years ago, my head buzzed with the absurdity of its overriding message: every city, every place, needs a brand. It must be first, best, or special at one thing. I love places and I understand branding, but I resisted. How can we narrow down and encapsulate the magic and essence of complicated, vibrant places? Amazing places don’t need a freaking brand. New Orleans. Buenos Aires. Barcelona. Dublin. Hong Kong. They stand as themselves.
In a funny way, that realization gave me instant permission. Places don’t need a brand and neither do people. I don’t at least. From then on, I (mostly) stopped that grating exercise, declined to be lulled down the branding, niching rabbit hole again.
If you’re like me and are reluctant to niche, here are four important mindsets to support that inclination, and eight areas to explore and mine for marketing that works for you.
Own it You don’t owe the world a pithy USP (unique selling proposition), a clever elevator speech, or a job title they understand in three seconds. If you want that and it helps you fine. If not, oh well. Now when people ask me what I do, I use a tone that conveys that what I’m telling them doesn’t cover everything but I’m trying to get in the ballpark: I’m self-employed and do a mishmash of things in the book publishing and small business worlds: coaching, consulting, project management, conflict management, writing… It may even work better than shorter things, because this description usually prompts a question, which sparks a non-routine conversation.
Try all the things Niche or no niche, this is a useful mindset for most freelancers and self-employed folks. I delve into 11 reason to try all the things here. They are: To practice defensive entrepreneurship, to test options, to launch multiple products and services, to take advantage of opportunities that crop up, to expand your network, to leverage a spectrum of resources, to learn about yourself, to develop skills, to challenge yourself, to cultivate your interests, and to engage in Slow Business.
Engage a range of people Grow a range of relationships in a range of fields and find your audience and clients through engagement. As you encounter others online and in real life, in business and personal settings, just start noticing things. Who do you want to engage with? Who wants to engage with you? And why? Which interactions, acquaintanceships, and relationships are productive and energizing? Discover your favorite ways of engaging others and be on the lookout for new approaches too. Attention to growing and maintaining a wide network is key to a sustainable business.
Customize your marketing Finally, have your marketing do double duty. Align it with who you are, who you want to serve, and your other goals, hobbies, and preferences in life. This will be clearer as you read the eight categories below.
StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath is my favorite resource for discovering your strengths and appreciating their full range of distinctive superpowers. But no matter how you come to identify them, your personal strengths make an excellent starting point for building a refuse-to-niche customized promotion and sales strategy.
Consider the few places you really shine. Are you a great conversationalist? If you’re more introverted and better one-on-one, seek out radio and podcast interviews. If you’re more extroverted, the classic in-person networking events may be for you. If you are disciplined and organized, create a methodical system for pursuing your promotional leads.
How you fascinate others
Similar but with a different angle, author, social scientist, and advertising pro Sally Hogshead shows how to use the “science of fascination” to learn how you are most inherently interesting and valuable to others. In her book, How the World Sees You, she presents seven advantages from her research — innovation, passion, power, prestige, trust, mystique, and alert. Combine your primary advantage with your secondary advantage (uncover them with an online test), and you will discover one of forty-nine archetypes. Each of these gets full treatment in the book.
In hindsight, I see that the first small business I ran was an example of “The Authentic,” a combination of trust and passion. We best marketed our regional books by riding on the appeal of our enthusiastic and reliable authenticity. As a solo flyer, I am “The Avant-Garde,” a combination of “Prestige” (you earn respect with higher standards) and “Innovation” (you change the game with creativity), meaning my appeal to others is being “original, enterprising, and forward thinking.” It’s daunting at first to recognize the truth in such a description, though more obvious when you see all the ones that don’t apply to you. But ultimately it’s empowering to recognize how it’s true and come to own it and use it on your own behalf.
The interests and skills you have, and those you want to develop
Take an inventory of your existing interests and skills, as well as those you want to explore or develop, and plan your marketing activities around those things. If you are already a great public speaker, or if you would like to become a better public speaker, use the promotion of your solo business as an excuse to do more of it. Ditto for teaching, networking, blogging, creative sales approaches, fill-in-the-blank ability. An author I’ve published with an interest in old movies has written multiple books on narrow subjects in this area and spends weekends furthering his interest by meeting and selling books to like-minded fans at collectibles shows and conventions.
The needs of your products, services, business, and customers
So many needs! Your products, services, and company have them, and so do your customers. And it’s worth taking time to figure those out. Your ebook on Amazon will have different requirements than your copywriting services. Your small business clients have different needs than your corporate customers. One baseball historian I know has been doing media interviews at the start of baseball season every year for over a decade. Radio stations, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines all need expert baseball commentary for their customers every March and April.
What matters to you
Figure out your values and priorities and how they intersect with selling and marketing your products and services. If increasing your income is of utmost importance, then don’t pretend it’s otherwise. If having flexibility around your kids’ schedule is top of your list, keep it there. It’s your life, work your business around it.
One client I worked with for five years valued excellent work, developing his skills, and community contribution and leadership. His priorities in retirement included refining his photography craft and supporting organizations whose boards he served on. Together we produced and sold beautiful hardcover books of his photography, and he donated his earnings to the nonprofits he volunteered for.
Your goals and the benefits you want to enjoy
What are your short and long-term goals for yourself, in general, and as a freelancer or small business owner? Use your marketing to bring you closer to these things. Instead of bearing mundane sales tasks as a slog, experience them as inching you closer to your goals and the desired outcomes you expect.
I’ve witnessed countless journalists and writers leverage their book, blog, or column —and the enhanced reputation, visibility, and skills it brought them — into better-paying positions. Just as many have discovered on their journey interesting new friends and an expanded social network. Others were happily surprised at how diligent promotion turned them into recognized authorities on their subject in a relatively short period of time.
Other people can help you with your promotional and business development efforts. Ask them and let them. Start by grasping just how many people you know — your email contacts, your phone contacts, your Facebook friends, your TikTok followers, your holiday card list, your neighbors. Whether that’s 100 or 1,000, or, lucky you, 100,000+, find a way to connect with them (individually when possible) over the coming months, whether that’s two a day or ten a day.
Ask for specific help: Can you introduce me to anyone you know who needs an editor? Are there opportunities for me to give a program to your group, club, organization?
Ask for more general help: Will you consider writing an Amazon/GoodReads/Library Thing review for my book? Would you mind sharing the Facebook event for my upcoming concert/art exhibit?
Make group asks online: Tweet a request. Ask your Facebook friends to do you a favor. Ask members of a LinkedIn group for referrals.
Make group asks in person: Take a moment at your next professional, civic, or hobby organization (as appropriate) to appeal for a simple bit of help.
Schedule asks for down the road: If there are multiple things you could ask a contingent of your people, schedule them — perhaps one a month, once a quarter, or biannually.
Your current life and schedule and your desired life and schedule
Choose marketing and sales activities that mesh with your life and its current constraints. Better yet, pick activities that both fit with your present situation and where you’d ideally like to go, whether that’s a modest leap or a grand shift. A stay-at-home parent who does a lot of shuttling of children and feels torn by the wasted time? Commit to making sales calls from the car every time you’re waiting for the kids or compose blog posts, marketing copy, or sales pitches from the bleachers. Semi-retired and wanting to travel more? Plan speaking events or consulting gigs at your destination in advance.
Don’t want to niche? Don’t. You don’t owe specialization and a tidy job description to anyone.
Keep these four mindsets in mind as you market your offerings: 1) own whatever beautiful mélange of miscellany you do, 2) try all the things and become well-versed in your generalist nature, 3) engage a range of people in a range of situations and find your people through mutual recognition, and 4) customize your marketing to suit who you are and whatever it is you’re doing now.
Explore and mine these eight areas to have your marketing do double-duty — promote your business and align with your life: 1) your strengths, 2) your point of fascination for others, 3) the interests and skills you have and the ones you want to develop, 4) the distinctive needs of your products, service, solo enterprise, and customers, 5) your values and priorities, 6) your goals and the desired benefits of those goals, 7) your connections of all stripes, and 8) the restrictions of your current life and schedule and the dreams of your desired life and schedule.