Here are 5 tips for choosing and refining your niche:
(1) Consult your own intuition, experience and data.
It’s very unlikely that your mentor will identify your niche for you. It’s like that old song about walking “that lonesome valley” all by yourself.
Nobody else can assess the fit between your style, your value proposition and your niche. When someone suggests a niche, chances are you’ll work to reach it. But often after a few weeks or months or years, you realize, “It’s just not for me.”
And even the best mentors on the planet won’t know the ins and outs of every niche. After a few months of targeting a particular niche, you may discover they don’t want what you thought they did.
For example, Liz St Jean is a well-trained leadership coach. She’s looking for ways to reach her target audience — people who want to make an impact in organizations where they work. They’re not entrepreneurs – they’re intrapreneurs.
Liz realizes that most of her audience won’t recognize or relate to the term “intrapreneur.” Some organizations bestow this title from the top down, assigning projects and encouraging employees to feel empowered and take ownership. Liz takes the other view: she wants help people become intrapreneurs by proposing special projects to senior management.
When Liz raised these question in a forum, she got several suggestions. Maybe use the term “change agent” instead of “intrapreneur.” Maybe focus on what she tells her clients: “Stop blaming the boss! Take the initiative to drive change.”
This advice represented a good start, but didn’t really help Liz find her niche.
(2) Define your niche in terms of the problems they’re facing and their backstory.
For Liz to find her market and her message, she can start by storifying her problem. That’s a double-barreled world (well, I used to be an academic) meaning, “Find the underlying story.”
In this case, we could start with the story her client would bring during the initial phone call. It might be something like:
“I’m really frustrated with my job. I think I’m going to have to move to a new company or even a new career. Every day I dread coming to work, because I feel like I’m stifled. I’ve gone as far as I can and there’s no room for growth here.”
Alternatively, they might begin with, “I’m really frustrated with my job. I think I’m going to have to move to a new company or even a new career. Every day I dread coming to work, because I feel like I’m stifled. I want to find a way to stay in this job, but also feel like I’m growing, changing and making an impact on the organization.”
When Liz digs deeper, she uncovers the client’s backstory:
“I’ve outgrown my job. I know a dozen different ways to make this operation more efficient. For instance, we could install a software system that would do the work of 2 data entry people. We’re having trouble filling those positions because nobody wants to do those boring repetitious jobs. But my boss won’t even let me research the problem.”
Of course, markets can be hungry for good things, too. Liz could focus on the positive outcomes her clients will enjoy.
(3) Focus on who writes the check.
It’s important to talk about the pages of your website. And you want to be sure your clients “get” where you’re coming from.
But the most important question about your niche isn’t, “What can I offer?” It’s, “Will they pay me? And is there anything that could change a ‘no’ to a ‘yes?'”
A related question is, “Who’s going to be paying?” If you’re hoping to work with children or teens, you’re targeting parents.
If Liz targets corporate executives, she’ll need to find those who will pay her directly — those who have both the discretionary income and the mindset. Some fields — especially sales — attract people who are accustomed to paying out of pocket to get results. Their mindset is, “I’ll pay $10,000 to make $100,000.” In other fields, executives and professionals are used to getting a free ride on everything from supplies to personal services.
If Liz wants the company to pay, she might need several layers of approval and she’ll need to get a signed contract before beginning work. An executive might want to hire you, but could be stopped if you lack the licenses or credentials required by headquarters.
Some business owners love working in these environments; others won’t work for a company that has more than 3 employees.
(4) Discover how you’re perceived by your market.
Your second most important question is, “Will they buy from me?”
I used to attend a networking event that attracted many brand-new financial planners. Inevitably they would target the members of the group who seemed to have accumulated assets — the “manage your portfolio” niche. And inevitably, these people had built up relationships with brokers they trusted; if they wanted to make a switch, they’d get recommendations and choose someone with a track record.
An experienced broker laughed when I told him this story. “You have to start in something like taxes,” he said. “Or work with struggling families who need a budget.”
In our example with Liz, she has a lot of corporate experience and she’ll be respected as a member of the club. Her nonverbal communication as well as her verbal communication style will support her authority.
(5) Give yourself time.
Many business owners don’t find their niche till they’ve worked with a variety of clients. Just as casting a wide net can give you a fuzzy image, cutting off possibilities can limit your upside potential.
One coach thought he’d attract a lot of veterans for life coaching because he’d been in the military himself for a number of years. He found that clients called him when they wanted to talk about significant transitions. His military experience got a lot of conversations started, but wasn’t the deciding factor for his clients.
But you certainly can make decisions about who you want to serve. When you’re attracting prospective clients who aren’t fun to work with, take a look at your marketing materials and your message. You might be sending a message unconsciously that attracts one audience and repels another.
As you get to know your niche, you can use their backstory to frame your message.
Let’s return to our example of Liz, the intrapreneurship consultant. If Liz finds her clients begin with a story of job dissatisfaction, she probably won’t get their attention when she talks about empowering them to make an impact on the organization. She would brand herself as someone who solves career frustration problems.
But if they begin with a story of, “I want to stay but don’t see how that’s possible,” she can focus on intrapraneurship. Her brand message would be about making an impact in the organization. It might be something like, “Transform your current job.” Or even, “Grow your career with your own intrapreneurship program.”
Are enough people telling this story? If so, she’s got a potential niche. But if most of the action comes from dissatisfied workers, she’s got some strategizing to do.
By focusing on her client’s stories, Liz gets away from questions like, “What do I call the process?” She doesn’t scare people away with warnings like, “Stop whining and get to work!” She focuses directly on her first step — identifying a market where prospects genuinely need what she can offer.
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