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Niche
noun, adjective, verb, niched, nich•ing

noun
1. an ornamental recess in a wall or the like, usually semicircular in plan and arched, as for a statue or other decorative object.
2. a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing: to find one’s niche in the business world.
3. a distinct segment of a market.
4. Ecology – the position or function of an organism in a community of plants and animals.

adjective
5. pertaining to or intended for a market niche; having specific appeal: niche advertising.

verb (used with object)
6. to place (something) in a niche.

Origin:
1605–15; French, Middle French, back formation from nicher to make a nest – Vulgar Latin *nīdiculāre, derivative of Latin nīdus nest

Now that you know way more than you ever wanted to about the grammatical usage and historical background of the word, let’s use the second definition as a noun.

What Does a Niche Mean To You and Why Should It Matter?

A niche is akin to a specialty. As such, having a niche or two is important because it makes marketing much easier. You can gain a thorough understanding of the audience, or target market, learn who the key players are and work to position yourself as the “go-to” graphic design expert. Given the choice, most people prefer to work with the recognized expert, rather somebody they’ve never heard of who contacts them out of the blue.

Consider this. If you happen to be an unlucky soul having chest pains, to whom are you going to go to for help? Odds are, you’ll opt for a cardiologist rather than a general practitioner. You want a doctor who has wide experience and education in what ails you. You probably have more confidence in the cardiologist’s ability to fix your problem than the general practitioner.

It’s the same with clients. Given the choice, and they have plenty, clients will hire a designer who has experience in fixing their problem-at-hand, knows and understands their industry, competition and customers. It’s reassuring. Clients like that. Plus, they tend to be more open to paying higher fees for a specialist than a generalist.

For some, defining their niche can be a bit of a daunting task, wrought with angst and anxiety. For others, they seem to simply fall into it. But, that falling is usually the result of knowledge in a certain area, having the work experience to back it up, knowing some folks within the niche industry and something they enjoy.

Specialization – A Niche’s First Cousin

Specialization is a type of niche where a graphic designer focuses upon and becomes known for a particular type of work. It might be logo design, annual reports, packaging, etc. Or, it can be a certain, specific style.

Specializing, or focusing on a niche market, can scare many designers. They believe they’ll limit their options, lose potential business and become pigeonholed. If you offer an array of services, your clients have more than likely already pigeonholed you. I offer both graphic and Web design, but also writing and marketing consulting. To some of my clients, I’m Neil the Web guy. To others, I’m Neil the writer. To others, I’m Neil the consultant. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being pigeonholed can mean the start of a niche or specialty to focus upon. At times, it can open up a few niches.

As for losing business and limiting themselves, trying to be all things to all people can often result in a designer becoming nothing to everybody. There’s no differentiation and a designer risks sounding like everybody else. When that happens, clients and prospects hear the same tired marketing message and no business stands out. It’s often called “me too” marketing. It’s much better to zig while all your competitors are zagging.

It’s normal for most graphic designers to start out as generalists, taking on whatever comes through the door or jingles the inbox. That’s fine, but keep your eye on the types of clients who keep cropping up and also the type of project you enjoy. As your business grows, you may find your clients come mostly from one industry or another or lean toward a certain type of project. You’ll also learn what kind of project you like. That’s important. We spend an awful lot of time working and working on projects you don’t enjoy can turn your designing dream into a nightmare.

Focusing on a niche makes marketing easier and more efficient. As mentioned, it gives you the ability to learn the common challenges and problems the audience experiences. This is powerful stuff. Having a thorough understanding of a target market gives you the ability to demonstrate to prospects that you really understand them and their industry. You become the go-to expert and the big fish in a small pond. That’s significantly better than being a minnow in a sea of prospects.

Broad-based, shotgun marketing is costly and loaded with waste. Why spend your hard-earned marketing budget preaching to people who aren’t really your prospects at all? These are people who will never buy from you. By marketing to a highly defined niche, you can tap into marketing and public relations tools and techniques that often won’t cost you any more than your time investment. Plus, they tend to be much more believable than pricey tools such as print advertising or mass mailings.

Types Of Niches

You might want to focus on a specific industry as your primary niche. Broad-based industries are called “horizontal markets.” Health care is an example. Within the horizontal market are sub-industries called “vertical markets” or simply, “verticals.” Within health care there are many verticals such as dentists, assisted living facilities, cardiologists, etc. Even these verticals can be further divided. While you conduct your niche audience research, you may find there’s an under-served industry that would have less competition and be easier to make your mark.

When you focus on an industry, it’s easy to identify organizations and associations you can join. Most industries have conferences or trade shows you can attend and industry publications to read. If you have a flair for writing, you could even pitch articles to be published. Writing articles is an excellent way to cement your expert status.

Another specialization area is geography. For example, you might position your practice as the graphic designer for small businesses within a twenty-five mile radius of your office, whether it’s a home office or outside your home. Your marketing efforts might center on small groupings of postcard mailings with either phone or in-person follow-ups. You might also consider putting on a local seminar about working with a graphic designer, how to develop a company brochure or plan a website. By setting a geographic limit, you can learn about the issues affecting the audience with the area, get involved in the community and become known.

Holy Cow! What A Niche!

Michael Buckingham is the owner of Holy Cow Creative and, as his business name suggests, he found a niche in churches. “When I came back to the church, I didn’t really struggle with giving myself to Christ, I knew I didn’t want live life by my rules anymore. But I did struggle with church. I looked around and in this place that was supposed to be celebrating God almighty was mediocrity. It was as if the church took the message seriously, but not how we were telling it.

So I started to poke at it, make fun of it. That turned to an angry frustration. I had to close my eyes during worship, not to be ultra-holy but because I couldn’t look at it. And not just in clipart and an explosion of Photoshop effects, but in how we were telling the story. I spent the better part of a year complaining about it.

Fortunately as I opened my life to God and he was changing me, He also changed that frustration to a passion to help the church communicate with greatness. My focus became the how of church and the art of preaching.”

When asked how has focusing on a niche helped his marketing and made it easier, Buckingham replied, “It’s helped in that it gives me a clear focus. I know not just what I’m doing, but why I’m doing it. As any designer, I have my ups and downs, it’s in those down times I can look back and be recharged by the focus. It also has helped me avoid the jack-of-all-trades and keeps me sharp within that market.

In terms of marketing, it has helped because it’s a small niche, people talk, the word spreads. Do great work, get more work. It’s also easier because I really get to work with some outstanding people.”

Michael’s niche is highly focused and it had enabled him to reach out to prospects and win clients across the U.S. and even abroad. Sometimes, niches aren’t about horizontal or vertical markets or geography. They can be found in belief systems, interests and passions.

Choosing A Niche – The Promising and The Pitfalls

There are some considerations to ponder when choosing a niche. First, are there enough prospects? Targeting a niche that’s too small can mean there might not be enough qualified prospects. But, there’s a subtler danger. You might find a large client that keeps you busy. In fact, they keep you so busy that they end up representing fifty percent or more of your revenue. Any one client that is providing that much of your overall revenue is a threat to your business. If they go away for whatever reason, it can easily put you out of business. Ideally, no client should provide more than thirty percent of your income. Twenty-five percent is even better.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. A designer starts working with a client. The client sends over more and more projects. Pretty soon, their work is all the designer has time to do. Then disaster strikes. There could be a change in personnel and the new contact decides to bring on their own designer. Or, there can be a falling out over any number of reasons. This is one place where financial reports are important. Review your income statements at least quarterly, if not more often. If you find a client becoming too large a chunk, it’s time to find another one to balance out your revenue stream.

The second question to ask is where the industry or service is in its lifecycle. Is it growing, staying the same or shrinking? Ideally, it’s growing, meaning there will be continued demand. If it appears to be staying the same, it can still offer opportunity. If it’s shrinking, you probably want to consider a different niche. However, if your experience lies within a declining market it might still provide opportunity while you build up a new niche. Competitors may have already left the niche and you can fill the gap for the short term.

When all’s said and done, finding a good niche or two can mean the difference between success and struggle. Sure, you’ll still need to work to market and promote yourself. But, in time, as you rise above the competition you may just find prospects seeking you out and that’s a great position to find yourself.