How to choose (or not choose) your freelance niche

Photo used under creative commons, attribution to  Simon Carr

Photo used under creative commons, attribution to Simon Carr

One of the biggest problems that I see many creatives face is this decision of what skills that they should market.

This problem is stopping many creative's in their track, before they ever even get started.

For some creative's, they have a huge range of skill sets to choose from. This makes it hard for them to figure out what skills they should be offering to clients.

For others they don't know how to position their existing skill sets in a way that is appealing for clients. 

My goal with this post is to teach you how to choose what skills you should be marketing and then help you position yourself accordingly.


The skilled creative's problem

When I left my startup to go freelance, I faced a huge problem. 

While I had a large creative and entrepreneurial skill set to offer, I couldn't get anyone to hire me for anything. 

I would walk into meetings with potential prospects and describe my experience and laundry list of services that I was capable of, yet no one seemed to bite.

No one wanted to hire me for their projects. 

Many creatives try to offer up a wide range of services making themselves a Swiss Army Knife of creativity.

Many creatives try to offer up a wide range of services making themselves a Swiss Army Knife of creativity.

It wasn't until months later when I had a successful web design practice that I figured out the problem.

Clients don't hire for expertise, clients hire to fix problems.

I was going into these meetings offering up all of my expertise and my diverse range of skills. I was positioning myself as a swiss army knife of creativity.

The truth is that none of that expertise or experience mattered to the client. 

Clients don't care how talented or experienced you are.

Clients care about fixing their problems and improving their condition.


What clients don't hire for 

Client's don't typically sit around and think to themselves, "I could use someone to help plan big picture strategy today" or "I wish I had someone who would help me with content marketing" or "I wish I had someone to create a new online marketing strategy for me."

These examples are things that the client rarely thinks about or is not even educated about in the first place, yet many creatives try to position themselves with these types of vague service offering. 

The result is that when they connect with a prospect, often the prospect has no idea what their real value is or if the creative can even help them.

Fix a pain

Instead, as a creative you need to 'Fix a pain' for the client. While a client may not often think about these big picture concepts, they do think about specific pain points that they have.

Maybe the client needs a new website.
Maybe they need help writing an article or copy for marketing materials. 
Maybe they need help promoting an upcoming event or important news. 

These are pain points.
These are things that clients regularly hire creatives for.
These are your foot in the door.

By offering web design, you start a relationship that has the potential to grow into a much larger relationship of online marketing, strategy and more.

By offering copywriting, you start a relationship that has the potential to grow into a relationship of content marketing, blogging and much more.

By offering public relations or promotion, you are getting your foot in the foot in the door for a much larger gambit of writing and marketing services for that client. 

Focus your offering around a pain point that the client has. 

Make it easy to understand what it is that you do and make it easy for them to hire you.

Once you have a foot in the door, that is when you build a relationship and educate the client about all of the other services that you have to offer


To niche or not to niche

That is the question.

Niching is the act of narrowing down the segment of customers or the service that you offer down to a very specific target.

There are two ways to niche your service. Vertical and horizontal

Vertical focus

This means that you are niching yourself into a specific industry or 'vertical' of customers. Examples of vertical niches would include healthcare, fitness, real estate, fashion, spas, etc.


When you niche yourself into a vertical focus, you are saying that you are offering a broad range of services to a very specific clientele.

For example, my friend Jon Schumacher of New Wave Healthcare offers 'Online Marketing services for healthcare small businesses.'

Jon is not focused on one specific skill such as writing or web design. Instead Jon is focused on using his marketing expertise to help healthcare small businesses generate more leads and sales online.

Horizontal Focus

A Horizontal focus means that you are offering a single service to a wide range of industries. 

For example, my freelance career took off when I niched down to web design only on the Squarespace platform.

This was a very specific service offering although it appealed to customers from a wide range of industries that were interested in using Squarespace as their website provider.

How should you niche?

When in doubt, START BROAD. Don't niche yourself right out of the gate. 

This advice will counter what hundreds of articles and other books will tell you, yet I see far too many creatives niche themselves into a corner, and then have to work their way out. (I was once a victim of this myself!)

For those interested in niching into a vertical:

If you plan on niching into a vertical, then I advise you to dive straight into it.

The only warning I have is to make sure that you are comfortable only working in this vertical. While other work may come along, chances are that you will be dealing with 90% of your clients coming only from this specific industry.

If it is something that you love like fitness, healthcare or music, then go for it.

But NEVER niche yourself in a vertical just for the money or because you think it will benefit your business. 

The only reason to ever niche yourself into a vertical because you love that industry!

For those interested in niching horizontally:

Start with a semi-broad service offering. Still focus around fixing a pain for the client, but do so in as broad of a light as possible.

Over the following 3-6 months as you start your career, begin to niche down your service based on your experience.

Focus your horizontal niche on where these criteria intersect.

  • Where does the market have a need that they are willing to pay for?
  • What do I enjoy doing?

Somewhere between these two circles is a specific offering that is your sweet spot. When you enjoy the work you do, and the market is willing to pay for it, that is when your career will accelerate at a rapid pace. 


Don't force it

I see far too many creative's try to force a niche.

They read an article or a book somewhere that says that they must niche their services and then they try to force themselves into this corner.

Let niching come naturally. Trust your gut and don't ever make a decision purely for the money. If you are going to niche, do it because you enjoy the skill you are focusing on or you enjoy the industry.

When you enjoy the work you do, you will improve the quality of your work much faster and your income will grow much faster as well.


What skills are you going to offer?

Based on the strategies outlined in this article, how are you going to position yourself and what skills are you going to offer?

Answer in the comments below

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