I can still remember the first time I walked into my college’s main library. Before me were six huge floors, each one filled floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves. Looking at all that accumulated knowledge, my heart sank. “Everything important has already been written,” I thought.
I was surprised by my own reaction. Why despair? I didn’t consider myself a writer then, but that moment set me on a long journey to find out what I had to say that was different enough, and special enough, to deserve a place on those shelves, too. I was searching for my niche.
Most writing on niche marketing and niche publishing assumes a professional adult audience, but the search for one’s niche begins far earlier than that. In many ways, it is a continuation of the adolescent drive to find our place in the world, to translate what is inside of us into a unique offering that is valuable to others.
Seen from this perspective, finding your niche is not just about streamlining what you do but about adding back some of those early interests you may have dropped along the way. Here’s how this two-part process works.
Starting out, we establish our credentials by focusing on career path activities. Outside interests and hobbies, anything that distracts from job-specific qualifications, gets filtered out of our résumé. Eventually our very self-image reflects those choices too, and we identify most strongly with our work persona.
Everyone starts out as a generalist in their field, but over time we begin to specialize. There may be one particular area of work that interests us most, or a type of client we feel most drawn to. Niche-building in this sense involves paring down our offerings, and focusing on marketing and networking exclusively within that space.
Meanwhile, there is another process going on. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in order to sell yourself as a niche specialist you have to be so much more than that. People are attracted to dynamic individuals, and to put it rather bluntly, most specialists are boring. They seem totally self-absorbed, can only talk about their work, and don’t know how to step out of their “expert” persona and relate as individuals.
The paradox of finding your niche is that by focusing on it too tightly you risk turning off the very people you hope to attract. Because top-echelon clients (and discerning readers) don’t just want your knowledge. They want to know about you. And what makes you interesting is not your résumé or your latest book title, but the sum total of who you are.
Anyone who wants to be wildly successful in their niche has to be able to tell this story: How did someone with your unique interests and life experience become a renowned expert in this one particular thing? By declaring our individuality as part of who we are as niche experts, we give others permission to do the same. And that is an irresistible offer, because everyone has some version of that nascent adolescent drive that still seeks expression in their adult lives.
One group with the greatest challenge in this regard is former bestselling authors who have been left behind by the publishing industry. In some cases not only has their niche been utterly transformed, but suddenly they have to master social media and web presence while navigating a new, virtually unrecognizable publishing landscape. For these experts, reconnecting with their youthful curiosity and drive is the only way forward.
Finding your niche is a great feeling. It is a privilege every day to be rewarded for work that combines your unique skills and talents to help solve meaningful problems. But your efforts do not end when you start to achieve success in your niche.
Once you get there, act like a true leader and be generous. Develop friendships with others in your field, refer clients to them, and share your knowledge when asked. Learn from others, act with integrity, and not only will you continue being successful, you will insure the integrity of your field for the next generation that right now is wondering what they could possibly have to say that is new, and different, and special.