Remember at the beginning of “Pretty Woman,” when Julia Roberts lists her services on Craigslist for house cleaning, personal assistance and the occasional night of escorting?
And then, later in the movie, she realizes her true talents lie in escorting really rich dudes, and she promptly wins her biggest client yet – simply by finding her niche?
Disclaimer: I have never actually seen “Pretty Woman.”
As a copywriter who used to cluelessly offer “writing, editing, and social media” – and pedicures and drum lessons – I can sympathize with the allure of presenting your business as a one-stop shop to potential clients.
Offering the whole kit and caboodle feels like saying,
“I’m here, I’m good at everything, and I’m available!”
Not so much.
At least, not in my experience.
Here’s the story of how one Louisiana-based conversion copywriter went from generalist to specialist – and ended up writing funny, snarky copy for funny, snarky clients at Punchline Copy and SNAP Copy.|3e87afd5e51dbfb21f08b72805fd5596|
Let’s start with an eye-opening exercise.
(I first learned this from fellow copywriter Jon Lamphier, whom I met in The Copywriter Mastermind. Hats off to Jon.)
Open a new tab and go to your website’s About Me page. <–do this for real
Now grab a piece of paper and make a tally mark every time you read a line that looks something like this:
From emails to Facebook ads, I’ve written all kinds of copy
I work with clients in the tech, retail, and health & beauty industries
My experience as a movie ticket-taker, commercial airline pilot, and elephant therapist gives me a unique perspective on copywriting
If, by the time you’re done reviewing, your scratch paper looks like Julia Roberts’ bedpost in Pretty Woman, don’t freak out! (Hey, ain’t no shame in her game.) There’s nothing terrible about having a wiiiiide range of experience. In fact, some
callgirls copywriters find it empowering.
You’re still getting new client inquiries and doing projects, after all.
All is not lost. All is not broken.
And you should understand what that can mean for your ability to generate – or not generate – killer revenue from great clients.|c769e6ea806725902042b162bbc91c30|
Generalists are the copywriters who offer every service under the sun – whether they’ve done it before or not, whether they enjoy it or not and whether they know they can do a good job… or not.
Some clients love working with generalist copywriters, because they know they can throw any project at their writer, and the writer will say:
Other clients are wary of writers who wear 35 hats. They’re thinking,
“How can this writer be the BEST at landing pages, emails, blog posts, social media posts, content strategy, and anything else I think of? Wouldn’t that make her a g**d*** unicorn?”
|7371bf3ca0024b4a17daa53235c59a2f|Here are a few:
- You’ll develop a breadth of knowledge across different aspects of online marketing: SEO, copywriting, design/UX, social media, you name it
- You can manage your client’s entire marketing funnel, from first touches on social media to that crucial moment when a prospect becomes a customer (and beyond)
- You’ll become more familiar with the types of clients and projects you really enjoy
- You’ll be the first person your clients think of, no matter what they need, so you get first right of refusal to whatever project they’ve got in mind (this is the tack that freelance writer Kristi Hines takes)
I’ll dig into these benefits more in a minute. And I’ll tell you why it’s okay to be a generalist – intentionally – for a while.
But first, let’s talk about the undeniable allure of specialization.|f40b6a46a97087f6efdc48e83f453caf|
Copywriters who specialize build their expertise in a given industry or type of copywriting.
They build a reputation for being the go-to writer for:
- Outdoor and nature-based companies, like Mary Iannotti’s team
- Tech companies that use long content, like Jessica Mehring’s team
- Businesses that need conversion copy and have a sense of humor, like, uh, me
You could be the copywriter for championship Parkour enthusiasts sponsoring a giveaway. Or for luxury botanists targeting tycoons with empty gardens. Or for elephant therapists looking to grow their practices.
Copywriters who choose a “niche” usually don’t take clients or projects outside their chosen specialty. If they decide to, it’s because that project is a perfect fit in other ways. But in that rare case, the copywriter is always the one setting the terms. She’s not just happily chasing down whatever tiny bone a prospective client might throw her way.
Specialist copywriters can put together Diva Lists of what THEY want in an ideal client.
They earn the respect of their existing clients, who see them as valuable extensions of the team.
This leads to project requests that look like this one, which showed up in my inbox last week:
Wait…you have an iterative, flexible strategy based on learning from your users? Are you single??
Compare that request to this one, from a prospective client who doesn’t understand what I specialize in (and doesn’t seem to know the name of my company):
Which client request would you rather get?
The one from the client who’s willing to research what his audience wants and needs, and adjust his offers accordingly? Who’s planned his marketing campaigns in advance and understands that you’re probably running a wait list?
…Or the one from the client who sees your work as filler text… tries to haggle down your rates at the same time he’s trying to win your interest… and doesn’t understand why you can’t dive in right this very second?
I know which one I want.
And if you still need another reason to specialize: Seth Godin says so.|015072b47ac861e40f9690d71450b370|
I don’t know about you, but having lived in the realm of “I can do it all!” and now residing firmly in the world of “GTF off my lawn with your lowball copy requests,” I far prefer to specialize. Just in case you’re thinking that the archangel Michael descended from heaven to pat me on the head and tell me I should niche down into conversion copy with a sense of humor, here’s how I actually got to where I am now.
First things first: |b0d04e8e9c404c0d1e555fe04587a7c1|
My copywriting career began during my sophomore year of college, in the least glamorous way possible: hawking “writing and editing services” on Craigslist. I decided to call my company The English Maven. |a4d327227cda811aa7ffc77e676c544e|
- Who calls copy “English”?
- Unfortunately, it turns out that most people think a “maven” is a bird or a portly older lady.
You hear “The English Maven” and you see:
The few clients I managed to glean from the cesspool that brand name attracted were, understandably, not interested in paying more than $20/hour for whatever they needed me to write.
And they needed me to write all sorts of things. |40e45dc43e735afbc0772c813a2171b0|
- I wrote a complete, 10-chapter HVAC repair manual – yes, I got to rephrase an existing manual the client handed me
- I supplied a website called “Fan Quarterly” with regular reviews of some truly terrible shows and movies, plus a weekly column called Fashion Friday, wherein I picked items I liked from Etsy and made fun of them
- I edited website and email copy for an email marketing software company in Russia
I also edited brochures and magazines, wrote social media posts and blogs, etc., etc.
I think I charged somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 for an entire website’s worth of copy.
Sitting down to write my Fashion Friday column one week, I thought to myself,
“Hey, you know what? I love writing this. It doesn’t feel like work.”
Here’s a snippet of the snarky, stream-of-consciousness style I was developing:
And here’s another one I wrote, having pretty solid fun as I did:
My Fashion Friday column started the most conversations about my work and garnered me the most praise (not just from my mom).It was so good for me professionally and personally that, when Fan Quarterly shut down, I kept Fashion Friday going on my own blog for another year, purely for the fun of it. Meanwhile, everything else I sent out into the universe was met with a resounding nothing.
It was almost like when they say you should do what you love and the money will come. Those crazy people and their crazy wisdom.
|a64ffa06c9438ed27315c060c652bfc1|I had waited tables, moonlighted as a “legal assistant,” managed a skincare spa… and was finally freelancing full-time. At that point, I was doing mostly editing work. Publications editing, to be specific. My client list included four magazines, a nonprofit art blog, and my friend’s online New Orleans culture zine.
After a while, I noticed that whenever I was editing, I stopped breathing. Literally held my breath. And every time I saw a typo, I got annoyed.
I also noticed that I dreaded the last-minute proof emails and back-and-forths with the designers, publishers and contributors.
Ding ding ding! Time to leave the publications world.
|d6186f01032b5acfd1b27b638315dc15| It was copywriting and content creation from there on out. At the same time, I started considering what it was about my writing that made me stand out. I couldn’t help but remember how much fun I’d had writing Fashion Friday – even when nobody read it.
The next phase of my career saw me tackle the difference between copy and content. I’ve recently figured out (like, this year) that I prefer to write copy. |a0520f96638793c84aa0797badf3de05|
With that in mind, and with a newfound focus on writing fun, weird stuff, I rebranded as Punchline Conversion Copywriting in early 2016, while a student of The Copywriter Mastermind. Which brings us up to now. (I’m right smack in the middle of my next “next steps” – including letting go of *all* retainer clients and building SNAP Copy into my main revenue generator.)|bb035d39174ed4cf58364b95c5298c07|
Recently, someone in the Inbound.org community started a great debate about generalizing vs. specializing.
It’s worth noting that the original poster is just starting out in online marketing, which probably accounts for more than half of the poll’s respondents advising him to generalize.
Why? Because generalizing, AKA sticking your fingers into lots of fields – like social media, PPC ads, landing page copy and optimization, SEO, SEM, graphic design, and more – helps you understand how all the pieces of your marketing funnel fit together.
…you can specialize!
Going through this process helps turn you into the archetypal, highly competent businessperson known as the “T-shaped marketer.”
The T-shaped marketer is someone who has broad knowledge of marketing as a whole, and deep, specialized knowledge in one area.
Rand Fishkin published a great and succinct explanation of the T-shaped marketer concept on Moz.
Rand points out that gaining deep knowledge fills our even deeper need to be really, really good at a thing, while being equipped with a breadth of knowledge helps us understand and appreciate the specialties of other team members or marketers.
|d648f02079d4eb296e907ced90f18916|: Understanding the strengths of your professional contacts and colleagues makes it super-easy to send qualified referrals their way.
Those colleagues will love you for the referrals. The clients you refer will love (and respect) you for knowing exactly what you do and don’t do.
And you’ll love you for turning down clients who don’t fit your niche, because you won’t be spending 2+ hours of your weekly biz-dev time researching the latest copywriting rules for Facebook ads if your *~*~ true passion ~*~* lies in landing page copy.|8acbed38ff078acdadb05cd8e7743a79|
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: how to figure out your niche, maintain your referral network, and position yourself in your newly chosen specialty.
Check out a few effective ways to find and define your profitable, enjoyable copywriting niche.
None of them involve “energy healing,” journaling, or spending time in nature. You’re welcome.|55ff5121364ff9f9aab18347ede287fc|
A strengths test can help illuminate your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses.
Through a series of increasingly abstract questions, an algorithm will give you insights like, “You’re a learning-oriented people person who enjoys learning, people, and learning about people.”
Strength-finding tests can be useful ways to bolster what you already know about yourself, and they might reveal traits or tendencies you hadn’t considered.
Gallup’s Clifton Strengthsfinder is a popular strength-finding test. When I took it, the test confirmed what I suspected: strategy is my strong suit. That strength is followed closely by a love of learning (there’s no less-gross way to phrase that, sorry) and the ability to observe what makes a person unique and draw out those qualities.
The test said nothing about my ability to eat multiple bagels in one sitting, so take it with a grain of salt.|b7140ce1f0d188ec8f553db016578c94|
A little extra advice here: When choosing a coach, look for one who’s able to prove ROI for his or her clients.
For example, you might look for a coach whose client testimonials cite real numbers, like if I were a coach and my client said…
“Lianna’s guidance helped me narrow down my service offerings and focus on the clients who I most enjoy working with. Since reading her post about choosing a copywriting niche on Copy Hackers, I’ve increased my monthly revenue by $2800 and love the way I look in the mirror.”
Personally, I haven’t yet invested in a coaching relationship. But I did recently get some great advice from Melani Dizon, a writer, coach and teacher who I’m grateful to have met in my old mastermind group.
Melani heard me and my business partner, James, talking about how and when we would be able to dedicate time to growing our joint venture, SNAP Copy. She said,
Maybe you’re thinking that’s a pretty obvious take on the “one in, one out” principle. But it was a succinct reality check, and one we badly needed. Both James and I looked at our solo businesses and found areas where we could scale back in order to create time and energy for SNAP.
So thanks, Melani, for putting that so well! Your check is in the mail.*
* This is not true.
Whether you’re looking for a coach who will jump into nitty-gritty business development with you, or you need more of a cow-prodding accountability partner, one thing is for sure: |2112bbd3ead11a10c9635f8daa5eadf9||5d2c7b835807a6aba67b5156d810c0dc||5126be6aa29dadaa21ff1908028a0c44| like, “We’ll find out what makes you you, and then use it to make you better!”
There are some seriously scary horror stories out there from entrepreneurs and owners who put in a ton of time and effort to boost their businesses… and ended up working with a “coach” who charged big $$$ in exchange for a few automated email sequences about going from rags to riches (without ever explaining exactly how to do it yourself).
You can also vet potential coaches by asking for referrals to past clients. Once you get those clients’ contact details, actually reach out and ask how they benefited from working with that coach.
Another tip:|9571cfeb351fe39801e0785ebcb1b1f4|There are piles upon piles of these associations, so it may be hard to separate the nutritious wheat from the full-of-shit chaff, but it’s a start.
- If you’re considering a “certified” coach, look into what certification actually entails.
- This blog post has a great list of ways to do more background research on any coach you’re considering working with — so you can enter a coaching contract with confidence.
- The Harvard Business Review also conducted a survey of 140 leading coaches, which is must-read material before you send that first deposit.
I said my suggestions wouldn’t include journaling or self-reflection. Well…
You don’t HAVE to journal. But you CAN. If cracking open that marble composition notebook motivates you, well, you just go on ahead.
How you go about digging into better understanding who you are (and what types of clients will make you happiest) is up to you. If journaling can help you, journal away!
The point is to take a hard look in the mirror (and at your portfolio) and ask yourself:
- What projects did I love working on?
- What made the hours fly by?
- What did I feel the best about when I was done?
- What did I get paid well for?
- Who are my favorite clients?
- Where’s my proof that I’m a pro?
- What do I love doing that everyone else hates? (E.g. if you love writing Facebook ads, and everyone you share that fact with hates writing them, that could be your niche. Just make sure you really love it before you change all your website copy…)
Chiming into the aforementioned Inbound.org discussion, Wiehan Britz offered a few concrete examples of niches for those considering specializing in marketing performance and analysis.
If you’ve been in business for a little while, but you’re still thrashing around trying to find your people, Productive Flourishing also offers a great Guided Business Review that helps you take a systematic look at your accomplishments.
|be7cafa7b5fb7d8c775ac092cf19da47|comedian and theater co-owner Chris Trew shared a funusual piece of advice with me a couple of months ago.
He keeps the physical items he’s created or been a part of creating — a book, a mockumentary, a TV show — in plain sight on his desk so he remembers what he’s accomplished and he’s motivated to do more.
(Most of my work mementos were magazine issues with my name on the masthead, and I recycled them before my last move. But that was because they didn’t motivate me anymore. Also, they were very heavy and I have the upper-body strength of a hamster.)
Freelance copywriters, what do you keep on your desk to motivate you? via @punchlinecopy on…
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And if you’re not convinced, you’re probably thinking,
“Well, finding a niche sounds like doing the same thing every day, which sounds boring. I don’t want to get bored.”
This is the most common argument against niching.
I hear you, boo.
It seems scary to get “trapped,” whether in your choice of copywriting specialty, your long-term relationship or your local abandoned well.
|da2041a1d26ca297c2c9b91d35659e8d|Earlier, I mentioned Kristi Hines, who also weighed into the Inbound.org discussion.
Kristi markets herself as a specialist, but operates as a generalist.
And it works for her.
It’s just a lot HARDER to establish yourself with clear positioning that way.
Here’s Kristi’s About page:
You might notice that Kristi doesn’t go into detail about the specific foci of her work, other than to say she writes about “business and online marketing topics”.
The page mainly relies on testimonials, certifications and other social proof (like a big paragraph full of publication names). This subtly underscores the idea that, as a generalist, she’s been published in lots of different places – AND the idea that, hey, if you hire her, your name could be up there with HuffPo and Forbes and Salesforce.
One look at Kristi’s lengthy list of guest posts shows that she’s written her ass off over 5+ years to become a well-known authority in the inbound marketing industry…without pigeonholing herself into a targeted specialty.|655fb386cadfbbd2e646a35981b4a38a|
First, a nota bene: If you’ve got a huge-ass audience hanging on your every offer, you probably don’t need to position yourself in a unique, special-snowflake niche.
Copy Hackers’ very own Joanna Wiebe once said:
“If you have a platform, you don’t necessarily have to ‘niche out’ because you’ll already have access to a user base. But if you don’t have a platform / audience / fanbase, then you’re really marketing from the ground up…[which] gets expensive.”
But if you’ve got a huge-ass audience hanging on your every offer, you probably also don’t need to finish reading this post about niching. Here are some pictures of kittens you can look at instead.
Everyone else still here? Cool, let’s continue.
Let’s unpack this idea a little more, shall we?|0b39149f709a7855e91bdc20ace9c7d4|
Copywriters with a horizontal niche know exactly what type or types of writing they prefer to offer. Of all the types of copy they could write and all the channels they could write for, they choose to specialize in writing one thing for a range of clients and industries. So they might write, say, sales emails for:
- Immigration lawyers
- SaaS companies
- Social media tools
- CRO specialists
- Manufacturers based in China
- Manufacturers based in America
- The Steel Workers Union (I think that’s a thing)
- Skin care lines
- Plastic surgeons
Huge diversity of clients and products! Same channel.
|ff02bcf0b3c2e82f0398f83807c668c7|Horizontal specialists offer just ONE thing – like nurturing email sequences, but never squeeze pages – to potential clients who need that one thing.
The benefits of specializing horizontally include getting reeeaaaal good at something you truly love doing. (Obviously, you’re keeping up with the latest techniques and tools in whatever type of copywriting you choose.) You may also become known as an authority on that subject, which can make it super easy for you to start running workshops and speaking at industry events, if that’s on your bucket list.
But what if you want to write a bunch of different things?
You might prefer to niche vertically.|1a616206f6162ac72fe458269a0c0e54|
|425033c807d0a886d49a78cf9801c8ef| For example, SaaS, healthcare or IT. These vertical specialists write multiple types of copy within a single industry.
For example, if pouring your soul out into your niche-journal helps you discover that you want to write for the independent film industry, you might write some or all of these types of copy for indie movies:
- Squeeze pages
- Facebook ads
- Top-of-funnel (TOFU) landing pages
- Long-form sales pages
- Nurturing emails
- Event invitations
- Sales emails
- Landing pages
- Google ads
- Home pages
- Product detail pages
Do you wanna write one thing for a bunch of industries… or a bunch of things for 1 industry? via…
Click To Tweet
Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to give applicable direction, since your target client might already have followed some less-than-applicable advice from someone in another vertical!
Of course, the clear downside of being a vertical specialist is that you have to know how to write a bunch of stuff really well. And that’s hard, because best practices shift and change all the time. So what worked for billboards 10 years ago just doesn’t work the same today. And you’re expected to know that.|bb066668972001fb41cfc618b10bff0a|
Copywriter Jessica Mehring has niched down into content writing (horizontal) for the tech and IT industry (vertical).
Copywriter Ry Schwartz has niched down into only writing emails that sell (horizontal) for people selling digital products (vertical).
You could specialize in onboarding emails for fintech startups. Or writing Facebook lead-gen campaigns for women’s clothing companies. Or writing in-app copy for B2B software.
Do your research. Make sure it’s viable. You’ll want to check that:
- 30 others aren’t already fighting for clients in your space
- Your prospective clients are showing a need for the work you can do
- There are relatively easy ways to make inroads in that niche
- Your niche isn’t too specific… or too vague
Yes, dear heart, I will spell out how to do this. Read on.|1d2689e644af284b871721f88b920738|
Here are two straightforward ways to test your market – so you don’t pick a niche, redo your website and then slowly decompose in your desk chair while you wait for your inbox to fill up.
Ask your target market! Talk to some of the people you wish would hire you.
Yes, you have to talk to people. I’m so sorry. Sending you flowers now.
When you’re asking someone to give you their time for free, make it as easy as possible for them. Keep your ask email short and sweet, and say something like,
“Hi Farmer Jeremy, my name is Florence Flumpkins and I’m a copywriter focusing on the pig farming industry. I’m considering offering X service or product, and was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions to make sure whatever I offer truly fills your needs.
Are you free this Thursday at 9AM or 1PM CST to talk for 15 minutes?”
Then, once you get your white whales on the phone, ask them questions like:
- What types of copy have given them the most trouble in the past?
- What’s the last job they hired a copywriter for? How big was the job? How critical was it to their business goals? How much did they pay that copywriter? Do they believe they got their money’s worth?
- What was their most recent experience working with a copywriter like?
- What was the most memorable part of ever working with a copywriter?
- What would their ideal copywriter do for them?
Most importantly, ask these potential target clients about their business goals.|470b9b51c48162fb66a5c178e338731d|Then consider how the type(s) of copywriting in your new niche can help them reach their goals.
When selling prospective clients on a website review, copywriter and multi-stack marketer Mary Iannotti asks,
- If your budget wasn’t limited, how much would you pay for a website review?
- What was going on in your world that caused you to want a website review?
As she started gathering feedback from her prospects, Mary changed her sales page messaging to address their fears, pains and problems. She says,
“I learned that I had to sell the value of a website review based on the feedback on price. That’s why my sales copy included a list of every component of the review and how much that would sell for on the market. People weren’t understanding the depth of the review and how much time I was putting into it.”
Remember that you’re not being hired because “words are super cool and I guess we’re supposed to have some, LOL.” |7f61ea78d4a3bea9634016d1660a75bc|
So you better know exactly how your service offerings connect with your client’s end financial goals… and be ready to adjust or restructure those offerings if it turns out they don’t hit home.
The silver lining of doing this legwork? You’ll be able to negotiate higher rates when you can prove your ability to help your clients reach their business goals.
Another less social (yay!) way to research demand in a niche is by doing keyword research.
Copyblogger has a post with great examples of how to investigate potential target market keywords and focus in the right spots. They recommend:
- Understanding the total number of searches per day and per month for potential keywords
- Researching related keywords (that maybe you haven’t thought of)
- Researching related markets – which could be a better fit
For those brand-new to keyword research: You’ll have better luck focusing on longer-tail / less-competitive keywords if you’re in a very competitive niche (like, say, “copywriting”).
Afraid to niche too narrowly? You’d be surprised how specific you can get.
Remember Jessica, whom I mentioned about 30 seconds ago? She’s killing it by specializing ONLY in writing content for the tech & IT industries.
“My prices have doubled — but so has my ability to get results for my clients. Choosing a niche made it easier for clients to pick me out of the crowd, which makes the sales job so much easier for me — but it also allowed me to really focus in on one specific field and know it intimately. I’m no longer a jack of all trades — I’m becoming a master of one.”
Jessica Mehring, Horizon Peak Consulting
Oh, positioning. I could write 1,000 words about positioning right now, and that would be a huge waste of both of our time because there’s so much already out there. Do a G-D Google search, why don’t you?
You need to figure out your value proposition. When in doubt, position yourself using this formula:
That’s good positioning in a nutshell: blowing the dog whistle that only the perfect client (who reeeeaaallly needs your help and has cash in hand) can hear.
You don’t need to fire all your current clients. Because you do need to pay your bills. Unless you’re a railroad heiress, in which case, more power to you for even working at all!
Warning: This step means starting to turn down work outside of your niche.
Try using that free time to pitch guest posts on topics inside your niche to relevant blogs.
It’s worth noting that you’re also not going to stop growing your network just because you chose a niche. When you stop taking on certain clients, you’ll probably want to refer that work to other copywriters. And they’ll love you for it. Like I mentioned earlier, referring out clients who aren’t a good fit helps grow your relationships and gains you respect all around – both from clients who appreciate that you’re not just trying to give them the hard sell, and from your referral network.
This is you reaching out to someone you truly think would be a good fit as a client – if you truly think you can provide value – and telling them “Here’s how I think I could help you.”
OR, better yet, ASK what they need help with and get some of that sweet, sweet psychological buy-in.
If you don’t magically have a list of niche prospects just ready and waiting to get an email from you, no problem. Here’s an excellent, systematic article on how freelancers can cold-pitch prospects using LinkedIn.
Do you have “avatar clients”? @punchlinecopy talks niching on @copyhackers
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Wait for it.
Wait for it.
Here’s that famous word:
If you’ve gone through every step above, and given your best to your new niche…
and you’re finding a dearth of clients, or a surplus of terrible clients, or you suddenly hate the work, or you’re bored to tears…
It’s time to refocus and reposition yourself.
|cbb0dd23d8b5b2f36d92cc3c4307b867|I’ll do the same. Let me know how it goes on Twitter.
~ Salvador Dali