Stories about Software


Narrow Niche: When is Narrow Too Narrow?

I think I’m going to abandon the idea of “reader question Tuesday,” or any particular day.  I’ll keep writing reader questions, but, in keeping with my announcement of blogging for fun, I’ll just post them whatever day of the week I feel like.  So today, a Wednesday, let’s do a reader question about a narrow niche.

So, let’s get into it.  Here’s the reader question.  It’s in response to a point I made about how to build an audience.  Specifically, I said to find problems that people Google and offer solutions.  In response, a reader asked the following.

One of the issues I face when I think of writing anything on a topic is that I immediately find lots of other articles discussing the same thing. But if we write about a specific question we could have more [readers to ourselves].

However, how do we know if a question is common enough?

The Narrow Niche in Content and in Specializing

Let’s consider what he’s asking here.  Take a topic like, say, test driven development.  If you Google test driven development, it’ll seem like every imaginable topic has been covered.  But if you Google “cobol TDD,” the results quickly turn to the sound of crickets.  So write about TDD in Cobol and get readers, right?

Well, if there are any.  I say this because I have a number of tools that estimate the quantity of searches for a term in a given month.  And it appears that almost nobody is searching for posts about TDD with Cobol.  Hence the reader question.

How do we know if the question is a common enough search to be worth writing about?

Well, at the simplest, most tactical level, you could install the Keywords Everywhere plugin and see for yourself.  Here’s what Google shows me, for instance.

But that’s a pretty short-sighted answer.  The real question here is a deeper one.  How do you know if a series of topics is worth writing about, and how do you pick your focus for a blog.  And, for all of you free agents and aspiring free agents, how do you pick a specialty and competitive advantage?

You want a narrow niche, or you’re just a miscellaneous, generalist laborer.  But if you narrow it too much, you might have no audience or customers.

When is Narrow Too Narrow?

Let’s start the discussion by answering the titular question.  When is narrow too narrow?

Well, put most simply, you’re too narrow in anything if no one cares.  As a blogger, this means that you’re writing about a subject that interests literally nobody.  No one is googling it and stumbling across your blog.  Nobody that follows you with regularity is interested enough to read the post.  You’re speaking into a vacuum, and not purely from lack of exposure.

This is actually somewhat hard to do completely.  Someone, somewhere is probably interested just about everything.  But a trickle of traffic or prodding your mom to read something does not an audience make.

Writing a blog post that nobody likes isn’t the end of the world, though.  It gets more problematic when you create a blog that nobody likes, such as MS Access ’97 Daily Tips and Tricks.  Now instead of spending good time on a bad post once, you’re doing it daily.

And it becomes worse still if you’re doing it as a commercial side hustle or primary living.  Now the overly narrow niche means not just wasted time but lost money.

Initially, Err on the Side of Too Wide

So bearing that in mind, I’d say err on the side of going to wide.  At least, that’s how you should approach it in the beginning.

If you’re writing blog posts, this might mean that you’re covering widely covered topics.  But you’re still doing so in your unique voice.  Your friends, family and colleagues will probably be interested, and you’ll probably even start to develop some regular readers and followers.  This holds especially true if you join and actively participate in communities and follow similar bloggers.

You can manufacture an audience, even if you’re too general.  But if you’re too specific (and thus boring), you’ll only ever have obligatory readers in the forms of friends and family.

The same logic holds even more true with hustling and working as a freelancer.  You can always find work as a generalist, undifferentiated worker.  It might not be overly lucrative or well-positioned, but work is work.  It’s better than being the undisputed expert in a dead technology that is completely unmarketable.

But Be Hypersensitive to The Signs of Being Too General

The idea that you want to find problems people have and solve them holds true throughout this.  People want intro to Javascript tutorials and people want to pay for software labor.  So you can write them and do that, respectively, and do well for yourself.  Start there, and iterate.

But as you do so, be really sensitive to the signs that you’re too generic.

This is an interesting and multi-faceted topic.  When you’re talking about an individual blog post (assuming you’re trying to rank in Google for it), you can tell that you’re being too general when you’re nowhere close to ranking on page 1 of Google.  If you’re writing about a topic and the front page of Google features heavyweights like Microsoft, Wiki, Amazon, etc. then you’re probably walking well trod ground.  You’re not going to out-rank those sites, so look for subjects that they don’t cover.

When it comes to an blog (or any sort of content production and sale), I have a lot of experience.  For a lot of years, DaedTech was (and still is, I suppose) a journal blog, where I wrote about whatever struck my fancy.  When you’re overly generalized with something like this, you’ll find opportunities that present themselves, but they’ll be sort of random and disparate.  They won’t really seem to build on one another.

And if you’re an overly generalized free agent or worker, you’ll wind up in contracting situations that commonly resemble jobs.  You’ll find yourself responding to RFPs, interviewing, or diving to the bottom to undercut people with lower hourly rate.  These are the telltales of needing expertise and a narrower niche.

Keep Iterating as You Go

If you find yourself speaking to too wide an audience or pitching yourself as a commodity, you’ve already won most of the battle because you’ve recognized the problem.  You have eyeballs on you, which is a good thing.  Now you just need to distinguish yourself in those eyeballs and to narrow your focus to what’s in demand and what you do well.

There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all path to this, unfortunately.  If there were, I’d happily give it to you.

But what I can say is this.  Look at the work you’re doing, including what seems to work and what doesn’t.  Look for patterns and repeatable things that you can deliver and speak about.  What do people ask for advice about?  What do they consider you an expert in?  What do you deliver that makes people the happiest?

Take note of those things and start zooming in on them.  Write and talk about them more.  Put them on your website as offerings.  Do consultations.  See how it goes, and if you gain traction, keep focusing on that niche.

The mistake that many people make is to assume that they’ll choose some narrow niche and it will remain “their thing” forever.  It won’t.  It will evolve and you will evolve.  The iterating doesn’t stop once you find a dedicated audience and success.  You’ll have to keep learning, tweaking, evaluating and refining in order to stay on top of your game.