If you are new to freelance copywriting or are thinking of starting your own freelance business, experts tell you to find and develop your niche. “Write what you know,” say the experts. Sound advice—except when it’s not!
Perhaps you possess technical expertise in engineering, software development, medical research, or some other applied field. If so, you will likely be in high demand for technical writing projects, white papers, and case studies. Your main challenge will be attracting and retaining clients. In that case, polish your LinkedIn profile, network, and stop reading this post. But if you lack that kind of technical expertise, read on!
How My Horizon Expanded Unexpectedly
Looking back, I realize that my career continually involved moving beyond a narrow area of expertise. After several years of teaching religious studies at the college level, I moved into academic administration and was compelled to develop a completely new set of skills. Institutional budgeting, resource allocation, strategic planning, organizational management, personnel management, student and faculty recruitment, fundraising, and marketing exploded my previously constricted view of higher education. The world and my life suddenly became more complicated and intensely more interesting.
Upon retiring from academia, I started my own copywriting and consulting business. Although I was a decent writer (grammatically correct, and all that), attracting clients proved difficult. Businesses and colleges had no use for what I offered. No one believed that a former humanities professor and academic administrator possessed the skills or knowledge relevant to promoting their activities. I therefore returned to academia as a graduate dean for a few more years. This time, however, I paid much more attention to community networking while gaining marketing expertise so necessary for promoting my programs.
After retiring a second time, I took a different approach to my writing business. I reached out to professionals whom I had come to know and asked how I might help them cope with the challenges facing their organization. What I offered was not my knowledge, but a willingness to listen. Responses were positive, although those contacted did not quickly become clients.
Leaving My Niche Behind
After several months (none of this happens quickly!) of working on small, short-term gigs, I emailed a professional whom I had met once at a business luncheon two years previously and asked how I might help him. Three months later, he responded and wondered whether I could revise some of the content on his organization’s website. After checking out the site, I told him how I might help by rewriting a few pages with two principles in mind:
- Emphasize the benefits of his business to potential clients instead of his professional qualifications or the business’s features.
- Keep it simple by losing the technical jargon.
I revised a couple of web pages for a very modest fee, and we met to assess results. Since he had a liberal arts education and experience as adjunct professor and author, we hit it off personally. I proposed writing a few blog posts (he had no such page) to increase visibility and traffic to his site. He agreed, and we proceeded to collaborate.
Although I had supervised several graduate programs, I had no direct knowledge of my client’s business sector. To create blog posts that would interest his prospective clients, however, I soon learned how to find reliable information about a wide variety of relevant topics. After light technical editing by my client, the posts were published regularly. After a few months, the number and complexity of projects began to grow.
What have I just described? Clearly, I left my niche (whatever that was) behind. But a more accurate way of saying that is to note that by focusing on my client and his needs, I allowed him to lead me beyond my niche, my comfort zone. I am now becoming intimately acquainted with his organization’s sector (and others) in very challenging times—an immensely interesting new “niche.”
Of course, my prior experience proved useful. Over the years, I learned much about what it takes for organizations to succeed (or fail). I know something about human resource practices and marketing. But I realize now that such experience and knowledge has become my deep background—not something directly applicable to what I’m doing now. What has now become important for this client and others is that I can learn, I can do thorough research, and I can communicate in clear, simple prose. After learning about their particular challenges, I offer those skills to clients now.
Lessons for Growing Your Business beyond Your Niche
- While your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and well-designed website are important, be sure to reach out to those whom you have met, regardless of field, who might benefit from your services.
- Unless your expertise is concentrated in a technical area, focus on the benefits of your communications skills for potential clients.
- Do not presume that you know what prospective clients need or want. Ask them!
- Avoid telling potential clients that you lack experience in their business or activity. Assure them of your ability to adapt and apply your skills to help them meet the challenges that they have identified.
- Before meeting with potential clients, conduct careful research about their organization and sector. Be prepared to suggest (gently!) one or two ways that your approach might help them.
- When meeting with clients for the first time and subsequently, remember: the focus should be about them and their needs, not about you.
- Don’t be trapped by your niche. Let go of your fear. Open yourself to the new. Good things lie beyond the boundaries of your niche!