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The Sharp Edge of Positioning

“If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge,
he must use more strength,
but wisdom helps one to succeed.”

Ecclesiastes 10:10

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree
and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln

Most marketing problems for creative entrepreneurs can be traced back to poor positioning. By sharpening your positioning, you’ll discover how easy it can be to find great clients who value your expertise. The law of specialization applies to design firms as much as it does to doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

How sharp is your axe? Do you list your experience in multiple industries? How many services do you offer? If you list more than one or two related areas, your positioning is much too broad for effective marketing.

Back in the early 2000s, when I was still running Newfangled, I was always trying to make the case for the power of content marketing. I was able to demonstrate how it worked for us and how an agency’s website could become an effective marketing platform. The importance of content strategy is old news these days. Most companies understand the benefits of a solid, consistent content strategy. But few do it well, particularly creatives.

Design Firm Blah Blogs

A quick survey of creative service firm blogs reveals a pattern. Posts are initially published weekly, then slip to monthly, and then even less frequently. Finally, posts drop off altogether.

There is a pattern to post subject matter as well: company culture posts, professional practice posts, and general PR (hires, new clients, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with such posts, but they’re not compelling for any marketing purpose. Is your blog betraying a lack of focus and poor positioning?

Since it takes time to generate posts, most agencies soon find that “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” And it’s true. Simply producing posts only gets half of “content strategy” right—the content part—but it leaves the strategy part out. You may have written much, but the dull edge of each post barely makes a dent in your marketing efforts.

Occasionally, though, I find a firm that has taken the courageous path of narrow positioning. They rigorously focus on just one industry, and they do one main thing for those kinds of clients. Now, at first, you would think that someone who does the same kind of work for the same kind of client every day would have less and less to write about on their blog. But maintaining focus on one main thing, having a sharp edge, actually produces insight and wisdom in that area of expertise—thus content creation becomes easier and more effective.

PinPoint Positioning at Work

Imagine a large food distribution company looking for a website redesign arriving at your design firm’s site. They indeed find “website design” listed among your capabilities. Your portfolio has examples from many different industries, but nothing specifically for a food distribution company. This prospect contemplates hiring you, but then they find Food Motion Design. Food Motion Design focuses on websites for the food service distribution industry. Their blog is full of very specific posts about how a website can be best utilized for distribution companies. They attend and speak at many of the industry trade shows for the food distribution industry. The prospect recognizes some of the names of companies like theirs from other regions in the country.

In this example, the client discovered Food Motion Design through their own efforts. But it works the other way too. Food Motion Design can easily find qualified clients on their initiative. A quick LinkedIn search for “food distribution” generates 5,365 companies. Add a few more filters, and you get a list of marketing directors at these companies. And when Food Motion Design makes contact, their focused positioning and highly relevant content lead to many warm responses.

Marketing Without a Niche

But what about your marketing efforts? What criteria or search terms would you use in a source like LinkedIn to find prospects? And if you reach out and get them to visit your site, would anything there be compelling for their specific needs? What publications, associations, and events would be fitting for you to attend, speak at, or sponsor to reach clients?

A dull axe requires so much more work, and that work has a much lower success rate. No wonder creatives tend to be content with referral business. No wonder they get tired of trying one failed marketing approach after another. And hiring salespeople is not the answer. If you’ve tried that, you’ve likely already had to fire a few (or convert them into expensive account managers) when they don’t produce as expected.

Barriers to Establishing a Sharp Positioning

There are some real barriers design firm owners face when contemplating sharpening their positioning. I’ll write more about these in another post, but I want to address a couple here.

One fear is losing out on other opportunities. It’s all great when the food distribution company finds Food Motion Design, but what about when a realtor, or a clothing brand, or a law firm comes to their site? Won’t they not bother contacting the firm since they are all about food distribution websites? Probably.

But let’s examine that fear. First of all, how many raw opportunities are you really getting through your website that you might miss out on if you tighten your positioning? How many of your recent clients first heard of you through a web search or had their first knowledge of your firm through your website? And how much did the content of your site truly influence their decision to hire you? I’m willing to bet that the percentage of your clients that came that way is low. Very low. So the risk of focusing the positioning on your website is not as great as it might seem.

However, it is true that when you first start down the path of sharp positioning, you might lose an opportunity or two because your website defines your focus in a very narrow way. But what if you took the time afforded to you by not taking one or two of those opportunities and instead invested that time in proactive cultivation of clients in your new focus? Suppose you spent the same number of hours you would have spent serving that new account and instead used them to market into your company’s newly defined niche? I think you’d find that the end result would be that you would easily replace that general (likely less profitable) opportunity with one or two new clients in your new focused area. And when that happens, you start to gain real momentum.

You see, taking on an unrelated opportunity comes at a very high opportunity cost. The time you spend on unrelated clients is now unavailable for building your new positioning—finding clients in your new niche. Additionally, the work you do on a client in your new positioning adds to your experience and expertise in helping those kinds of companies. Experience and expertise that is readily expressed in more compelling content, which only adds to your ability to land the next client in that area. But taking the unqualified client gives you none of that time or expertise. That’s a pretty steep cost for what would likely be a comparatively less profitable account in the end anyway.

Are There Enough Companies Out There in My Niche?

Another hesitation to sharpening your positioning is the fear that there won’t be enough opportunities in the niche you choose. But that’s an unfounded fear. The world is a really big place. I’m often amazed at how big it really is. The idea that a quick LinkedIn search on food distribution yielded over 5,000 results is an example of this. For almost any conceivable niche, you will likely find that there are not only more than enough potential clients but also multiple associations, multiple trade shows, and competing industry magazines for that niche. I just did some quick research on higher education book publishers, a pretty narrow niche, and found the Association of American Publishers (for higher education), which has over 200,000 members.

It would take a very long time to work through that list! But now ask yourselves, how many competitors would you likely have as a creative services firm for college textbook publishers? Right, now you’re getting the idea.

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