In 1998, I became the investment club guide for About.com. My responsibilities included the creation of at least one original article per week on the topic of investing or investment clubs, as well as development of the e-newsletter for the subscribers of that channel.
I absolutely loved it. Every piece of content I created scored more traffic. The formula seemed so easy … just create article after article answering questions about investment clubs and the audience grew and grew.
About.com had hundreds of guides like me covering almost every topic imaginable. By the early 2000s, About.com was one of the largest websites (by audience traffic) in the world. At that time, it was all about scale … creating content for everybody. Yahoo did it. Microsoft did it. Excite.com did it (I owned stock in that little disaster).
It was about scale until it wasn’t about scale.
As more and more publishers and brands entered the market, About.com’s market share started to disintegrate. About.com realized, like many others, that if your content is for everybody, it’s for nobody.
For years About.com continued to languish, changing ownership multiple times, until a new strategy was hatched a few years ago.
About.com, renamed Dotdash, focused on verticals where it could become a go-to resource for particular audiences. Instead of creating content for practically everyone, Dotdash believed it had a competitive advantage in six verticals in which it would go narrow and deep on each topic. Today these include Verywell (health), The Spruce (home), Lifewire (tech), The Balance (personal finance), Tripsavvy (travel), and ThoughtCo (life hacking).
According to CEO Neil Vogel, the change in strategy is working, and at a faster rate than expected.
I presented a workshop to a group of students in Des Moines a few weeks back. One student asked if I would launch CMI the same way today as we did almost 10 years ago. My answer: absolutely not. If CMI launched today, there is no way it could compete as a broad education and training site for content marketing. There is simply too much competition now. We would have to focus on a niche like nonprofit content marketing or content marketing for financial services companies. Or, perhaps, we’d have to change the audience.
The question you need to start with is, “Are you niche enough?” How do you know?
My litmus test is this. Answer these first two questions.
- If you employ the resources you have for the strategy, can you be the leading informational provider in that niche to that audience? If the answer is yes, move to Question 2.
- In this niche to this audience, are there fewer than 10 legitimate competitors? That includes your real competitors (who sell your products and services), media companies, bloggers, influencers, and anyone else who covers the niche.
If there are more than 10 competitors, your niche isn’t niche enough. It will be incredibly difficult to break through with so much competition in that area, unless you are truly able to differentiate yourself.
For example, when John Lee Dumas started his podcast EntrepreneurOnFire (EOF), hundreds of competitors were going after the startup crowd with real-world advice. Most of those competitors had bigger budgets. But, no competitor created its platform as a daily podcast. That was John’s “content tilt.” John has never missed a day in over four years. Today, he’s a multimillionaire.
To start, everything should be focused on your specific audience … and there should be only one audience. If you target more than one audience group (or persona), you will fail (sorry to be so blunt). Here are the questions to answer before selecting your niche(s):
- Who’s the target audience? (only one)
- What’s the audience (content or informational) need(s) as it pertains to your strategy?
- How will your content marketing strategy help your audience members with their job or life in some way?
- Why does he or she care about this? (Does the audience care?)
- What unique value proposition (UVP) do you offer this audience? What differentiating value do you bring to the table?
Highly scrutinize your content. If the information isn’t truly differentiated, with limited competition, there is little chance you will break through and garner attention.
- What is the content niche you are planning to cover?
- What other companies are providing this kind of information? Do you even have an opportunity to become a leading resource in this area? How do you find out?
- Is there a possibility to purchase an existing external asset instead of developing a new one?
- Where will these stories be found? Who in the company has the expertise to help? What internal assets and other content do you have?
- What resources (staffing and otherwise) will you need that you do not have?
- How will the stories mainly be told (audio, video, textual)? Remember, focus on one key content type and one key distribution platform (a blog, a magazine, an event series, a podcast, a video series, etc.).
- What key design issues will make or break the program?
- What platform makes the most sense to distribute the content?
- Are you creating a new content brand, or weaving into your existing product or company brand?
I talk about this concept so much that even I’m tiring of it. But the truth is (and even CMI/MarketingProfs research bears this out), most organizations don’t develop a content marketing mission statement (like an editorial mission) as their guiding light. Why is this so important? It not only gives you focus, but it gives you the power to say no. When your CEO or CMO walks into your office or emails some great idea, the first thing you do is run it by your mission statement. Does it fit? If not, sorry … that content is just not going to fly.
There are three parts to the mission statement:
- Core target audience
- Material to be delivered to the audience
- Outcome for the audience
Let’s look at Digital Photography School’s content mission: “Welcome to Digital Photography School – a website with simple tips to help digital camera owners get the most out of their cameras.”
Let’s dissect the mission statement:
- Core target audience – digital camera owners
- Material to be delivered to the audience – simple tips
- Outcome for audience members – get the most out of their camera
As you can see, a content mission statement is not rocket science. The content tilt is more than just telling a different story. It’s about finding an educational or informational area of little to no competition where you have a chance to break through all the clutter.
In thinking about Digital Photography School, with thousands of websites available that talk about photography, how did DPS break through with little to no promotional budget?
It believed that the majority of photography content on the web was 1) focused on the photography professional or 2) in a long textual form that was hard to engage in. DPS’s content tilt – the reason it separated itself – was its insight and ability to turn the focus on a beginner audience with helpful, consistent tips that its readers could use easily and immediately.
No one was doing that in that way … and that is the main reason DPS has been successful.
Most likely, you already started your company’s content marketing journey. No problem … just go back and adjust the strategy based on the answers to these questions. You may find that you are indeed targeting multiple audiences or you really aren’t niche enough with your content. No time like the present to make a change.
As you develop and grow your niche, let CMI be a helping hand. Subscribe to the daily newsletter (or weekly digest) today.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute