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March 15th, 2012

Tech PR Viewpoint: Starting with a niche is more logical than original

Tech PR Viewpoint: Starting with a niche is more logical than original

Somebody has to say it. Facebook was not the first, or only, company to begin life in a niche. Yes, it did benefit from incubation at the founders’ college (Harvard), but a few times over the past month I’ve heard people highlight the fact that Facebook started in a niche as if it was the only company ever to have done so. Facebook started where its founders happened to be – Harvard – which was a very logical place. It then broadened out to Columbia, Stanford, and Yale (again, logical), then to other Ivy League colleges (still making a lot of sense to me), and on to Boston University, MIT and New York University (ditto), before fast-forwarding to global domination and 845 million users.

I have to admit I am getting a little worked up here. I know it’s really no big deal, but there are a few serious points I’d like to put out there:

1 – If you’re a start-up, you must logically start wherever it is easiest for you to reach your shiny new customers. If you start selling a service and have a crowd of, oh, let’s say Harvard students, all around you, then it makes more than perfect sense to start selling your idea to those students. Finding other relevant audiences that are going to leap at your idea and adopt it is just the next logical step. As my grandmother would have said: “That’s just ruddy common sense.”

2 – Hearing people say that “Facebook started in a niche” as if such a thing had never been thought of before just makes me feel old. When I first worked in tech communications the shining example of a company that exploited a niche was PeopleSoft (waaay before it was purchased by Oracle in 2005). PeopleSoft already had the whole client/server thing going on when so when it released PeopleSoft HMRS then ‘client/server + HR software = a niche’

3 – It’s just good practice to have well-defined distinct audiences. Unless you happen to have a whoppingly huge marketing budget that allows you to communicate your company’s products, services and mission in life to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the English-speaking world (or whichever region you want to conquer), then you must have a considered and methodical approach to audiences you want to target with messages that are relevant to their lives – personal or professional

4 – The use of the word niche can mean so many different things to different people. To me niche doesn’t indicate a narrow market, it means a well-defined audience. And I think any company selling anything should have a well-defined audience for each of its products or services, whether it’s a start-up selling just one thing to a set audience, or an established company with several different business lines targeting distinct audiences with different demographics, reasons to buy and price points. Call them niches if you enjoy saying the word. (I don’t like saying it, mainly due to the very different pronunciation between UK and American English. ‘Audience’ however, sounds the same on each side of the Atlantic).

Of course the flip-side of targeting a well-defined audience can be equally as frustrating as reinventing the niche. When asked about their target audiences, clients will sometimes say: “We’re going to target all verticals” or “We don’t have a specific job title or role to target with this product because it’s relevant to everyone” or “There’s no specific demographic that we’re targeting with this service.” As frustrated marketers are known to say (while banging their heads repeatedly into their keyboards), targeting everyone is as good as targeting no-one. You need to start somewhere.

So pick an audience. Target them. Be relevant to them. Understand their needs, challenges, opportunities, price points and the things that keep them awake at 2am. Clearly define a distinct audience. Just like PeopleSoft did with client-based HR software…

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Posted in Hazel Butters: Opinion, PR Practices | Comments Off