Embracing the Power of Niches
Small but mighty can be a fantastic strategy
When you are creating content in any context - as an individual, part of a media company, or part of a brand - the lesson you learn early is that MORE IS ALWAYS BETTER.
Success in content is almost always framed as achieving the largest audience number possible. Traditional media is known as “mainstream” media for a reason. It’s about reaching LOTS of people and selling a big reach number to advertisers. Anyone who has worked in traditional media knows that ratings matter. MORE IS BETTER!
If you’re trying to get advertisers to support your content, one of the first questions is about the size of your audience, and below a certain threshold, most are not interested. Further, agency campaign metrics champion massive reach. CPMs (cost per thousand audience members) are a standard measurement focused on reaching as many people as possible for the lowest cost possible. So, in an advertising-supported business model, the best path to more revenue is a bigger audience and more inventory. MORE IS BETTER!
From a content creation standpoint, it then follows that if you want to make more money, you should also make more episodes (or posts, or videos, or photo galleries, etc…) to create more ad inventory to sell. If you produce a limited-run, single season of a high-quality narrative podcast, for example, you have far less inventory than an “always-on” daily podcast. And so there are naturally a lot more “always-on” podcasts with very efficient production models to reach more people, more often and serve more ads to those people. MORE IS BETTER!
Here is the hard truth, though. It’s really hard to stand out and be special when you have to make lots and lots of content all the time. It’s really hard to be valuable to a large, amorphous group of people. It’s really hard to sell enough ads to make back your production costs while also doing work that you’re proud of and that doesn’t burn you out.
Thankfully, there are other approaches to content and marketing strategy, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to content from brands.
The Counter-Intuitive Alternative: Fewer is Better
There are many occasions where it is much smarter, more effective, and more profitable to do the exact opposite of MORE IS BETTER. You can toss out the hunt for mass audiences, the push for highly efficient, always-on content, and the inefficient paid media campaigns. Plus, you can be a weirdo and bellow from the hilltops, “SMALLER IS BETTER!”
Here are a few very different examples of the power of niches, doing fewer things better, and having a big impact with small groups…
Brand Positioning: The Pacific Content Niche
When we started Pacific Content, people we knew and trusted were fairly worried that we were starting a podcast company because, in 2014, it felt like too small an idea for a business. (“Who listens to podcasts???”) When we went even further down the niche trail and made Pacific Content the first company to focus exclusively on branded podcasts, it felt like we were close to having friends and former colleagues stage an intervention.
However, being the ONLY company to do something means you get to build the playing field. You get to invent the rules and best practices. And you’re the only game in town (for a while).
We fully embraced our tiny weird niche. Above the fold on our website, in big letters, it read “We Make Branded Podcasts.” There was very little doubt about what we did. And if you were looking for a podcast and you worked in brand marketing, it was VERY clear when you landed on our website that we were the company you were looking for.
We avoided the temptation to make original shows, start a network, or expand into other types of content. We stayed hyper-focused on a really specific niche of business, a really specific niche of brand marketers that understood the power of great content, and developed deep expertise in our niche.
Being a big fish in a small pond worked really well for Pacific Content.
Brand Positioning: The Red Hat Niche
When Pacific Content first started working with Red Hat, I must admit that I was (foolishly) concerned. The team told us that their target audience was the community of open-source developers. In a relatively new industry (podcasting) with a new client, you always want to set them up for as much success as possible, and I was worried that no matter how great the show was, there would not be enough listeners. I was dead wrong. The Red Hat team was (and continues to be) incredibly smart.
They know their customers. They know their community. And they knew that if they could make a high-quality, listener-first show, it would be a success. So we all made Command Line Heroes together. And it worked. (For NINE seasons!) The audience numbers blew me away. Who knew there were so many open-source web developers in the world? The show that targeted a very specific audience had more listeners than many shows targeting a broad, general audience.
The lesson for me was that if you super-serve a defined community in ways that others aren’t, it is a huge win for all involved.
Lower Funnel Content: The Charles Schwab RIA Niche
How’s this for a niche audience? Investors working in a wirehouse who are contemplating leaving to become an independent RIA financial advisor, who are looking for education and information about how to make the move. The “How I Became An Independent RIA” podcast is a hyper-specific show with a hyper-specific audience. Success means reaching EXACTLY the right people and no one else. It’s the opposite of focusing on reach. Can you imagine how valuable this podcast series would be if you were in this situation? It’s the only podcast on the planet that delivers the information that you’re desperately searching for.
Paid Media: The Podcast Ad-Buying Niche Strategy
My friend and former Pacific Content colleague, Dan Misener (now at the podcast growth agency, Bumper), took a very specific niche strategy when it came to buying paid media to promote podcasts.
He saw big ad agencies taking huge budgets from our podcasting clients and spending it all on single-platform campaigns. The reporting ended up being a big reach number. What it never did was drive downloads or new listens to the podcast they were supposed to be promoting.
So Dan asked a very smart question - what is the job you’re hiring the paid media campaign to do? (HINT: It’s not reach.)
In this model, reach and CPMs don’t matter. It’s CPD - Cost Per DOWNLOAD - that matters. When you focus on Cost Per Download, you very selectively choose smaller shows who reach exactly the audience you want to reach and who are willing to do differentiated, memorable creative executions that drive downloads and listens. For many shows, Dan’s paid media strategy leaves the mainstream mega-buy alone and buys targeted niches.
Needless to say (or maybe it needs to be said?) - it works really, really well.
Weird + Worst = Win: The CBC Radio 3 Niche
In the last edition, I wrote about the multi-platform content strategy of CBC Radio 3. Another really interesting lesson from CBC Radio 3 is that it was focused on a VERY specific niche audience:
People who love new music
People who also love a variety of different genres
People who are also open to music coming exclusively from Canadian artists.
That is yet another WEIRD NICHE!
My old friend, Dave Olsen, a legendary Vancouver creative who helped built Hootsuite in the early days, recently reminded me of a presentation about CBC Radio 3 at the Northern Voice conference in the mid-aughts. It was called “The Worst Radio Station In The World” and the gag was that CBC Radio 3 broke every single rule for what successful radio stations should do.
Any traditional radio station would never target the CBC Radio 3 audience because there aren’t enough people who want new, multi-genre, 100% Canadian music in any city or town. In fact, the research shows most people don’t want new music. They don’t want new artists. They don’t want multiple genres. And they don’t want all-Canadian music.
However, we believed that there are music super fans in small numbers in every market across Canada and around the world. If we super-served them by being the ONLY station like this on the planet, we could aggregate a pretty great audience with no competition from anyone else for this space.
I still can’t believe it, but it totally worked. (Full credit to the amazing musicians and the amazing curators who made such a fantastic mix of music - it deserves all the attention because it is a unique and amazing musical experience.) Not surprisingly, there was not a lot of competition to serve this unique group of music lovers. There was an amazing community of people that gathered around CBC Radio 3 and found each other, and much like Red Hat, they did so in surprisingly large numbers.
Content & Positioning: The Creativity Business Niche!
This newsletter and my current content strategy consulting are the final examples.
If you’re reading this, you’re part of a pretty small niche of people who are interested in content strategy. You are more than likely working in brand marketing, content marketing, brand storytelling, or a content/media/podcasting company. Like Red Hat, Charles Schwab, CBC Radio 3, and Pacific Content did for their specific niches, I’m not trying to reach anyone except you. So I’m going fairly nerdy with the content strategy talk and I’m probably using too much jargon.
I hope you found this edition valuable. If you did, I hope it also means I’m serving the niche well!
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