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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

axeMany design firms business problems such as financial underperformance, difficulty finding new clients, and downward pressure on project quotes can be traced back to poor positioning. The more general or broad a firm’s positioning is (what they do, who they do it for, and the clear benefits they provide), the less impact their efforts will make, and therefore the less valuable they will be to their clients. But the sharper their positioning (the more narrow or specific their focus), the easier it becomes to find clients who will value their specific expertise and therefore pay them more for their efforts. The law of specialization functions for design firms as much as it does for doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

How sharp is your axe? When you list your experience on your website, do you cover more than one major industry? More than two, three, five, ten? When you list your capabilities, do you list one? More than two, three, five? The more items on these lists, the broader your positioning. The fewer there are, the more focused. Effectiveness in your marketing efforts and client’s willingness to pay higher fees all rise and fall along these sliding scales.

Back in the early 2000’s, 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 design firms.

Design Firm Blah Blogs
I look at a lot of design firm and advertising agency websites since they are my market focus. When I visit their blogs I see the same pattern over and over. Typically the firm started out posting weekly, then slipped to monthly, then less often than that. Finally, the posts drop off altogether. And when I scan the subjects of their posts, I see more patterns. There is usually a blend of company culture posts, professional practice posts, and general PR (hires, new clients, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of posts, but they do very little for a firm’s marketing efforts. And if that’s all there are, it betrays the firm’s 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 so they stop posting. And it’s true. Simply producing posts only gets half of “content strategy” right–the content part–but it leaves off the strategy part. General, non-targeted content accomplishes very little. You may have written much, but the dull edge of each post barely make a dent for 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 you’d be wrong. Maintaining focus on one main thing, having a sharp edge, actually produces much insight and wisdom in that area of expertise–thus content creation becomes easier and more effective.

Sample Sharp Positioning
Consider an example. A large food distribution company arrives your design firm’s website to consider hiring you to design their new website. “Website design” is indeed listed among your capabilities and your portfolio has several examples of sites for companies from many different industries. This prospect considers hiring you but then they find Food Motion Design. (I know, that’s a terrible name, but I’m just writing a hypothetical blog post here, not branding a firm.) Food Motion Design focuses on websites for the foodservice distribution industry. Their blog is full very specific posts about how a website can be best utilized in 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. Before they even pick up the phone or send an email they’re probably already thinking the right kind of question, “I wonder if we can afford them.” Focused content does a lot of the heavy lifting of sales when it follows sharp positioning.

In this theoretical example the right kind of client found a specialized firm. But let’s turn the picture around. Suppose the client doesn’t find that site? How does the principal of Food Motion Design find qualified clients?

Well since he’s locked into the foodservice distribution niche it should be pretty easy. I can think of a few ideas off the top of my head. A quick LinkedIn search for “food distribution” generates 5,365 companies for starters. A little clicking around and he should be able to find the marketing directors of those companies. An email or InMail pointing them to his website is easy enough. And when they click through and see the focused experience and very relevant posts, he can expect some good 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, 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 much lower success. No wonder design firms tend to be content with referral business. No wonder they get tired of trying one failed marketing approach after another. And hiring sales people 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 hits 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 diagnose that fear a bit. 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 their first knowledge of your firm was 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 in focusing the positioning on your website is not so great as it might seem.

But it is true that when you first start down the path to 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. Time that you spend on unrelated clients is now unavailable for building into your new positioning–finding clients in your new niche. Additionally, the very 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 an 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 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 that there are multiple associations, multiple trade shows, and competing industry magazines for that niche. I just did some quick 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 design and marketing firm for the college textbook publishers? Right, now you’re getting the idea.

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