In a crowded marketplace, making yourself heard means finding a fresh direction and offering something nobody else can – at least not yet. Working out what that unique angle is means looking at what you and your customers are genuinely passionate about, then fighting for it.

Having the courage to evolve and bring something different to the market isn’t easy. But on the flip side, the pay-off can be huge. Here’s why…

Generic isn’t good enough

I run a hosting company and it’s a field where, theoretically, there aren’t many barriers to market. With a computer, internet connection, web space and a bit of experience, you can be up and running in virtually minutes.

The digital agencies we serve don’t need much more – and that’s one reason why the competition is so fierce, and the need to stand head and shoulders above the rest is so strong.

Natalie Gross, BIMA Co-President and TH_NK Managing Partner, got to the heart of the problem in Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies 2018. She explained:

“The landscape for digital and integrated communications agencies is a tough place to be, particularly for those that have failed to establish an effective point of difference in their brand proposition… as the market has become more discerning, a generic proposition will no longer be enough. Marrying business needs to an agency’s clearly differentiated proposition will become increasingly important when it comes to clients selecting their agency partnerships.”

A strong start doesn’t guarantee a long future

You might start out with a clear point of difference, a niche, absolutely in the bag. For us it was a focus on serving the creative agency market, plus free migrations from other providers. At the time, they were pretty much unique and won us a lot of new business. So far, so good.

But – as we discovered first hand – if your niche offer proves popular, it won’t be long before the competition copies it. Which means you’ll need a new point of difference. Something compelling – and harder for the competition to recreate. Of course, the obvious route is price, but unless you’re a massive global player with incredibly deep pockets, that’s a game it’s almost impossible to win.

Creating a niche grounded in customer need

Instead, look to your customers. Identify what’s frustrating them, what they ultimately want to achieve and what’s standing in the way of you offering them more.

In our case, it was the fact that a huge proportion of our business involved us installing either cPanel or Plesk software onto our customers’ servers. It meant the majority of their dealings with us – the company they’d picked out of the crowd – were through software we had very little control over, and didn’t always love. They weren’t seeing enough of our brand day in, day out, and there was only so much we could do to make their lives easier. Not ideal.

So we pivoted. We decided to create software of our own, stepping closer to our customers and carving out a new niche. It just made sense. We weren’t taking a different approach to the competition for the sake of it – we were diving into an area that fascinated us, and when we emerged, our customers would be happier for it. Whatever business you’re in, that’s got to be the best place to start.

A journey that never ends

Once you’ve found that new approach and identified the customer-focused niche you want to fill, that’s when the real work begins. And it won’t be easy. Set your sights on the right niche, with the right impact on your customers, and you’ll win real loyalty as well as brand new business. You’ll be offering something that brings you closer to your customers’ needs and helps them see you as an ally who understands them.

Yes, there’s often a huge amount of hard work, pain and frustration along the way, but that can be a good thing (with hindsight!). Not only will it make you rigorously assess your product, but it will put real distance between you and the competition. If they want to catch you up, they’ll have to go through the same tough journey as you did and experience the same pain along the way.

But be under no illusions. The competition is coming. Finding your niche isn’t a journey you can get to the end of and relax. It’s never ending. You’ve got to keep redefining and developing yourself and your product constantly. You’ve got to keep asking (and asking, and asking) whether your niche is still valid, and actually, whether it’s still a niche at all. To stand still is to let the rest catch up, to get lost in the crowd, or even to get left behind. And you’ve got no intention of that, have you?