Nothing wrong with being different!

From birth to death, in so many places — at school, at work, in the street — we’re told that to be different is wrong. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us are afraid to be different when it comes to writing web content. Most fall into one of two approaches when undertaking the difficult task of picking a niche.

1. A-List by numbers. This usually involves picking a member of the web content A-list and trying to provide the same content for the same people.

2. Difference is impossible. When you’re creating web content on topics no-one else is writing on then it’s impossible to be different, because there’s nothing to differentiate yourself from!

In this post I want to outline the pitfalls of both approaches and describe two approaches to picking a niche I see as being most likely to lead to success.

No-one made the A-list by numbers

The urge to try and become successful by following in the footsteps of a member of the A-list is easy to understand. If it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for me?

sx33It’s unfortunate that the logic seems so sound, because the pitfalls can be so huge. Let me use an example to illustrate the point. Nike is an incredibly successful shoe company.

Do you think, though, that a shoe-startup which aimed to make shoes that looked like Nikes, targeted the shoes at Nike’s market, and brand itself just like Nike would logically go on to be as successful as Nike has been?

It just doesn’t work that way. You might even do Nike better than Nike does, but people will always choose an established brand over a virtually identical, lesser-known brand because of the social proof.

Because that brand is so successful, so everywhere in the niche, people think it must be good. Your meta-blog might be as good as, if not better, than ProBlogger, but if you’re writing the same kinds of tips, on the same kinds of topics, for the same kinds of people, readers are going to listen to Darren Rowse over you every single time. The basic marketing adage that people buy brands, not products, couldn’t be truer than in the case of web content.

You’ll never make the A-list by numbers, but you can be ensured a spot on the D-list.

I couldn’t be different if I tried

Seeing so many talented writers take the above approach and fail has prompted the a number of people to travel to the opposite end of the spectrum: to ensure you have zero competition by picking a niche that is as empty as possible. The idea is that any and everyone looking for resources on this topic will come to you, simply because there is nobody else.

The pitfalls to this approach are deep ones. In truth, most empty niches are empty for a reason. Either nobody is interested, the topic is dead-boring, or there is an extremely limited amount of content you can write on the topic. Avoid tiny or empty niches unless you’re truly passionate about the subject-matter, and only if you’re comfortable with the idea of never having a huge amount of readers.

Make others work at being different to you

It is possible to innovate. It is possible to have ideas that are completely new, or if not new, to expand on ideas that haven’t yet reached their full potential. Starting a blog or website on the most obscure topic imaginable is an easy but ineffective way to do this. The key to true innovation is to put a new spin on an existing demand.

Millions of people like to be amused. built its success on discovering a new way to make people laugh.

Everyone likes to give away things they don’t want in exchange for things they do. BookMooch provides a new way for people to do this.

Web users want to locate the best and most interesting content the internet has to offer. Digg is one way to satisfy that want.

In essence, taking a great need or want and innovating a new way to satisfy it is a powerful way to separate your content from everyone else and put you a few rungs up on the ladder to success. And yes, such ideas are difficult to come by, but the web isn’t going to disappear any time soon, either. You don’t need to come up with something amazing in an hour, and chances are you won’t.

Brainstorm for hours, over days, over weeks. People like to propagate the idea that ideas fall from the sky and that you can no more work towards an idea than you can work towards winning the lottery. This is a myth, and a damaging one at that. You can work at ideas, and you do so by thinking, and thinking hard.

A great idea can significantly boost your chances of success, to the point where others will need to work out how they can differentiate themselves  from you.

Pick any niche, re-write it

Some will tell you that it’s impossible to achieve success in a crowded niche. This is reasonable enough advice from anyone who has experienced what it’s like to create content on a popular topic and not achieve the kind of success they hoped for. In my opinion, it’s the wrong advice.

You can be successful in a popular niche if you differentiate.

I can hear your yawns already. That word gets bandied around like it alone is enough to answer every question ever raised. How do I become successful? Differentiate. How do I get more traffic? Differentiate. The word itself isn’t very useful, but what it means is.

You could start a site about gadgets and be successful. You could start a site about blogging and be successful. You could start a site about making money online and be successful. The key to this touches at the core of the suggestion above. You need to satisfy the demand for information on popular topics in new ways. You’d need a distinct voice, a unique approach, you’d need to answer questions no-one has yet answered, but it could be done.

You won’t be able to succeed creating the same kinds of content on the same topics, nor is it enough to write the same content differently. I can explain that with reference to my own thought-processes when planning what Skelliewag would be. I love writing, I love blogging, and I love the web. All of these things naturally feed into web content.

Rather than blogging about those three entities in general, I decided to focus on something which unites all three, and, without which, all three couldn’t exist. I was also surprised to find so little information on something so prevalent. After all, content is what the web is built from. I haven’t reached ’success’ yet by any measure, but I do feel as if I could, if I work hard and long at it.

The key, as I’ve observed over the years, is to pick a niche you love and re-write it. Write about the topic in new ways, from a new perspective. Tell people how to do things they didn’t know they could do.

I always find it amazing that lifehacks are a relatively new phenomenon when they address a need humans have had throughout the ages: to be better at everyday life. There are a million strong needs waiting to be served. It’s just a matter of discovering them. Is something everywhere in your niche, but never addressed directly?

And that’s where the hard-thinking comes in.

  • What do people want in a popular niche, that no-one is providing?
  • How could I write on a popular topic while setting myself apart?
  • How can I satisfy a broad need (humor, entertainment, new information) in a new way?
  • Could I provide new types of content on an already established topic?

Few people are willing to take the time — and it may take quite a bit of time — to think of a great answer to one of the above questions. This perplexes me a bit, because the rewards are so considerable.

Making the decision to be one of those people is the best advice I can offer on picking a niche.