Earlier this week, I had the privilege of delivering a workshop for the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Our topic was writing web copy, so of course, our first order of business was to discuss the challenge of zeroing in on your target audience.
Through our conversation about that, I came to recognize something I’d long felt in my bones but had never really articulated: the whole notion of “niching down,” defining the target market as a narrow segment, has always felt wrong to me. And now I get why that is.
Three fundamental beliefs guide my approach to developing web copy, and I now realize these don’t align well with the traditional paradigm of carving out a niche for oneself.
1. People come first, not search engines
To my mind, the number one job of any web writer is to foster a sense of rapport with the audience that goes beyond getting them to react to keywords or recognize their pain points.
For many startups and small businesses, high-impact web copy integrates SEO, but it doesn’t depend on it. If most of your customers are finding you through personal contact, your first concern should be engaging the people you’ve personally guided to your website, not flagging down strangers on the Internet highway.
That means writing for specific people, not robots. Picture yourself talking to one of your dream clients in person. That might be an ideal client you’ve imagined or a real person you enjoy serving. When you do that, you’ll find your language relaxes. It sounds natural, energetic, and confident. The words stop getting in the way of what you want to say and let your knowledge and enthusiasm shine through.
Thinking about your web visitors as a “niche market” can prevent you from seeing them as individuals. Putting people first, on the other hand, makes the process of crafting web copy extremely personal. That’s as it should be because your task is to communicate the essence of what you do to the real people you want to attract.
2. Community thinking expands possibilities
The language people use to talk about “niching down” always sounds to me territorial, based on a scarcity mindset. After my conversation with the NWAC, I wonder whether we might also call this a colonialist mindset.
Common business advice urges us to “carve out a niche” and “claim a slice of the market.” In this paradigm, the entrepreneur’s goal is to grab a slice of the pie, and put their name on it, before some else does.
The key to success, we’re told, is to think more and more narrowly, so that we carve out a sliver so finely that no one else can manage to get to it. The aim is to “create a category of one”—a space of land so small that there’s room for only us and our customers to occupy it.
I prefer an alternative, approach that’s both more inclusive and more expansive. I like to think about the target audience as the core of a community.
Each of us belongs to multiple communities. We share common ground with a broad community, based on certain shared interests and values. Within that wide community, we also share select interests and values with smaller groups. For instance, as a business owner, I belong to a community of entrepreneurs. Within that group, I identify with women entrepreneurs, and within that group, I identify especially with women pursuing entrepreneurship as a second or third career.
In this model, as I define the community I identify with most intensely, I move further and further toward the center of a circle—but I’m still in the circle, part of the larger community.
Unlike the niche paradigm, the circle model is endlessly expansive. As one circle grows, the rest of the circles grow too. And no single business can detract from the larger community by claiming a piece of it for just themselves.
As someone who would far rather collaborate than compete, I find this alternative to niche thinking empowering.
3. Community language fosters kinship
The community approach to defining a web audience unlocks the power of community languages. Each community we belong to defines itself through the special language it uses. Like a secret handshake, a members-only vocabulary (including buzzwords, slang, and jargon), enables people within a community to communicate easily, with a level of intimacy outsiders can’t fathom.
Once you understand your web audience as a community nested within a circle of communities, you can use insider language to gain their attention and their trust. For instance, let’s say your business sells massage oils for horses. Rather than describing your product in general terms that “anyone on the web” will understand, you can speak directly to your community of ideal customers: vets specializing in equine massage. If you don’t know exactly how to speak their dialect (perhaps you’re not a vet yourself), then you can at least speak the common language of their broader community of veterinarians.
Because niche thinking narrows the possibilities, it can make it difficult to pinpoint the exact language your customers use. In contrast, community thinking opens up possibilities. It provides various ways to access the words and thought patterns that shape community beliefs, values, and behavior. As a result, rather than “translating” the value you have to offer, you can express it in terms that sound natural and right to your audience.
Ultimately, whatever you write—online or offline, for one person or a million—must resonate with real, live people, not representatives of a “niche.” For me, moving from a niche mindset to a community mindset simplifies web writing and makes it much more enjoyable than the task of writing for a faceless “market segment.” And given that web writing is one of the most difficult kinds of writing to tackle, I’ll take all the help I can get!