Building Your Niche
Break down effective marketing strategies for straightforward approaches to success
By Mike Eisenhart, PT
Growing up I hated puzzles. Well, maybe hate is a strong word, but I never really got into them the way my family did. I can remember many family vacations where someone would buy a zillion-piece puzzle “for a rainy day,” lay it out on the table and slowly and steadily reconstruct the image on the box. This happened piece by piece, morphing from something that started like a pile of rubble into an amazingly detailed image.
In truth, I do not think I have any deep-rooted puzzle “issues” per se—in reality, I love the feeling of figuring something out after having struggled with it, exactly what puzzles provide. The problem for me is that I get sucked all the way in, into the abyss until the puzzle is done: part rabbit hole, part obsession.
When I started thinking about how I might write an article on marketing, it was a bit like looking at the pile of puzzle pieces. Marketing has a zillion pieces and, for most of us, it can be a pile of rubble in one of various stages of sorting. We can see the beautiful image on the box (our vision), and we know if we had unlimited resources (time, money, or energy) to dedicate, we could likely sort them all out, but in the back of our mind we know it also has the makings of a rabbit-hole and we risk getting sucked in. In many cases, we walk softly, tiptoeing around the pile to deal with something more urgent or less messy, trying to not entirely lose sight of the beautiful image waiting to be constructed.
It is best to start at the beginning
Officially, according to the American Marketing Association, marketing is defined as:
“the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”1
Wow! That is a lot of pieces that could easily become a rabbit hole. We could spend a long time talking about “value” and we often do. We could talk about the four “P’s” (product, price, place, promotion) which, for a very long time, were the pillars of any marketing plan. We could talk at length about who our customers are, who our partners should (or should not) be, and whether our brand is strong or not. This discussion could be circular and never-ending.
Since few have the time to pursue these types of ongoing dialogues, perhaps putting a bit more simple concept in play here is a good idea. Marketing, according to Mike, is the process of bringing “things of value” (services/experiences) to “people who want” (our customers) in a way that “motivates use” (buying behavior).
If we use this basic framework, marketing has a few key elements:
First: It is a process. Marketing is deliberate and replicable.
Second: It is intended to communicate the value our offering has in solving a problem (customer want or need).
Third: If done correctly, it stirs an emotional response (motivation) that is likely to lead to action (purchase).
Start by finding a problem in the market that you can solve in a unique way. Next, design, create, or deliver the solution. Demonstrate how it works. Convince people that your solution is not only the best one available, but also that it is accessible to them when/where they want it and, of course, start finding places to stuff all that money that you are about to make.
Seems easy enough, right?
It is, except that marketing, by definition, deals with some of the most complex variables imaginable—other humans. Since, despite the historically held belief that people are self-interested “wealth maximizers,” people indeed do not always act rationally or with cold self-interest.2,3 Therefore, successfully bringing new offerings to market can be a zillion-piece puzzle when people are in the mix.
Narrow is not small
Niche marketing attempts to go narrower and deeper by understanding the specifics of a problem and shifting all available resources toward solving it completely. It is about keeping an open mind and being willing to let go of sacred cows or egos if that is what it takes to get to a solution (the essence of innovation and discovery), and it is about serving the customer and getting them what they need. When we place the highest priority on providing a solution and systematically deliver on our promise to do so, we have both process and value.
However, narrow does not mean small—this is a common mistake—rather, it means specific. It is about a very specific group (narrow market) with a problem that is not currently being solved.
Look around the physical therapy world, and specifically within the Private Practice Section (PPS), and you can find folks who are doing this well. Women’s health is a wide market—anything related to keeping women healthy could feasibly fit. Urinary incontinence, however, is far more narrow; but remember, narrow does not mean small. With an estimated spend of $25 billion in direct costs in 2015 dollars,4 that is enough zeros on which to build a market. The next time you see a #PelvicPT hashtag floating around Twitter, tip your cap; they are doing it well.
If $25 billion still seems small, consider my friends over at www.getpt1st.com (@getPT1st on Twitter) who are working in a narrow, yet very deep space. Instead of focusing in on everything the physical therapist can do (wide and shallow), they have decided to emphasize the benefits of getting to a physical therapist fast and first (specific) as a solution to the impact of movement-related dysfunction. Narrow and deep, but not small. Even if limited to the single condition with the greatest available pool of data (physical therapy fast/first for uncomplicated lower back pain), it is up to a $200 billion market.5 It is a niche message we can all get behind—and probably should.
Redefine the process
So, if we are dealing with a zillion pieces and we know we do not have the resources to complete the entire thing all in one sitting, it probably does not make a ton of sense to use the classic “puzzle process” of finding the corners and edges, sorting the pieces into piles, and assembling section by section. It probably makes more sense to pick a single section and make that your entire focus, scanning a much smaller area and working hard to solve that single problem.
If you are one of those restless souls (physical therapy entrepreneurs) who have a strong desire to help complete the puzzle, but know you have limits, this is for you. The niche marketer still badly wants to deliver the image on the box. In this case, that would mean physical therapists as highly valued, first-choice providers for movement-related dysfunction, but given their resources are finite, they pick a very specific problem and work hard to solve it.
After narrowing the problem and designing your specific solution to it, it is time to strike an emotional chord and spur action. People tend to struggle in communicating and intervening in a way that nudges the customer, slowly and steadily, toward the endgame: the “unshakable believer,” that rare but passionate brand-evangelist who is excited to spread the word and is undeterred by skeptics or cynics. This is not your casual fan who had a good experience; this, as Ken Blanchard put in his seminal 1993 work, is a “Raving Fan:”6 Someone who is so blown away by the experience that they cannot help but talk about your business. They are the ones who will tip the population of potential customers in your favor; they are the ones who drive markets.7
It is more nuanced than it seems, and it will not happen instantly, but it is not impossible. Here are five “rules” to consider:
1. Be remarkable: Being awesome at what you do is a prerequisite, not the endgame.
2. Be quotable: Make sure your message is simple and consistent; you cannot afford the telephone game.
3. Be accessible and responsive: Marketing happens when and where the customer wants, not necessarily when/where it is convenient for you; make it easy to get to you.
4. Stay connected: Behavior change, even buying behavior, happens in a predictable, albeit slow, way.8
5. Say thank you: Positive reinforcement greatly increases the likelihood that the new behavior will become a habit.
Where from here?
Clearly, bringing an innovation to market is not as simple as having a great idea—realistically, that is the easy part. Rather, bringing an innovation to market is about identifying and solving real problems in an accessible way. It is about motivating action in others and ultimately, it is about making such a difference in the lives of those we serve that they cannot wait to share the story. To those who are already doing this every day, thank you, you are making us all look good. To those who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to it—I look forward to speaking with you at PPS conference in Orlando! Bring your passion!
Mike Eisenhart, PT, is the managing partner of Pro-Activity Associates, LLC, in New Jersey. He is also the current president of the APTA’s New Jersey Chapter. He can be reached on twitter (@MikeEisenhart) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.