Niche overrated, personality underrated (and perhaps the only thing that's left)
Stop copying growth hacker playbooks and regurgitating commodified ideas 1,000 people already shared precisely the same commentary on. It's an unwinnable game. Play the winnable one...
I previously wrote on how no niche is ever too crowded for fresh thinking, surprisingly as I’m not sure how many of the ideas presented were new/novel, it’s one of my most read posts here. Perhaps people just needed to be reminded, as it absolutely can feel like the web is oversaturated with ideas. But of course that’s impossible as this is an infinite place so there is no information overload, just filter failure (my friend Louis Gray popularized this concept years ago) and the truth is, there’s not only always room for fresh thinking, it’s a perpetual, unquenchable thirst of humanity.
My previous post linked above mostly focused on how to do standout things in extremely competitive niche (content) markets. This is table stakes at this point in the web’s maturity, you’re far too late to be first at anything. The good news is you don’t have to be. It’s impossible anyway, is not the point, and never was.
Speaking of categories, many champion “niche” as the definitive factor for running a successful media brand (large or small). Nothing could be further from the truth. I am going to go back in time, because blogging/newsletters are having a renaissance thanks to products like Substack, and wanted to share some data from a poll several years ago I saved. I especially like that this is from the first generation of blogging, as not much has changed and in fact the opportunity is even larger: we now have much better tooling, larger audiences, better distribution through social and modern monetization tools.
Anyway, my friend and media pro/site editor Jesse Stanchak surveyed his employer Smartbrief’s (one of the OG blogging/newsletter x-vertical brands) audience looking to understand the qualifying factors for “what makes a compelling publication.”
The results for how readers best discovered new brands of media were as follows:
A distinctive voice – 43.41%
Compelling exclusive content — 35.66%
A unique niche – 11.63%
Strong promotion via social-media channels — 5.04%
Excellent SEO — 2.71%
Connections to famous brands, personalities — 1.55%
And Jesse lamented the fact that just 11.63% of his audience felt a unique niche was important (this was from a very old email I saved of his):
The results of this poll took me a little bit by surprise. I would have guessed that most people would have favored the niche answer. After all, social media is about building community, and communities thrive in niche environments. Think about your favorite sites for a second. I’m wiling to bet most of them cater to a pretty specific audience. Niche sites are lean, focused and easy to pitch to their intended audiences.
While the poll surprised Jesse, the results actually shouldn’t surprise readers here at all. After all, personality is what keeps you in demand. As someone who has helped build digital communities since the 90s (long before the popularization of social, blogs, etc) I’ve experienced time and time again it is not simply category or niche that defines a popular destination. Not really — it’s the community. And in the case of a media brand, the writer’s voice defines that. Merely existing within a vertical is meaningless on its own against the backdrop of an infinite content world, where infinite options within every category exist, and content mills have strip-mined the generic to death (note, don’t let the idea of infinite competition put you off: become a beacon and light the way for people to find you).
Spend a moment and think about it – do you subscribe to a site you discover just because it’s about economics, digital marketing, healthy eating, or astrology? Is that enough? Not really, simply because it is about that subject means nothing. You subscribe because you enjoy the writer’s unique/creative/sometimes even weird perspectives, cumulative life experiences, their voice and the unique community that exists alongside it. And if you were recommended a site by someone, it’s because they already know these qualities are present intimately.
Also, it’s of note that in above quote, Jesse was surprised by niche not really being the point, as at the time he worked for a larger media organization that made its income specifically through niche newsletters and blogs. For the most part (Jesse and a few other standouts aside) no one really cared all that much who the writers were. And that was fine, you got the information you required and went on your way. This is the traditional model of course: you go to Bloomberg as you have a certain level of expectation of quality for the vertical (although as an digital-native I go specifically for voices like Joe Weisenthal, who I would read and follow anywhere and know personally and professionally). For me, he’s actually far more important than the brand, although I’ve no problems with them either. Things are different as the internet not only commodified information, it gave anyone the ability to connect with and build relationships with people like Joe. That wasn’t possible until just recently, and I’d argue the importance of this is deeply underestimated. So in such increasing cases where we have a glut of infinite “CPG” paint-by-numbers niche media, we deeply crave authentic, perhaps described best as ‘artisanal’ publishers (know some of you are rolling your eyes, bear with me the analogy works, don’t worry am not going to try and shill you locally-sourced honey).
So while the main product of a large media conglomerate may be a category-focused site and newsletters, the newsletters themselves frequently have become merely aggregation of said category and so are devoid of personality or voice. This is by design, and while of course there are exceptions, larger operations must operate more mechanistic to be efficient and ship. This works fine in some areas but not others. Again to use Bloomberg as an example, they’ve realized, at least for certain formats and ideas that get talked about and define the daily zeitgeist, this might be all that matters. We see this with “Money Stuff” by Matt Levine, which they’ve wisely kept free and open to all, not merely paid subscribers. Matt and other writers I can name off the top of my head are reasons Bloomberg remains a trusted and beloved brand, even today in a saturated category. The people matter. A lot.
The brands of yesterday that persist but I can’t think of a single reporter at are ones I worry about more in an increasingly commodified and busy world. Yeah, you’re a niche that covers the basket-weaving sector. 10,000 other blogs and newsletters do, too. Why should we care about something we can get elsewhere? This question must be immediately answered not by the publications themselves (they all claim this) but most critically in the minds of audiences. In vast majority of cases, it’s the people that makes us care.
The web is already saturated and the ladder pulled up on creating average content for average readers sharing daily stories in a category with the enthusiasm and creativity of a kitchen appliance, where knowing the author doesn’t matter. AI can report sports scores better and faster than humans. We don’t need you for that (and in this case that automation is good, free writers up to cover things in-depth in ways only a human can do).
So simply having a niche is not even close to enough. By itself no one will care, even those who love the category. I’ve seen plenty of sites which have an incessant focus coloring within the lines never attract any audience at all beyond their pets. It is underestimated just how difficult it is to get anyone to care about a media brand in the first place (IYKYK and have the gray hairs to prove it). So when I see people talk about the importance of “niche” and “consistency” which may be true in some cases, it’s not just showing up, it’s how you do it. Like going to a dinner party and bringing a nice bottle of wine vs a fruitcake (no one likes fruitcake, fight me, you want to bring wine, or at least babka).
This is why legacy brands more and more get lapped by sites and professionals unafraid to nurture personality, character and really go so far as throwing out stodgy rules of “staying within a niche.” This is also why many who launch a Substack and focus purely on ticking boxes of staying in a category struggle to get any readership at all. Besides, interesting results always happen at the intersection. Consider the most interesting musicians, they blur lines between genres while reinventing them. They defy classification. That’s precisely what makes them great. Pure niche brands that never wander outside the lines are usually boring. Personality is in a sense the opposite of the concept of niche as an interesting one can’t be put into a neat box or categorization.
So, just because you create within a certain vein doesn’t matter – that’s not what we want and that’s not what the world needs more of. Audience data shows we crave personality, it’s the logical endgame of what makes for standout, memorable media. What’s legitimately fascinating and unmissable is …you. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: no one can copy that.