After six amazing years, the founders of Hexanine have moved on to other independent design work and creative endeavors. Read more
Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

Navigating the Niche: Embracing the Power of Micro-Communities

Hexanine: Navigating Niches

The world is changing. We are rapidly evolving away from a marketplace ruled by mass culture, to one filled with a riotous patchwork of specific niches. Not long ago, one-size-fits-all communications, branding, and products stood at the top of the heap. Whether it was the Big Three TV networks, Top 40 Radio, or products designed for the Average Jane, traditional marketing and branding sought the widest spread and the largest customer base. But in 2014, these bastions of lowest common denominator thinking are slowly crumbling, thanks to the increasing fragmentation of media, culture, and interests. And these fragments — whether you call them tribes, micro-communities, or niches — have powerful potential for organizations, brands, and marketers.

The Internet has driven much of this change, providing a forum and technology for people to discuss, exchange, and rally around their favorite products, services, or interests. DVRs, shrinking electronics, and personalization search algorithms have also kneecapped the effectiveness of broad-based marketing and advertising. But while this scenario is challenging for those who still pursue the target audience of “anyone with a heartbeat,” there are opportunities out in the margins of the marketplace for savvy, passionate people and their organizations.

Niches have grown in and among the weeds of our culture, often centered around demographics, causes, shared interests, or the love of a product or service. Many of them present amazing opportunities for brands and marketers to tap into existing passion, or to create goods and services that people will respond to with zeal.

Good business is where you find it, and niches have potential value for marketers or organizations who find a fit, and are able to engage a micro-community — by opening new markets, co-creating ideas together, tapping “experts” for ideas or consultation, or engaging tribes as part of larger brand strategies. The number of opportunities is staggering, with the potential to birth small companies that reach even smaller audiences, to disrupting existing markets, creating new industries, or just reaching those with particular hairstyles.

After combing through the underbrush of culture and online forums, your team might see marketing potential in already-gathered tribes, but it’s not quite a point and shoot process. Niches are like bad science projects — they have the potential for great energy output and passion, but they also are very combustible. It doesn’t take much for a tribe to implode, disband, or destroy itself from within. It takes an astute traveler to navigate these ecosystems, all of which have their own rules, customs, and languages. Every micro-community is different, and require different approaches, methods, and tactics. You wouldn’t speak Klingon to a sabermathematician, but there are some general principles to consider when venturing into niches. Here are our necessary signposts to read along the way:

1. The passion of the few is better than the “meh” of the many.
If the success of the overall Kickstarter model tells us anything, it’s that you don’t need many enthusiastic “backers” to turn a product or service into a success. But in many cases, these supporters are not mere customers — they’re invested in the process of creation and development. They aren’t just consumers, but devotees — serious and excited enough about a publication, product, or film to take action before the actual work is completed. This turns the traditional consumer-supplier relationship on its head, and it works, because people care about the end result. That caring is potentially powerful, and when gathered into a small tribe or group, this zeal can easily outweigh a much larger audience of people who could take it or leave it.

2. For best results, fully immerse.
Once you determine what niche you want to explore, supply, (or exploit), you’ll need to embed yourself in the fabric of that chosen tribe. Become a real part of the culture — observe, listen, and finally, contribute. It takes time to build trust, understanding, and personal connections. Opportunistic carpetbaggers and phonies will be ferreted out, as authenticity is often the main coin of the realm where niches are concerned. Whether it’s among Wizard of Oz fans or Intellivision geeks, establishing yourself as credible is key to becoming part of a community. Also, truly understanding a niche leads to deeper insights, rather than knee-jerk solutions.

3. Real passion is required.
There’s nothing wrong with making money, but viewing niche communities purely as cash cows or “exploitable markets” misses the point. Often, these communities spring up and exist because of true brand love — maybe it’s for classic video games or unusual documentary work, and it’s that same passion that sustains them.

Surely there are opportunities for investors, organizations, and brands seeking to embed themselves within these niches for their own good, but genuine love for the subject matter or community has to be woven into any effort. Whether you’re building a product to reach fans of 3D photography or designing an app for creatives, truly authentic efforts will win the day. This requires your team to actually join the fray, or partner with those on the inside. This is both good business and ethical action — so it’s in your organization’s best interests to either go native and become one of your customers, or hire them.

4. Ask not what your niche can do for you.
With apologies to JFK, it’s important to enter a sector or tribe with a servant’s mindset. What needs do you see? How can you (or your organization) become inherently valuable to the residents of this subculture? Where do your offerings and their needs intersect? Engaging fans (and people) at this level removes some of the opportunistic stench from your efforts and disarms those who are skeptical of your intentions. It’s important to be transparent and honest about your desires, but it’s also just good form to pitch in and help before you ask for something in return.

5. Can you shrink?
Once you’ve chosen a community to focus on, and a way to engage with them, practical considerations crop up. Can your team streamline itself enough to handle a smaller, leaner business model that serves less people, but does so more intensely? Is it possible to narrow your offerings and still be profitable? These scaled-down strategies are not for everyone, but they are often crucial in effective efforts to reach overlooked niches. Mattel became an intriguing example of this when it morphed some of its less-profitable mass retail toy lines into collector-focused, subscription based offerings. Prices might be higher for collectors, and margins might be slimmer, but the brand is carving profit out of a long tail of desire by tapping into an intense fan community. It might require more personal touch and effort, but strategies like this make sense for many organizations.

6. Take the long view.
Truly embedding into niche cultures for business reasons isn’t an overnight endeavor. Just like constructing a building’s solid foundation, it’s important to build, grow, and contribute in a way that is measured, authentic, and stable. Like any good relationship, your organization’s connection to a micro-community will take time to germinate, but if the audience is responsive and positive, great things can happen. Some amazing organizations have grown out of brands’ efforts to satisfy and delight a niche audience. And often times, today’s niches become tomorrow’s mainstream.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Navigating the Niche: Embracing the Power of Micro-Communities”

  1. I enjoy reading posts that makes people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to give you feedback!

Leave a Reply