The Horizontal Vertical

The power of “niche” (i.e. “vertical markets with huge needs”) should never be underestimated in how we look at bringing products and services to the marketplace.

Finding niches that fit with your super powers and then going a mile deep rather than a mile wide is more often than not the key to success.

And it is way more satisfying being a master of one thing rather than trying to master everything.

I also believe that owning a niche is easier, more practical and will enable you to make more impact in your genius zone rather than attempting to own the world.

Sometimes you need someone to point out when you are going too wide with your idea for a new product or service…and sometimes the niche is more obvious to you without much help from others…but the rewards for thinking in terms of carving out a niche is always worth it.

I want to share two stories today on this topic.

One is about a mission that was far too ambitious and needed some narrowing down.

And I have a feeling that you may be able to relate and apply the same sort of questioning to your own business.

The other story (case history) is about an incredible windfall that happened when the focus started as “niche” but turned into (what I like to call) a “horizontal vertical.”

In both cases, thinking about “niche first” won the day.

1) Why should I listen to you?

The first story is one I have told a few times on podcasts and interviews but I have never written about it.

It’s about a heart-centered entrepreneur who presented his big idea to a mastermind group I am a member of…to get advice and feedback…and he walked away with a much bigger idea despite the revised idea being of interest to a much smaller audience.

But the new, smaller audience we identified was much more synergistic with him and hungrier for what he had to offer.

His idea was to create an information product (and eventual coaching program) for “men going through a midlife crises.”

I remember being one of many skeptics in the group regarding whether he could really pull that off…but I started with an easy question while trying not to be nasty or obnoxious:

“Why are you qualified to teach and coach men going through a midlife crises?”

His answer actually told me he might just be the guy:

He had gone through a terrible time later in his career where he spiraled into an awful depression, went through a divorce, lost contact with his kids, went bankrupt and then thankfully survived a suicide attempt…and came out the other end bigger and stronger than ever.

Obviously he had some lessons to share…but with all men who have gone through this?

What would be the entry point? The hot buttons? Why him for them? Why him for everyone?

Then I asked him another question which got us thinking in an entirely new direction:

“What did you do for a living at the time of your breakdown?”

He answered that he was an attorney.

Now we were on to something.

I suggested that he create his product/program for lawyers going through a midlife crises rather than all men.

Wouldn’t the relatability lead to more powerful promotion?

Couldn’t it also be more personalized?

And even if what he delivered to the “recovering attorneys” was exactly what he had in mind for every man no matter what they did for a living pre-crises, the ability to own a slice of the market with deeper understanding and empathy seemed like a much better path.

At least as the starting point.

He could always break into new markets later on…but my guess is that it may never pay to do that once he dominated in a niche where he would be a true leader.

We concluded that it was much more exciting to rise above the noise in a tight niche and not compete with those who were trying to be all things to all people.

Maybe this is a somewhat simple example to prove one of the biggest mistakes most marketers make…that is, they start too broad.

Narrow to wide is the way to go, not wide to narrow.

And sometimes it’s obvious how to narrow down your market…like we were able to do with our lawyer friend here.

And sometimes you need to poll the marketplace and find out where the need is and how you can uniquely fill it.

Throughout my career, we tried not to guess all that often and that brings me to my second story.

2) A niche with over 30 million people in it?

Spending a good part of my career with my marketing team at Boardroom (Bottom Line Books) selling useful and often life-saving health information to consumers, always kept us on our toes regarding what might be the most powerful niches in health…even though we also liked (and had tremendous success) selling general health books that were more encyclopedic.

Our success selling “wide,” was always done through careful research though—since we knew the potential dangers of not going deep into a vertical or niche—and the danger if we went to wide all the time that we would look like everyone else and we would run the risk of commoditizing our content.

Even when we went wide with a general health book, we researched our core audience regarding their biggest issues and concerns…and with our older demographic, it was things like heart disease, high blood pressure, memory loss and diabetes.

But even though we knew all of this about the more specific areas of interest, the temptation to stay broad and appeal to “everyone” was always tantalizing to us.

We used those niches as leads and headlines in our copy but rarely for new products.

With the success of those big books and great headlines in to lead people to them, we learned that sometimes you need to follow the anecdotal evidence and realize you might be resisting a niche that could be much bigger than you thought.

This case history is about how we trusted our gut in addition to relying on research alone.

Violating the direct marketing rule of thumb of creating the product and then finding an audience for it is something I rarely endorse…but you never want to stifle your ability to assess potential new audiences, especially audiences with urgent needs, needing vital information or a solution.

This case history is also about being able to break the rules because we knew what the rules were and that the current circumstances were different…or maybe we were just too stupid to care…and we saw an opportunity too important not to jump on quickly.

I’ve quoted Picasso before: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

And this story epitomizes that.

Some quick history and an important tangent on research:

Whenever we launched a new book in direct mail, the first thing we would do is a “Q Test.”

The “Q” stands for “Questionnaire”…other people call it a “Concept Test”…some simply call it a “Survey Test”…and whatever you call it, it is a scientific way to predict actionable results using quantitative research.

First step: We write a “blurb” for a new book…make it exciting but also make sure it’s a description of a book that we can deliver on…that is, the book we would create (or the one we would buy the rights to) needed to match the blurb close enough so that the test would be reliable.

Second step: Make sure we have at least 4 to 6 new books/blurbs to test against each other…we did as many as 8 in one Q Test.

Third step: Select a universe from our previous book buyers…a nice cross section from our internal database…and then mail approximately 2,000 buyers in three waves (and this is all done with physical mail since we were also looking for direct mail responsiveness).

Doing these Q Tests online would all be done with email.

The mailing of the Q Test:

Wave 1: A postcard telling the folks a survey is coming and we’d like their help.

Wave 2: The survey itself, usually with a $1 or $2 bill attached, encouraging them to participate so we can continue to bring them the best books in the future.

In the survey, after each blurb, there are ONLY two possible responses:

[ ] Would Order

[ ] Would Not Order

Wave 3: A follow up letter in an envelope reminding them to fill out the survey.

All waves are mailed first class.

With this methodology, we received between a 40% and 50% response rate (yes, that’s 40% and 50%, NOT .40% and .50% or .0004% and .0005%)…

And armed with 800 to 1,000 responses, and knowing the comparative interest between titles and some benchmarking from the past, we have never launched a book unsuccessfully using this methodology.

It’s expensive, time consuming…and totally worth it.

Of course we eventually moved a lot of our surveying online but it is harder to send a dollar bill through a hard drive. We had to use other incentives but still emailed three waves.

With that kind of track record, what could compel us NOT to do a Q Test on a new, potential book title?

Back to our case history and the answer was the “epidemic” called diabetes and pre-diabetes in the United States.

Simply put, we were handed an opportunity on a silver platter (sugar free, of course) from a world class copywriter who developed an exercise and nutrition program for type 2 diabetics and pre-diabetics.

And we already knew that leading with valuable information on diabetes in current promotions for general health books had worked.

The 30 Day Diabetes Cure was a wonderful book and program with the ability to help hundreds of thousands of people–AND it came with a direct mail promotion package (or at least the outline for one) from a seasoned copywriter we knew and trusted who was available to write immediately.

I knew if we Q Tested a title that sounded as “vertical” as diabetes with other, broader, health titles (to a list of buyers who bought mostly general health books in the past), there was a chance this Diabetes book would not do well when “researched”…and therefore not make the cut to get developed and tested.

I stuck my neck out: “This title needs to get tested quickly and we should bypass putting it into a Q Test.”

First of all, the window for this opportunity could close by the time we read Q Test results because we could lose the copywriter’s availability; but more importantly, I didn’t think it would even score well on a Q Test despite being one of the hottest health topics we wrote about at the time.

This was a situation where the niche might have been more powerful than what we would learn by any additional research.

Now I have made many errors in my 30+ years doing this marketing stuff…but this was one of those risky ideas that paid off.

We jumped on the opportunity by getting in the mail quickly and powerfully and we never looked back.

We had one of the best book launches in the 40+ year history of the company and to date over 200,000 copies of the book have been sold…with other books in the “niche” still being developed as far as I know.

And it’s still going strong because unfortunately, the epidemic has only gotten worse. We were doing our part to reverse that trend.

We even changed the doctor behind the plan and while I was still there, we beat the original control multiple times to keep it current and timely.

Looking back on this incredible success, I’ve often asked:

Would I have broken the rule of not Q Testing (and trusting my gut) without the history of Q Testing we had to that point which pointed to vertical titles not getting a fair shake?

And would I have broken the rule had I not known that this topic was one of the most important to our audience?

And would I have jumped had I not understood the importance of niche over broad?

I doubt it.

But isn’t that one of the beauties of experience?

I think I’ve talked before about the difference between “30 years of experience” and “one year experience for 30 years.”

Direct marketing success comes from accumulated wisdom, perpetual curiosity, unbridled optimism…and of course being a slave to your numbers and measuring everything.

Simply put, I encourage all of you—marketing rock stars yourselves—to trust your gut once in a while (when you have some strong anecdotal evidence and information/research you believe about a marketplace or topic).

Even with direct marketing being such a numbers driven business (which is what I love about it most) there is still so much room for logic, instinct and courage.

I have to admit that we never launched a book without Q Testing before The 30 Day Diabetes Cure and I can safely say that lots of stars had to be aligned to create a blockbuster in a niche we just knew needed the information…and we needed to strike while the iron was hot.

“Horizontal verticals” like attacking the diabetes epidemic don’t come along often…but I believe that if you are always thinking “niche first,” it has a much better chance of happening.

And even if our attorney in the first example might not be able to go after a 30 million name niche, he will be way more successful long term by thinking niche too.

Even if you never get to have a “horizontal vertical” in your career, being number one in any niche, especially if it’s a niche you are passionate about, will almost always beat being one of many in a crowded, noisy marketplace which also has many imposters thinking that bigger is always better.

As world class marketers we should also be careful and continue to test everything to make sure there is desire in the market for what we have to offer.

But once we know the desire (and need) is there, go small before you go big…and smaller may actually be way bigger for you in the long run.



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