If you've heard it once, you've heard it 1,000 times: you need a niche to be successful in business! But how does that apply to data viz? Isn't data viz a niche in itself? How far down should you niche? Does it actually help? Are there risks?
In this article, we share our experiments, successes, and lessons learned while trying to niche in the data viz field.
The amazing Jane Zhang kindly pulled together some common questions around niching for us to answer in a roundtable format (thanks, Jane!). We hope that hearing about our experiences will help you on your journey.
Do you have a niche?
Alli: I’m kind of straddling two niches. The first is creating dashboards (usually with Tableau) for businesses. The second is creating visual communication (using more design tools (Adobe Illustrator, Procreate) along with data viz tools) for individuals or small businesses.
Duncan: I work primarily with static dataviz and storytelling in the environmental sector. I do plenty of work outside of those confines, but that’s the lion’s share.
Gabrielle: I'm quite niched down (at least I think I am)! I'm mainly contacted for illustrated data visualization with a storytelling aspect. I've chosen to focus on ethically-driven people, not just non-profit but also within corporations, who are looking for creative ways to share stories and data.
Will: No, I don’t have a niche. Currently I’m working mostly in story-driven journalistic type work, but I work in a number of other formats as well, and I don’t actively try to narrow down my work by format or topic.
Does it matter to your business if you have a niche? Why or why not?
Alli: For me, it only matters in terms of knowing what to say “no” to when I talk to potential clients. Knowing what kind of tools I enjoy using and what kind of end-product I can deliver has been helpful in deciding which projects I take on. That’s why my niche is a bit broad right now.
Duncan: It matters, yes. Potential new clients like to see that I’ve done work similar to what they want for other clients similar to them. But except for the copy on my website I haven’t deliberately tried to cultivate that niche - it just happened fairly naturally.
Gabrielle: Niching has been crucial to my freelance path. I highly refine what I offer and what I show in my portfolio. It's very important that my work reflects my values, the people I want to work with and the type of work I’d like to do. I actually worked with a copywriter to refine my language in my bio (currently working on a new website) to better express these choices.
Will: I’m not too concerned at the moment, partially because I’m currently focused on full-time work in journalism, and partially because I don’t think I have a strong niche, and I like it that way.
How did you identify your current niche? Was it always the same?
Alli: I pursued a very specific niche (static charts for real estate agents) when I first started freelancing. It was hard to communicate my value to clients because I didn’t really know where my strengths were, so niching into an industry allowed me to “talk the lingo.” It also helped me get laser-focused on who to market to. I came to discover that even when you niche, potential clients from all over will approach you so you don’t have to worry about getting too specific. I ended up getting out of that niche because I continued to do other projects and discovered what I liked doing. Now I see myself as a “visual communicator.” I like individuals and small businesses because there isn’t a lot of red-tape so we can experiment.
Duncan: I know the subject matter very well (from my academic background), and I have kind of a network off the back of having written about the environment for a long time. On the tools side of things, I sell what I feel like I do best, though I’m actively pushing at the edges of that (sonification, code, etc). I’ve changed my niche a lot - I started as a tech blogger, then a science journalist, then an editor, and now I primarily work in dataviz (though I still do quite a lot of editorial work).
Gabrielle: Completely involuntarily. I didn't even know about data visualization when I transitioned from scientific journalism to design. I knew I wanted to merge both science and art, but all I knew existed at this intersection was medical illustration. Slowly, I discovered data viz. Although, it still felt too focused on business for my taste. I started making dataviz about subjects that mattered to me in 2018. On instagram. For myself mainly. It was meant to be just a way for me to express what I believed in. It ended up becoming my job. To me, fundamentally, niching wasn't about making a business choice. It was a natural consequence of embracing my own personality and interests.
Will: No niche :)
Is there a sweet spot on how specific one should be?
Alli: I think you should try to be specific enough that you can confidently talk about your past projects to potential clients and it seems relevant. For example, I did a project for a local real estate agent whom I knew previously. Then I was able to easily find people who might need my services (real estate agents who blogged a lot and seemed to be paying attention to data) and tell them about the successes I’ve delivered my client and how I could do that for them. When I got more experience in general, I was able to broaden out. My expertise translated to more situations. So I’d say the sweet spot is that you can confidently lean on your expertise in conversation and you know who to reach out to.
Duncan: I’m constantly trying to broaden my horizontal niche while keeping my vertical one reasonably narrow. This feels like the smart move - expanding the services you can offer to the same kinds of clients over time. But I like to be opportunistic - my niche expands and contracts depending on lots of factors - what I’m finding interesting at a given time, trends in the industry, and events in the wider world.
Gabrielle: The more specific the better. I tend to agree with Duncan where I'm not restricting the tools I'm using. Only the final message matters. But the content and the purpose of clients' work needs to align with the values I incorporate in my own work. In fact, the more specialized I become, the wider the audience and the clients I get?!
Will: I think it really depends on the person. Some people are really passionate about a particular tool or topic, and so it’s natural for them to niche down into that, others (like myself) tend to get bored easily and need to constantly be exploring new things or they will be unhappy. Then there’s the business side of things, where the data says it’s smart to niche down, but that will also depend on how well you’re doing already in your business.
How can someone know if a niche is profitable or not?
Alli: I don’t think you can jump in hoping for guarantees. Your niche has to have people who are willing to spend money to get the solution that you provide. If their pain isn’t big enough, they’re not going to bother hiring you or paying you well. I’d say it's a big indicator that it’s profitable if a lot of people are asking about it online. I found it hard to sell my services to real estate agents. I was spending too much time educating them, and then they still didn’t value it very much. Their pain wasn’t high enough. Type in some keywords around what you like doing or are qualified to do, and see what kinds of questions people are asking about it.
Duncan: Great question. Niches come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There are tiny ones where a few people are willing to pay a lot, and broad ones where there are lots of clients that don’t want to pay that much. Both of those can be profitable. Traditionally, I think some of the key factors are the number of orgs operating in the space, the money sloshing around in it, and your competition. Probably the trajectory of a sector too - not just its current state. But profitability also depends on whether you can do a great job at the work you do there. The defence sector, for example, is a huge space with lots of money and little competition, but I would personally find it very difficult to do good work there because I’d constantly be worrying about the ethics of what I’m doing. So I think your enthusiasm for a niche is also really important.
Gabrielle: It's honestly a difficult question. I think if you have a niche, it'd be profitable by extension. There's always someone somewhere ready to pay for a specialized service. It becomes not profitable when one is not niched down enough and then ends up competing with others on pricing. It’s a supply/demand issue. Nowadays though, I feel like there is space for everyone, especially in dataviz which is such a fast-growing field.
Will: I think it’s about balancing supply and demand. One route is to niche into an industry/format where you know there’s abundant supply, like business dashboards. Although it’s a field where lots of people are working already (large supply) the demand is so insane here that it still outstrips supply, and you’re basically guaranteed to find work. A more difficult route is to find a niche where there’s a lack of supply. This often involves identifying a need that is unmet. I think of someone like Giorgia Lupi, who started using data visualization in a completely different format (hand drawn, complex, humanistic) at a time when very few people were doing this type of dataviz. She basically created a new field of data humanism. And although the demand for that type of work is still relatively low, she was one of the only people doing it, so she was able to thrive.
Are you afraid of restraining yourself too much by marketing yourself as part of a niche?
Alli: I’ve found that even if you say, “I make X for Y people,” then you’ll still get all sorts of people reaching out to make something for them.
Duncan: Yeah, in my gut. But I know that the data says otherwise.
Gabrielle: No. The more specialized I get, the more projects I've been offered. But to be fair, part of my specialty is to produce creative content, which allows for a lot of different formats, mediums and briefs.
Will: From a business sense no, I know it’s smart to specialize. But in a personal sense, yes, because I know that I would get bored and lose my passion for the work.
Do you turn down clients or engagements if they aren't aligned in your niche?
Alli: Yes, I do now. In the beginning, I tried to make most inquiries work to get experience. As a whole, the niche isn’t as important as the red flags I get talking to the client. They can be completely aligned with my skillset and desires, but if they seem like they’re going to micromanage me, don’t let me talk, or seem really price-conscious, then I move on.
Duncan: Absolutely. I’ll try and refer them to a friend if I can, but I’m lucky that I have enough work that I can say no to projects that don’t spark enthusiasm in me. If I was in a tougher financial position I might be more likely to just take on any job that comes along.
Gabrielle: Yes. Ethics-wise but also briefs wise. For instance, I used to accept a wider range of projects including a lot of editorial work (report design). Nowadays, I've grown to have a better knowledge of where I want to focus. It's easier to refer a project to colleagues when I feel like an inquiry is the best fit for me. I agree with Duncan that it's a privilege for us to be able to pick what we take or not. It'd be a completely different situation if I wasn't receiving as many inquiries. It takes time to find one’s niche but also to build a portfolio big enough to have this luxury of selection.
Will: No, I will turn things down if the topic or goals are not aligned with my interests at the time, but not because it doesn’t fit my niche.
What have you heard from others about the role of a niche in a business, and do you agree/disagree?
Alli: I hear a lot “the riches are in the niches” and “niche down until it hurts!” I agree with that, but I’d add: “be agile and forgiving.” It’s ok to pivot, move around, and try many niches! Don’t hold so tight that it makes you feel like a failure if a niche isn’t panning out.
Duncan: I’ve heard that the smaller the niche the better, but I’m not sure that’s always true. I specialise in climate change within the environmental niche, but if I only took on climate projects my income would be lower. So I often take on work about air pollution, biodiversity, and other non-climate subjects that I also know quite a bit about.
Gabrielle: Most designers agree that niching down is important. I agree. Too often, we designers feel like we’d be constricted if we weren’t specialized. It's quite the opposite! There’s also a lot of people who think niching means only working for one industry. Or in one medium. That’s something that I strongly disagree with. Niching is about what type of people you want to help (people, not corporations) and how. This can allow for quite some flexibility.
Will: I’ve heard that you should really specialize and have a small niche to be most successful, but like any advice I think that it applies differently to different people, and you can’t take that as a blanket statement that will always work for you. I’m sure if you look at the statistics it’s true, but you will also find many examples of people that have no niche and they’re very successful.
Are there risks to having a niche?
Alli: I think the only risk is if you don’t reassess your niche regularly. Do you enjoy serving this niche? Are you learning and improving your craft? Is it profitable?
Duncan: I think it depends on how you go about it. I think actively choosing a niche and inflexibly focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else doesn’t necessarily work. I like to go with the flow, responding to what I find interesting and what’s happening in the wider world.
Gabrielle: I haven't seen yet. But like anything, I guess there can be drawbacks? Again, I don’t think niching is about strict rules. It’s about staying true to ourselves.
Will: Sure, if you choose a niche where there’s no demand then you’re screwed in terms of business. Likewise if you choose a niche where you don’t have any special knowledge or unique skills to add that will help you stand out.
In what circumstances would you advise someone to not have a niche?
Alli: I wouldn’t tell anyone *not* to niche, but I would tell someone to expand their definition of niche. You can niche your service/tools, industry, price, geography, psychographics (someone’s values/attitudes), company size, and ideally a combination of these things!
Duncan: Niching is ultimately a marketing strategy. It’s about attracting new clients. So I guess when you’ve got lots of clients already and don’t need to do any marketing, for whatever reason.
Gabrielle: Don’t specialize when you’re too young. Niching is about personal interests and skills. It takes time to develop this taste and self-awareness. In my experience, it’s best to build expertise first, in-house mainly, before specializing. But there are exceptions to everything!
Will: I’ll talk about my own case, and if this sounds like you, I would advise not having a niche. I’ve always been someone who needs to be working in many different formats and a variety of topics, or I will get bored and lose my interest. And for me, having passion and interest is the reason I’m able to do good work. When I’m not excited about what I’m doing, the work visibly suffers, so I actively avoid narrowing what I do because it’s more important to me that I’m excited about my work and enjoy doing it than having the extra marketing and business bump I might get from a stronger niche.
If you have a niche, are you stuck in it? Or do you find it is easy to move around a bit?
Alli: I’m not stuck! I’m very happy to move around and experiment with things. I’m always asking clients to try something that I *want* to do, like making a comic about a data literacy concept. People likely work with you because they trust you, so suggest something new that you want to try! Maybe that could be your next niche. ;)
Duncan: I’ve moved around quite a lot, and I love shifting to new things every so often. Life gets too boring otherwise!
Gabrielle: I’ve found a lot of flexibility in my good-for-the-world-and-data-related niche. I do branding, pure dataviz, illustration, web design, ux... It’s very broad. It may change one day, but right now there are so many industries, mediums to explore and social issues to fight for that I don’t think I’ll be bored anytime soon.
Will: Nope, you can always reinvent yourself!
We hope that hearing our stories in niching has been helpful, and that you - like us - can no longer see the word niche without your eyes glazing over.
More questions? Would you like to share your experience or hope or fears with niching? Hop over to the #general-discussion channel in Slack, or drop us an email at the usual address.