Focus, expand (or both)

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tim williams blog

tim williams blogI expect most readers of this blog know one of the marketing basics: You need to focus on a niche/speciality to the extent that you are recognized by your current and potential clients as the top-of-mind expert. The challenge, however, is deciding whether or when to reach beyond your existing area of expertise into new markets — and here the problem becomes somewhat more challenging.

In a few weeks, for example, I’ll be able to share an article I wrote for the SMPS Marketer about the “cost of pursuit” challenges for Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD).  As I researched the story, I discovered that while technically the process of submitting and winning IPD/BIM proposals is slightly higher than conventional RFP responses, the bigger challenge is the architectural, engineering or construction practice’s ability to actually use these resources in the first place. There is a learning curve — and market leaders who are already in the field have already gone through that process.They don’t have any trouble with the cost of pursuit, because they simply apply best practices to make their go/no-go decisions (and in any case the majority of their business is from repeat clients, many with ongoing and recurring projects.)

But if you don’t have expertise and a market leading position, how do you decide when/if to embrace the new technologies? At some point you will need make the move — or you’ll be left behind. Your learning and catching up costs will be highest now, but the longer you wait, the less marketing value you achieve. You go from having a unique advantage within your niche, to lacking even the basics to do the job.

One solution to this challenge I advocate is working with your existing clients (the ones you know would be most tolerant to muck-ups) when you start out with the new tools. This process extends, of course, to market expansion and development. If you have your current clients’ trust, you can often expand your services in new areas. In some cases, your clients will encourage you to move forward. (A powerful client request, for example, led us away from newsprint industry-only publications to a project where we produce a consumer glossy magazine for local renovation clients. (See ottawarenovates.com.)

However, this type of expansion carries its own risk.The more you dilute your marketing into different areas, the more you lose your “best in class” advantage — a point noted in this posting by consultant Tim Williams. “The key driver today in agency searches is the desire marketers have to work with “best-in-class specialists.”Smart marketers know that no agency can be good at everything.” he writes. He continues:

A recent piece in Digiday quotes a brand executive as saying:

I wish sometimes that the agencies would stick to what they are good at. They try to do everything, and they would be better served to narrow their focus. You can’t do everything, and if you try to do everything, you do nothing … It drives me crazy when the agency is trying to pitch you every single service available.”

The dominant agency-client relationship model

Of the three main models major marketers use to work with agencies, the “best-of-breed” model is by far the most popular. (The other two models being the “single source” model, where the agency attempts to serve as a one-stop-shop; and the “lead agency” model used sometimes by companies like Procter & Gamble, where one agency is tasked with coordinating the efforts of other specialist agencies.)

The best-of-breed model is now the standard because it acknowledges that in today’s complex multichannel world, the expectation that any one firm can deliver every service is unrealistic if not impossible. But of course this doesn’t stop thousands of agencies from referring to themselves as “full service,” as if they are excellent in literally everything. (It’s time for the term full service to be retired to the same lexicographic graveyard as “leader” and “quality.”)

We have entered squarely into what a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review calls “the age of hyperspecialization,” where economist Adam Smith’s original theory of division of labor is taken to new extremes, producing ever more specialized producers and sellers of everything – including professional services.

This focus can be in competency or market niches, Davis writes. Stretch outside and expand into “everything” and, well, you lose your edge in the areas where you are most competent.

I certainly apply these understandings in my own business. The renovation magazine has been structured as a separate business, with joint-venture partners. However, we’ve taken the knowledge about magazine publishing techniques and applied this understanding in our  business-to-business market, producing specialized products such as the Barrie Construction Association Annual Report, and as well, using our print costing analysis for publications such as Canadian Design and Construction Report (cadcr.com), North Carolina Construction News (ncconstructionnews.com) and South Carolina Construction News (southcarolinaconstructionnews.com), where we can manage the primarily digital format with suitable printed supplements. (Note as well these products carry some common themes, but are branded independently — folks in North or South Carolina could care less about what is happening in Canada, and we don’t drag them into our Canadian regional markets.)

However, we aren’t rushing outside the newspaper/magazine format — and we are treading carefully when we think beyond our focus in the architectural, engineering and construction industry. I would rather us to be the best in our niche, than try, futilely, claim to be a one-stop-shop; and not be really good at most of what we have in the store.

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