For the past six months or so, I’ve been working a lot on growth. Personal growth, web growth, social growth, professional growth, etc. Trying to formulate any kind of progress, internal or external, is a long and involved process. Lately, I’ve been wondering if my efforts are too niche and what exactly that may mean.
Since December of last year, most of my work was focused solely on alternative education. I was sure that alt ed was the niche I was meant to work in and, although I don’t think I was completely wrong, I think I was limiting my perspective. Alternative education is continuing to blossom as more and more parents, and students realize that traditional ways of “learning” aren’t actually beneficial, but this mass exodus has much broader implications.
In April of this year, I started working with an incredible alternative school in Senegal. When I went to visit the students, I did a lot more than act as an instructor. I learned a lot about poverty in Sub-saharan Africa and how western countries often perpetuate it through relief efforts. If you own a pair of Tom’s shoes, you probably haven’t really helped support impoverished people in Africa. You buy a pair of those shoes, Tom’s sends a pair to a child in Africa, sounds charitable and straightforward right? If only economics were that easy to work around. It’s impossible to compete with free, so that pair of shoes that were supposed to help end poverty just put another local African shoemaker out of business. By purchasing these shoes, you’re falling into a pit trap of western pity.
Suddenly, the depth of my own ignorance was brought to my attention. I had never bought into the Tom’s shoes model, mostly because of my own vanity (I think they’re ugly, sorry,) but I found myself sickened by the thought of how much the company has profited off of this marketing scam. I am aware that the owner of Tom’s acknowledged the problem and made an apology, claiming he had no clue that the scheme would end up backfiring so horrifically; but his apology won’t bring back the jobs he took.
As I started to learn more about economics and confronted my own lack of education on the subject, I became increasingly absorbed and fascinated by the ideas and possibilities that it held. I started writing more about economics, politics, and theory and less about alternative education. I realized that my content was no longer relevant to a lot of the sites I used to write for, and it really threw my creativity through a loop. On the one hand, my newfound curiosity for economics and how it influences human behavior was captivating, but on the other, I was still very dedicated to alternative education. I wondered if I had pigeonholed myself into a niche that allowed for minimal variation in my writing.
Is it possible to be too niche? That’s the question I kept asking myself. Had I shoved my way into a community that was so specialized in its battle for change that it was keeping me from growing? In short, no, I had not. I had every right to leave that community and stop fighting for alternative education if I wanted to. The problem was that I didn’t want to give up my interest in alt ed, it was that I began to see the push for different methods of school as a symptom of a much larger consensus; the consensus that the lives we are all living are not primarily dictated by our will. I saw economics, education, politics, lifestyles, etc. all under this umbrella of suppression of free will.
I do think it is possible to be too niche, but I don’t think it is easy or sustainable. Onc I stopped worrying about whether or not my content was relevant and started thinking about the audience I was appealing to, my content became a lot more interesting. Many alt ed advocates also battle for the decentralization of government and laissez-faire policies, topics that I was interested in exploring. Those people didn’t want to read about education 24/7, just like I didn’t want to write about it 24/7. Most people want to see the connections between all of these ideas and form a network of compatible concepts.
Regarding marketing, niches are useful. If you can appeal to a particular idea or group of people, you have a much better chance of building an audience quickly. However, those groups are limited not only in scope but in readers. To create an audience that will last, it’s smarter to use niches as a foundation and expand your content from there.
Start with a niche, build content for those ideas, become familiar with concepts that are compatible with them, and start expanding. Soon enough, you’ll appeal to more than one niche and your content will be on an exponential curve of relevance. Very few people participate in one niche exclusively. There are more than enough opportunities to integrate your ideas into several groups of people. The challenge is patience and perseverance.