In the freelance writing world, a frequent debate is whether or not writers should be specialists or generalists.
The (over simplified) argument goes like this:
If you are generalist, you have more opportunity, you are able to take on a wider variety of projects and you have a larger network.
If you choose a niche, it is easier to establish yourself as an authority, you possess specialized knowledge in your area of expertise and you can command higher rates.
People who choose sides in this debate get quite heated about why their way is better than the other way. When I began freelancing, I decided to loosely specialize, but wasn’t 100% committed to my chosen specialty and left room for experimentation. Originally, I wanted to work with alternative energy companies on the west coast. Time zones worked in my favor at that point; I could make marketing calls to the Pacific time zone after I got off work in the Eastern time zone.
I quickly learned that there are lots of companies that specialize in providing marketing services to that industry. Most of the companies I called “already had somebody.” Plus, I think my rather pronounced southern accent worked against me when calling the west coast.
At the same time, I began approaching local companies that I admired but that maybe needed a little extra help in the marketing department. Most of those businesses were very small and most of them were following practices that could be described as sustainable: They used recycled materials, purchased locally, followed organic practices and so on. It was with these folks I found what eventually became my sweet spot.
Last week, during a marketing call, a small business owner asked me if I had any special, specific focus on the horticulture industry. I love gardening, and several of my past and present clients work in that industry, but I had to tell him no. My clients range from the health care providers to artists. They share many qualities but one of them is not working in horticulture.
The conversation left me thinking about an aspect of the specialist/generalist debate that I’ve never seen discussed. An “industry outsider” is likely to know what your potential customers don’t know. In other words, a generalist will probably ask the same kinds of questions a new customer would ask.
Experts often forget that people who are not experts don’t share their knowledge. They use industry jargon and end up making potential customers feel dumb. Nobody likes to feel dumb. It happens all the time.
- During my stint at Blockbuster, one of the employees would get angry every time she had to explain the “no late fees” policy. She felt that she had explained it so many times that every customer should already know about it. She would talk down to them and quite a few people threw their movies at her and walked out.
- Mechanics are famous for using words people don’t understand to describe problems people don’t understand. The mechanics can’t figure out why people don’t know such basic stuff and customers are suspicious that they are getting fleeced because nothing the mechanic says sounds like real words.
- If you haven’t had this kind of experience at the doctor’s office you’ve probably never had any sort of medical issue.
Working with someone who is not an expert in your industry might mean that you have to spend a little extra time educating them, but it might also help you reach out to new customers in a more accessible manner. It could also give you insight into what new customers need to know in order to make an informed decision. Businesses looking to gather increased customer insight might want to look towards a solution from Epsilon to get a full view of customers and prospects.
Any writer worth hiring will do enough research and ask enough questions to write an informed description, sales pitch, or article, but a generalist can often help you refine your marketing message to attract more new clients. There are exceptions, of course. If your customers are already experts in your industry, you probably want to seek someone with serious industry credentials to help you with marketing. In the end, your audience should be the determining factor.
Writers: where how do you weigh in on the debate? Specialize or generalize? Business owners: have you had good experiences on either side of the fence?