Remember back in school when you found yourself in a jam and had to pull an all-nighter to learn something quickly? Remember the anxiety and the self-scolding for not having studied all semester?
It’s a similar feeling when you land a client and you know nothing about their business. There is a way out, though, and I’d like to share specific steps you can use to fast-track your expertise in a niche in one night.
I learned this method from experience. In my case, I found myself working in a “foodie” niche market for imported Sicilian food and beverage products like preserves, honey, and wine to name a few. What do I know about food? Nothing, other than I eat it.
A Little Background
It’s always best to be up front with your client. I informed my foodie client that I’d never written about food, nor was I a foodie. In order to put her at ease, though, I made sure she understood that the fundamentals of good web writing apply in any industry and that I could easily transition to writing about food.
I wanted her to get the best possible results for her site, so I proposed that I submit some samples to make sure she (and I) knew I could do it.
I created a sample within 24 hours that got a positive response from the client. She wanted to move forward. Victory dance!
So how did I produce a strong sample in an industry I knew nothing about in just 24 hours? You can use the following outline for ANY niche to get the same kind of results. You might want to add a pot of coffee to the list, too.
1. Fix Your Dome
By your ‘dome,’ I mean your head. We’ve all experienced that nagging voice … the one that tells you you can’t do this, you’re in over your head, it’s time to find an escape route. You have to turn off the self-doubt. If you’ve done the work, immersed yourself in some reading, taken some copywriting programs, then you’re ready. Instead of ruminating over what you can’t do, get to work and make it happen.
2. Form a Research Strategy and Do It
Once you’ve set aside your self-doubt, lay out a plan for what you need and how you are going to get it.
Hopefully your client can give you some primer information before you start researching. Get product descriptions, background information, a competitive landscape, a profile of the target market — whatever you can get your hands on.
Even better, get samples of what the client likes and doesn’t like. Ask what kind of brand considerations the client has. Also key is who is actually producing the product, where it comes from, and what makes it special. In my case, I had a multi-generational family producing Sicilian delicacies by hand.
Start with a basic research template in mind. The template is going to answer the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’ for you in terms of your client’s industry as a whole and in terms of the product specifically. Bear in mind that your research template will evolve as you work. You’ll start with a few basic questions, and begin filling in the blanks. As you go, you’ll find more questions to ask, which will further guide your research and refine the shape of your template.
Expect to begin your research by looking into the background and history of your client’s industry, the benefits and features of the product specifically, and how the product differs from competitive products. So, here’s an example of how your basic research template might look at the beginning:
Who … is my company? (Background, history, local facts, and so on.)
Where … is the product produced? (Is there something special about this location or process?)
What … does my company make? What’s the story behind this product? What are specific features and benefits of the product?
Why … will the customer want to buy this product?
How … is this product different from what else is being sold?
When … is the product used? (Specific occasions or circumstances, by a certain age group, etc.)
Now it’s time to look for the answers to these questions. Your research, as with most research, starts with search engines, like Google and Bing. A short keyword list is all you’ll need to start turning up information. In this situation, I was using keywords like “imported Sicilian products” and “Sicilian preserves.” The more long-tail terms you can use the better, because just searching broad, head terms like “Sicilian” or “preserves” would turn up too much information.
To keep organized, use a tool like Evernote to clip articles and content for the post-research analysis to be done in Step 3.
It is crucial to know the best places to look when doing your searches. Use this list as a guideline for finding the most useful information to round out your template:
Reference sites, like Wikipedia and university-level .edu sites, provide unbiased, straightforward information that you can use as a foundation for your research. For my client, I was looking for information on Sicily, its agriculture, history, climate, and culture that would serve as background information for the products. For example, if the volcanic ash in Sicilian soil makes it ideal for growing citrus fruits, that was information I could use.
Blogs are the best source of real-user information, especially if you can’t interview someone. This is where the conversations are taking place and where the experts are talking. Enthusiasts hang out on blogs and talk about their passions, so look for them in your searches. You can even narrow down your searches on Google to blogs-only by going to http://www.google.com/blogsearch.
Social Media, like Twitter and Facebook, will also turn up some great tips on your product. Simply use the same keywords you used for the search engines and search your social media site of choice to see what you turn up. Additionally, niche forums and bookmarking sites can yield a wealth of information.
Competitor sites are a huge help because you can assume they’ve done a lot of the research already to create their content. But, never copy someone else’s words, and make sure the content is what you need and is factual. See how they describe products, what words they use, and what tone is incorporated into the content.
Even after all of the above steps, you may find some of the jargon and buzzwords are beyond your grasp. To help fill in those gaps, look for a niche dictionary or adjective list. For food, a simple “food words” search turned up an invaluable list of food adjectives — words like luscious, lip-smacking, and drizzle — that foodie marketers use often.
Bonus Tip: For more research tips, check out Heather Robson’s Research Tips for Web Writers.
3. Play Forensic Scientist
Now that you have your research, you’re probably starting to get a feel for this new niche. It’s time to analyze what you have and look for patterns. This is also called mind mapping.
Now for illustration, let’s look at how the cursory foodie template I used to guide my research can be compiled to help me with the analysis and writing:
(Who, Where) Background and history: Sicily facts, figures, etc.
(What) Product: How it’s made, who made it, what it tastes like, and so on.
(Why, How) Unique Selling Proposition: How does the story behind this product make it stand out? Why would the customer care and pay a premium for it? Does the product have healthy properties, is it organic?
(When) Vision: When can the customer visualize having this product in his cupboard? What situation will she use it in? What will he pair it with in a meal? Is there a certain time or event when she is most likely to buy this product?
(Helpful Info) Adjectives: Insert adjectives from the food adjective list.
At this stage, you’re filling in the blanks in your template, making connections, completing the answers to the questions you started with, and identifying new questions that will help you dig deeper.
You’ll likely find that as you place what you’ve learned into your mind map, the content practically writes itself. In fact, you may find you have more to write than you have space for!
Now, I’d never claim to be an expert foodie at this point. However, the steps I took — and that you can take — accelerated my learning to a more-than-qualified food writer status. Who knows? Maybe now I’ll enjoy a good meal.
I’m sure there are many other tips out there to fast-track someone in a new niche. What would you recommend?