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Angel is a barber. He works with three other barbers in a local shop. They’re all very good at their job, but folks line up for Angel. He’s got a cadre of dedicated fans who wait longer, passing up the other trio of highly competent barbers just so they can be Angel’s customers. No one in this quartet offers anything significantly unique as far as actual barbering goes (and none of them sing), but Angel has that certain something that businesses and business people strive for. What Angel has discovered, perhaps by happy accident, is how to attract his fans—his right people. He’s marketing to a niche.

Appealing to Your Audience
Branding expert Abby Kerr makes a distinction between “niche marketing” and “marketing to a niche.” Niche marketing, which is highly targeted marketing to a specific segment of the population, has long been touted as a “key” to success for real estate agents. The idea of niche marketing is appealing and works well in certain economic segments. Industries that thrive on differentiation—such as restaurants, movies, video games, handbags and automobiles—support niche marketing. However, in the perfectly competitive industry of real estate, niche marketing is a red herring. It looks and sounds good, and it sells well, but niche marketing does not produce the best results.

Brand You
For example, Trisha is a highly successful real estate agent who loves to work with buyers and sellers of upper-end homes, vineyards and wine estates. She appears to be niche marketing. Sultana is also highly successful, loves her career and works with clients across the board, from first-time homebuyers to developers. Examples abound of real estate agents dedicated to traditional niche marketing who are not making any headway in a super-saturated market, and of real estate agents who defy traditional niche marketing and who are highly successful. What these agents are doing differently is subtle but significant—they are marketing to a niche, rather than niche marketing.

Niche marketing is defined as identifying and exploiting a target market (yes, “exploit” is actually a niche-marketing term, and is expressed in words like “prospect” and data “mining”). On the other hand, marketing to a niche is a simple and effective philosophy that business guru Tom Peters espoused back in 1997 in an article called “The Brand Called You.” His thesis: that successful business people were experts in branding themselves. Trisha and Sultana, like Angel, have created their own brand and have attracted brand ambassadors that support them and respect them and feed them business. These business people have discovered the joy of marketing to a niche and, once you figure it out, it’s actually fun.

Finding Your Voice
The hidden element in marketing to a niche, the one that makes all the pop-bys and scripts and prospecting tools and referral-asks and all the other great ideas work, is what Kerr calls “voice.”

Kerr defines voice as, “the intangible expression of your values and gifts in the marketplace and the impression you leave behind.” In short, your voice is your personal brand and, ironically, it’s not the spoken part of your brand, but the implied. It’s what Emerson was speaking of when he said, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.”

Your voice is integral to who you are and appeals to your “right people”—these are the people who naturally respect your time and your energy and your personal and business boundaries. As Kerr points out, by expressing your voice honestly in the marketplace, you “create a container that your right people will want to jump into…In a sense, your niche picks you…Your right people end up claiming you.”

Although marketing to a niche comes easy once you find your voice, the actual act of finding and developing your unique voice is not as easy as the “hard” marketing techniques, such as mailings and drop-bys, phone calls, scripts, asking for referrals, etc.

Finding your voice falls within the realm of self-improvement, self-awareness, vision, values, mission and purpose. It arises out of your inner business philosophy. It is a direct reflection of your mindset. It’s something you strive for. The wisdom that generates true voice does not come easy, but the rewards are great.

Voice Lessons from Marketing Divas
Let’s take a look at two other industries that are highly competitive in which marketing to a niche can get confused with niche marketing. First, the specialty coffee market, which, like a real estate agency, operates in a perfectly competitive environment. Despite the limitations of that kind of market, there are some masterful companies that use voice to generate a huge following; the most obvious of which is Starbucks.

The Lady in the Logo
Starbucks strives to be the most recognized and respected brand in the world, not by trying to differentiate their product, but by appealing to their right people, by creating an “experience” around the consumption of coffee. Their marketing plan is to:

–offer the highest-quality coffee in the world
–offer the best service, creating customer intimacy, and
–create a sense of community based on human spirit that makes customers want to stay

Starbucks empowers its employees to imbue the Starbucks philosophy into the organization which, in turn, has imbued the name with meaning. From humble beginnings, Starbucks today is recognized as a market leader in a highly homogenous industry. Not everyone is a fan of Starbucks, but then again, not everyone has to be.

The Bloggess
In the incredibly competitive maelstrom that is the world of blogging, Jenny Lawson has made a name for herself as “The Bloggess” simply by applying her unique voice to the market. She’s known for being honest, irreverent, funny and intimate. This is her voice—it’s who she is as a human being, and it’s why she has such a fervent following. She’s mastered the art of marketing to a niche, not by applying tools and techniques, but by simply expressing more of who she truly is. She’s not for everyone, certainly, but she attracts her right people, and in the world of almost 200 million blogs, she stands out by virtue of her voice. Kerr says, “If you are universally palatable, you are bland—you have to risk being objectionable.”

Lawson is not a marketing genius; she’s a remarkably helpful and caring human being.

The Sound of Soul
No amount of self-knowledge does any good until you can integrate it into your real life—in this case, your real estate business. The trick here is that you can’t find your voice by buying anything, applying any techniques, or watching what others do. That’s the yin and the yang of voice. No one can show you how to be unique. It feels risky to go against the conventional training. Jennifer Allan, successful agent and author of “Sell with Soul,” says, “If I had one mission in life, it is to assure people that they can be true to themselves.” She asserts, with confidence, that by integrating soul into your business, you will be more successful on all fronts: financially, personally and spiritually. You will be happier, more at peace and more helpful in your business transactions, your community, your family and your world.

The competitive nature of the real estate industry makes having a unique voice a necessity, not a luxury. If you look at successful agents, you will find a common element. Each one is an individual with a unique voice, and whatever systems, organizations or business philosophies they subscribe to, they have made them their own. And that is the unspoken secret of success. Find your voice, own it, use it, be proud of it, and then your right people—your niche—will find you.

Joe Cooke holds degrees in taxation, accounting and law.

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