How do you stand out from other designers, attract more clients, and work on projects you enjoy? One solution is to build a business that specialises in one area of design that you love, that targets a specific niche audience.
But how do you do that? In this interview Ian speaks to Sara Dunn who’s been there and done it. She transitioned from a general web design & marketing agency to building a niche business offering SEO services for “creative wedding pros”, and she’s been incredibly successful.
In this interview we discover how she decided what niche to focus on, how she used content marketing to attract the right clients, and how she productised & systematised the business too.
Books & Resources Mentioned
- KW Finder – for keyword research.
- Sara Does SEO – Saras website targeting creative wedding pros.
- Saras website
- Sara on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.
- The E-Myth Revisited – Amazon UK | Amazon US
Sara Dunn Interview Transcription
Ian Paget: I’m really keen to speak to you about how you’ve been able to niche down, and I understand that you’ve had a lot of success with that, but I think so that we can tell a story through this episode, I’d like to ask you what your was situation prior to niching down, and what was the reason why you decided to do that?
Sara Dunn: It wasn’t something that I had really planned for my business forever. It was kind of an evolution of my web agency, so I ran a generalist web agency for about five years, and it was mostly me leading all of the projects, and then I had a team of about four other people who would freelance and come in for web design, branding, graphic design projects, development.
So it was really fun for me to do this type of work, but also I kind of reached a point where I started feeling very bland. It was about 2017, and I knew that what we were offering and how we I was talking about it was pretty much the exact same way that everyone else was.
We provide great design solutions to move your business forward, really bland and awful messaging like that that doesn’t really help you stand out, so it just was a frustration in my marketing, and the way that I was getting leads. I was looking for new ways to bring in more projects I really enjoyed doing, and not just projects that I was really hustling for, because I did a lot of local networking.
I did a lot of local outreach, and I felt like every single projects was something that I was working to get. I started learning more about online marketing, and hearing a lot of advice, and people were always talking about email marketing, and just specialising, so that you had something really interesting to share in content marketing.
And I just knew I was so far away from that, because I didn’t even know who my ideal audience was, so I would say that was the situation in my small agency before I started to consider niching down in 2017.
Ian Paget: I can relate with that, and I’m sure a lot of listeners can too. I think most of us include some kind of content on our websites that’s somewhat generic and could pretty live on any designer’s website, so it’s definitely a good way to find a way to be a little bit more unique. I think niche-ing down definitely does that.
I go to quite a few events now, and I’ve seen other graphic designers introduce themselves, talented graphic designers, but they’re more generalists, so when they introduce themselves, they’re saying things like, “I do graphic design. I do branding, websites, anything you need.”
They will pour out a list, but it’s somewhat of an overload, and so much so that a lot of the time the conversation kind of dies out, but in comparison, because I specialise primarily in logo design, when I’m asked what I do, I literally just simply say, “I design logos.” I find that starts a conversation.
Sara Dunn: Don’t you just feel like when you say, “I do logo design,” people know immediately what you’re talking about, and can dig in a little deeper, rather than be overwhelmed by the laundry list of services.
Ian Paget: Yeah, and as well, at those events, it’s like, “Oh, you’re the logo guy.” It is funny how these things work, so I understand. So I wanted to ask you, how did you decide what you wanted to do in terms of a niche?
Sara Dunn: Oh, isn’t that the question. This was something that really took me a long time, and I honestly didn’t think that it would take so long, so I started hearing about the idea of specialising and niche-ing down and becoming a known expert at something really specific.
I had heard that advice for months, and maybe years, before I decided it was something I really needed to do, because I just … I didn’t know how to go about it. It’s a hard thing to do to make that decision about what very specific thing do I want to be known for.
Prior to making this decision, most of the work that I had done was really broad, so I was working with dentists and mortgage companies and construction companies, and really the only thing that tied them all together was they were service-based businesses, but the problem with that was that they didn’t identify as service-based businesses.
They didn’t think about themselves in that category, so it wasn’t a very useful thing for me to say well I do web design for service-based businesses, because that doesn’t paint a very clear picture in anyone’s mind. So I did actually try that for a little while, and that didn’t really cause anyone to grasp on.
It also didn’t help me to market anymore specifically. It didn’t help me understand what networking events do I need to go to or what groups do I need to be involved with. It was still just too broad, so it was actually in early 2017 that I sat in front of a camera in my office.
I had reached a frustration point with being a generalist and not knowing what to do, and I recorded a video. And I just talked about the frustrations that I had had with being a generalist and why I was choosing to specialise.
I just felt very lonely in that position. I felt like there were specialists out there, and there were generalists, and the people that had become specialists never talked about how they had made that decision. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to figure out what my niche is going to be. And I am going to vlog about it.”
So I did. And I thought with that level of focus, doing a weekly video, even though it was generally really short, I said, “I’m going to do a weekly video, and I think this is going to propel me to finally find that niche and make that choice.” Well, it took me, unfortunately, about eight months of weekly videos before I really landed on something, and that was in late 2017, so now I’ve been specialising for over a year and a half, but it was not an easy process, and I’m so glad that I have that documentation of everything I tried, everything I went through, every book I read, every course I took, because it’s such a good memory to know that this was really hard.
And I hope if anyone else ever watches those videos, they recognised that just because I figured out my specialty now, doesn’t mean it was an easy choice to make. Because I know there’s probably other people out there that have seen this.
One of the things that really frustrated me in the beginning, was when people would say, “Well, you know, I’m pretty much a specialist in this industry, and it just kind of happened naturally, like I got one project in this niche, and then I got 10 more, and then I decided that’s all I was going to do.”
It was not that easy for me, so my answer to how I decided what my niche was going to be was I tried everything, read books, took courses, did all sorts of analysis and pros and cons, and lists of my favourite projects, and actually nothing worked for me until I went to a conference and I met a woman named Ally, who was a wedding planner in Chicago.
And she heard that I … I did my pitch that I did web design and some search engine optimisation and graphic design, and she said, “Oh, you do search engine optimisation?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, I’m having trouble with the search engine rankings for a new website, I just had created, can you take a look at it?”
So I took a look at the site, and I saw that her web designer had totally trashed her SEO, just knew nothing about it, and I worked with her to fix it. It was probably the most fun I ever had. I loved her. I loved the work. And it was kind of a light bulb moment, where I said, “You know what? I’m going to try to get a couple more projects like this and see if this is something I’d want to do every day.” And it turned out it was.
Ian Paget: That’s really interesting. I love the idea of documenting it. So when you was doing these videos, were just literally just going live and almost thinking through it through a live audience?
Sara Dunn: No, I actually pre-recorded them every week, and I tried to think of overlying topic of the week, something I had learned or something I had tried. I did a couple of reviews of books that I read, so it wasn’t exactly a stream of consciousness. Most of them had a topic, but I just was trying to cover something that I had discovered on my journey that week, and most of them are just two to five minutes, so real simple.
Ian Paget: I’m keen to watch those, so I’ll link to them in the show notes for this episode, but it’s quite refreshing to hear that it took you a lot of time and also that you made a conscious choice as to exactly what you wanted to focus on, because I know people that are now specialists, and are like, you said, they started out a generalist for a number of years. Then they decided to focus once they’ve done a number of projects in that area, so it’s interesting that you’ve taken a different approach, and I’m really glad to hear that you’ve found something that you’ve been enjoying.
Sara Dunn: Yeah.
Ian Paget: So how long ago was that?
Sara Dunn: I guess it was almost two years ago now.
Ian Paget: Are you still happy that you made that choice? Are you still enjoying working on that type of project only?
Sara Dunn: Yes, I really am.
Ian Paget: Good.
Sara Dunn: Yeah, it’s been so interesting, because I think … I’ve heard, at this point, a lot of objections to specialising, since I’ve put out 60 videos about specialising, people are like, “Well, I think it would be really boring.”
I think your creative audience probably feels like that to some degree, but what I found is that I personally am fascinated by the idea of improvement, and improved efficiency, and improved results, and that’s something that I just really want to be working towards.
I feel like I’m working towards much better by doing similar projects over and over, so every time I do one of these projects I learn something knew that I can apply to the project that I’m doing the next week, and for me, that’s really satisfying, more than just doing something completely new creatively, though I do understand that maybe not everyone’s personality is that way.
And I have talked to some people that are like, “You know what? I’m really happy being a generalist,” and to them I say, “Good for you if you’re happy doing that and getting all of the work that you want and getting the rates that make you happy, then that’s probably a good place to stay,” but it wasn’t for me.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I’m glad that you said that. Niching down as become a hot topic at the moment, but I know plenty of designers who are doing incredibly well being more of a generalist, so at least listeners will be aware that it’s not the only road to success.
Going back to your story, you’ve now got to a point where you’ve made your mind up what your niche is going to be. I’d love to know what you did next. And more importantly, I’d love to know how you also made time for it, because personally, I find most of my time is dedicated to client work. Because that’s what’s making the money, so working on my website or anything else, it’s hard to put in time to do that. And I know that listeners will relate with my concerns with that, so what was it you did next and how did you also make time for that too?
Sara Dunn: Oh, yes, that’s such a good question. I kind of viewed this possible niche as kind of a side gig, so it wasn’t like I decided one day that hey I’m going to do SEO for the wedding industry, and I’m going to cut off everything else I was doing before, and totally refocus all of my time.
It was kind of something I pursued almost in extra hours, so we kept doing all of the same web design type projects and everything else that we were doing before, and I kind of pursued the wedding industry with some additional time, so I did spend a little bit of nights recording my videos.
But then also I set up an entirely separate micro site, is what I called it, that was just about my SEO services for the wedding industry, so that’s pretty much where I started was setting up that website and making all of the messaging about being a specialist in the wedding industry doing SEO.
And to get those initial projects, thankfully the first person I worked with was really blown away with the results, and she was pretty well connected, and I said, “Is there anyone that you could refer me to?” And she helped me get my next few projects.
So that was really, really helpful, that getting that work didn’t actually take a ton of extra time, and I was quickly finding that when I was telling some other people that I was looking for this type of very specific work, it also was really easy for them to think of someone to refer me to.
So I can think of one situation, when I was talking to a friend of mine, who also does SEO, and I said, “I did this great SEO project for a wedding planner, and I want to do more of them.” And she said, “Oh, great, I’m totally booked right now, and I just got an inquiry from someone in the wedding industry, so I’ll just send them over to you.”
So it was an incredible experience to realise that just by declaring what kind of work I wanted to do, that friends and clients were willing to help, and so thankfully, it really didn’t take that much time to kind of pursue this niche almost in secret, on the side.
And I knew that I could, at that early phase, totally shut it down if it didn’t work, just swipe that website off the internet, and go back to what I was doing, so that was how I started, and I think that that would be something that I would definitely recommend.
Ian Paget: That’s a really smart way to approach this. I particularly love that you asked your existing clients if they know anyone else. I don’t think I would have thought to have done that, but when you’re specialising, it’s definitely a fantastic way to tap into a network of potential clients.
On that note, I’d actually love to spend some time chatting with you about how you went about finding suitable clients. I know you mentioned then about friends and family passing projects on, but once you decided your niche, did your approach targeting clients in a different way than you did in your previous agency?
Sara Dunn: Yes, it’s been very different in this business than prior. So my first few clients had to come from word of mouth, because I had no name for myself in this industry yet, but once I decided to keep pursuing it, I started actively doing some things that I hadn’t been able to do before.
One of those was actually effective content marketing, so imagine … If anyone is a generalist and has tried writing blog posts on their blog, I think you’ve probably found that they are so general and so bland that even you don’t want to read them, or at least that’s how I felt about mine.
So I was writing really general things like the three elements of a great website, and blah, blah, blah. Instead of doing that, I was now able to write articles with the actual client in mind, because I was so specific. I was looking for someone in the wedding industry. I knew that person was usually female and more creative than tech savvy.
And so I was able to write in a voice that was very approachable to them, and I knew the basic things that they should really know in order to start working on their own SEO, so content marketing that was very focused is something that has brought me a lot of clients over the last year, between social sharing and now the blog posts.
A lot of them are ranking well on Google, so I’m bringing in, for the first time, actual leads from Google, myself, and getting clients from that, so that’s definitely been a first, and also the fact that this is so niche that it’s not a lot of people are doing what I’m doing.
So there isn’t a ton of SEO specialists for the wedding industry running around, so when someone in the wedding industry wants to put on a webinar, or they’ve got a community of wedding professionals, and they need someone to speak to them, the fact that I can say hey I do SEO for the wedding industry, and I can put together a tailored talk for you, or a guest post for your blog or something like that, it’s been really easy for me to get that type of opportunity for webinars for other communities, for guest posts on other blogs, and that’s another way that I’ve been able to market and increase exposure.
So those are a few things that have brought me clients that have been totally different than my old methods of networking and personal connections and just local type of outreach.
Ian Paget: I know content marketing would be the approach that I would personally take, and I know because you are targeted in a specific niche it’s easy to work out what people will be searching for. I know that SEO is your specialty, and I know that graphic designers, or the audience that would be listening to this, probably won’t even know where to start with that.
Would you be willing to share any tips for the listeners, so that they could use content marketing effectively to attract potential customers in the way that you have?
Sara Dunn: Yeah, I think the key, I think as I mentioned already, is knowing who your audience is, so it really is hard to write blog posts or create content, when you’ll just make a flier for anybody who contacts you, and you’re doing all sorts of different design projects.
So I honestly, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time over the first five years of my business, when I was a generalist trying to do content marketing, because it truly wasn’t interesting to anyone, so I think the first element of effective content marketing is having some clear idea of who you’re talking to.
So that has nothing to do with SEO, but that’s what really makes your articles interesting to ready by the right people is if you can imagine you’re writing them for one person, and you’re talking just to them, what language do they need? What details do they need?
Let me give you an example. I actually wrote a post that got published today about how to set up Google Search Console, and everything that I read on the internet about how to set up Google Search Console was so technical and so awful I didn’t even want to read it.
So I wrote my own, knowing that my audience is probably a wedding photographer, and she just wants to get it set up and submit a site map and move one, so I just talked to you about how to get it set up, validated, and then I talked about the performance report, and how to submit a site map, and that was it.
I ignored all the other features, because I truly don’t believe this audience needs them, so that’s the type of thing that you’re able to create, once you know who your audience is. Then if you do know who your audience is, you can consider maybe what keywords they might be using in order to find you.
Maybe somebody wants to specifically look for a logo designer for pet shops or something like that, so considering some more niche or interesting keywords, that are very specific, is probably the best way to go is you are doing SEO for the first time, and you’re more of a creative person.
Think about what really targeted content you could create, and then create a piece of content or a landing page around that, so a page on your site that’s called, Logo Design For Pet Shops, and then detail everything you can do related to that niche, make sure that that’s the title of the post or the page that you’re creating. Make sure you’re using that phrase throughout the content, and then make sure that you’re sharing it on social media.
It’s hard to just jump into SEO without a plan and a little bit of keyword research, but the best thing is to think about those more specific keywords that might be less competitive and create a really good piece of content that that person who’s searching for that phrase would be happy to find. So that’s probably my very high-level advise, I’d be happy to drill down if you’ve got any specific questions for me.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I think it’d be great to. So the first thing I wrote down was to do with you mentioned about your target audience. I know with you you chose your niche. How did you go about actually working out specifically who that target person was? Did you go through any kind of exercise, or was it just a case of picturing who it is?
Sara Dunn: Yeah, I had done a 1000 exercises before I landed on the wedding industry. And then I did do a couple more exercises. There was a worksheet that I got somewhere that talked about defining the common problems and goals of your target market.
And I thought that was really interesting, because I did this after I had done maybe 10 SEO projects for the wedding industry, and I was able to realise that my best client, in the wedding industry, isn’t someone who’s just getting started. They need to have a website that’s established.
So they’re an established business, and because they’re well known in their area, they’re probably frustrated that they don’t show up well on Google. And that is their main challenge that the right client comes to me with, hey, I’ve been around for five years, and I do great work, but all of these other competitors show up in front of me on Google.
And so that is what my best clients come to me worried about, and that was something that I didn’t realise until I went through that worksheet that was about those common challenges and goals that your target market has. So that is what I’d recommend for that.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I think it’s useful to do that, because I know generally a lot of graphic designers, and to be honest, I do this as well, when you think of your target audience, you start to think, ah, small business owner, or entrepreneur just starting their business.
I can’t remember who said it, but I heard someone say recently that rather than thinking about targeting small business owners, you need to start thinking about you want to target Janet, she’s a photographer, she’s been doing it for 10 years. She works from home. She has a family, but she’s been getting frustrated that she’s not getting enough traffic to her website and stuff like that.
So I think it’s good to start to think more specific about the type of person that you are targeting. Because like you said, if you know what their problems and challenge are, you can write interesting content around that, and you can write it tailored towards them, so it’s not technical, like you said. When you’re writing about keyword research, you can do it in a way so that it is fun and interesting for that specific person.
Sara Dunn: Yes, that’s actually one of the best pieces of advice that I got was to imagine the one person you’re writing your article for or creating your content for, whether that’s a video or a podcast episode or something else. If you can imagine, as if you are writing it in an email to that person, that’s going to really help with your tone of voice and your confidence.
And actually I write a lot of my posts with my friend Tessa in mind, and she is a wedding photographer in Ohio, and she is someone that I do a lot of SEO work for, so I imagine, how would I explain this to Tessa, specifically, if she asked me about keywords or Google Search Console or something else? So that can be really helpful as you’re creating things.
Ian Paget: Yeah, absolutely, that’s really good advice. It’s got me thinking, I probably need to be a bit more specific in what I’m doing, because I know once you have worked out who that target audience is, you can work out where they’re spending their time, if they’re in groups on Facebook, or if they are listening to podcasts.
Or if they are listening to podcasts, maybe you can create a podcast that is about wedding SEO or something.
Sara Dunn: Sure, it’d probably be terribly boring, but that certainly could be…
Ian Paget: But you could make it fun.
Sara Dunn: Yeah, so what I’ve discovered, in my industry, nobody’s on LinkedIn, and everyone spends all their time on Instagram, so because I know that about my target customer, I know where I can spend my time and energy, and what’s going to be worthwhile for me. So I get to say forget it to LinkedIn, and make sure to engage a lot on Instagram, and that’s where my time is best spent.
Ian Paget: Oh, that’s really interesting, so in terms of your social media strategy, are you literally spending most of your time on Instagram, because you’re aware that’s where your customer is hanging out?
Sara Dunn: Yes, absolutely.
Ian Paget: So going back to the SEO stuff, you mentioned about doing keyword research, would you mind going a little bit more into detail about how you’d work out what those keywords would be that you need to use within your content?
Sara Dunn: Yes, so I’ve got a keyword research process that I like to use, and it always starts with brainstorming, so I like to sit down in front of a spreadsheet. I personally like spreadsheets. It’s also really easy to work with once you have a list of keywords.
So I like sitting down in front of a spreadsheet, and I start by brainstorming, what are those phrases, that if people were searching for them, I would love to show up for? So for me, that’s SEO for wedding planners, SEO for wedding photographers, SEO for the wedding industry.
Those types of phrases are the easy ones off the top of my head that come right to mind, so I would recommend that, sit down with your spreadsheet, type in what are those phrases that are really relevant to the services you offer?
And then think a little bit more about what are some of the common questions that you get, or common problems that people come to you with? That might indicate to you what are some things people would be searching for an answer to, that you would have a great answer for?
So for me, I’ve heard people over and over say I don’t have enough blog post ideas. I don’t know what to blog about. So I wrote a blog post called 11 Wedding Planner Blog Post ideas. And that brings me pretty good traffic now.
So think about some of those things, what are those questions? I wrote another one called What Should I Name My Images For SEO? And that one is the most popular blog post on my site, so that one’s not bringing in always industry-specific traffic, but I have actually gotten work from that post from someone that landed on it and saw that I was a wedding-specific SEO person.
So step two is kind of thinking about those questions and common concerns, so keep going on your spreadsheet, add a question or a concern or a phrase that comes up in each cell, and then take a look around your own website. You actually might be surprised when you look at your own website what keyword phrases you see there.
So what phrases have you used to describe your services? Maybe it’s logo design? Maybe it’s logo design for small business? Maybe it’s logo design for pet shops? Take a look, see what those phrases are that describe what you do, that you may not have thought of as keywords.
And once you’ve got a good list going, you could even go over to your competitor’s site, what phrases are they using? What are the pages on their site called? You might look at sites that are well optimised, and seem to show up on Google for the phrases that you’d like to, and see what kind of words they’re using.
So once you’ve got a good list, I like to run them through a tool. There’s one that I really like. It’s called KW Finder, and they do offer a free trial, so this tool, if you import your list of keywords, will actually tell you how many times per month people are searching for those things.
And that’s really important if you’re really trying to do SEO, and you’re going to spend some time and investment here, because you don’t want to be working to optimise for phrases that no one searches for. So for me, no one’s really searching for SEO for wedding florists.
For whatever reason, florists aren’t really into SEO, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time making sure that my website ranks for that, because nobody’s searching for it. So if you use a tool, make sure that you’re looking for the keyword volume, how many times a month are someone actually searching for it?
And KW Finder will give you an idea of the competition as well, so it gives you a competition score out of a 100, and you can see what might be some easier ones to try to rank for start with. So that’s my keyword research.
Ian Paget: That’s amazing, thank you, so for listeners, what I’ll do is make sure to include links to those tools in those show notes, so that that’d be easier to find. So do you mind if I dig into this a little bit more?
Sara Dunn: Not at all.
Ian Paget: Okay, thank you, so you’ve got to a point where you’ve worked out the keywords you wanted to rank for. You checked that they would be worth targeting, as you know the search volume. In terms of applying that knowledge to the content, do you have any advice for how you would use those keywords in the content you’re creating?
Sara Dunn: Yes, definitely, so what’s important to keep in mind about SEO is that Google’s not ranking sites overall. They’re looking for the one page on the internet that best serves the searchers query, so the on that is the best result for what someone’s searching for.
So what you need to do, when you’re thinking about creating a piece of content to target a keyword, is that you need to think about what kind of thing is someone looking for when they type in this phrase on Google? That’s something that we call searcher intent, so what is the searcher intend, what they’re looking for, when they’re searching for this?
If they’re searching for a logo design for pet shops, they’re probably looking for someone that can do that for them or some sort of tool that can do that and create that for them. They’re not looking for maybe a step-by-step how-to article, but if they’re searching for … I can only think of examples from my site, what do I name my images for SEO, they’re probably just looking for a helpful article. They’re not looking for someone to hire.
So for that type of search, I tend to write a helpful blog post on my site, and for things that are more service related, like logo design for pet shops, I would create a page on the site that was about that service, so make sure the piece of content you’re creating is all about that one keyword, and make sure that you’re using that phrase in the title, in the first paragraph of that piece of content, and possibly throughout, so it’s really doing a good job answering that searcher’s question.
Unfortunately, creative people aren’t going to like this very much, but it does take a lot of written words on a page to get something to rank on Google, because Google likes seeing really authoritative information, that’s really helpful, and that tends to mean long, so 500, a 1000, 1500 or more words, which is a lot, I know. Don’t tackle me.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I know most designers don’t like writing or struggle with it, but I think it’s worth saying that if you’re making an income from your work, it’s worth paying somebody to write that content for you. That’s what I do a lot of the time now, especially when I’m busy.
I don’t always have time to write, and I found copywriters to be not as expensive as you think, something like a 1000 words, that would take me like an entire day to put together, a copywriter, because it’s their specialism, they can put that content together in a few hours, so for a blog, you only really need to pay them for a few hours, and so a lot of copywriters are really affordable for that reason.
One issue I face, or that all designers face, and I’m sure you do with SEO too, and that’s graphic design can be quite a specialist topic, so it is hard for a non-designer to write that content properly, but to get around that, what I tend to do for them, is write a few bullet points of things I’d like to be included in that content, and I’ll link to you any resources that I could find that’s relevant, so that they can read through that as well.
And then that just gives them something to work on, so that they get it right the first time, and content that’s already written is easy to tweak. I find it much, much easier to tweak something than start from scratch, because well content is just so important, so important, especially if you want to rank well on Google. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t work on my SEO ongoing.
Sara Dunn: Oh, I love it. That’s good to know.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I was quite lucky, because I’ve been working for a web design agency for the last like 10 years now, and within that agency, we have an SEO team, and because I’m the creative director for the company, I’ve needed to do a lot of the marketing stuff.
You pick stuff up along the way, and I’ve been able to rank my website for the generic term, logo design, so I’m constantly juggling between page one and page two. It’s hard, because you’re competing with agencies and companies that just have lots and lots of resources, hard to compete.
Sara Dunn: Yes, that’s a huge accomplishment. That’s actually something that I would recommend people never go after those very big, general phrases, because it’s going to take a really long time. It’s going to take a lot of content, and a lot of authority.
That’s why I’ve had a lot more success with these niche type phrases. I’m not trying to rank for search engine optimisation, which would be nearly impossible, but there aren’t a lot of people trying to optimise for SEO for wedding planners, so that’s been a lot easier.
Ian Paget: Yeah, that’s why I think niching it down is really good. It’s not only easier to get those results, but it’s faster too, and I think it’s one of the main advantages that you can get. I think it’s one of the main advantages, because you can get really granular with your target keywords.
I know you personally, whilst I’ve not niched down my target audience, in the way that you have, although logo design is technically still a niche, I found I’ve been able to target local search, so I come up position one for logo design Manchester.
So I appreciate you mentioning long-tail keywords, because it’s significantly much easier to rank for SEO for wedding planners, as it is just for SEO, plus I think in those cases, they have more of an intent to buy two, so it would be better off for you long term anyway.
I’m expecting there to be people listening to this now that think, “Wow, this sounds great, and we want to start niche-ing down like you have,” what advise can you give to those who want to do the same thing, but are at the stage where you was two years ago, where you wasn’t sure what you wanted to do.
Sara Dunn: It’s so hard to start deciding that you want to niche down, and then figure out what to do next, so my best advice is to really pay attention to which projects make you excited. Which ones do you dread and which ones would you love to do more of? And just see if you can identify any common factors within those projects. That was one of the first things that I did.
And also to realise that you might find a niche, that’s not something you have a ton of experience in right now, so I want to encourage anyone. I had done all of one project, that was SEO for the wedding industry, before I said, “I need to do more of this.” So I had a diverse background of experience, but in this niche, it wasn’t like I had somehow done 10 projects in this already, but I decided to mindfully pursue more projects that were similar, because I wanted to explore, if I would love them all just as much.
So I think it’s a really gradual process, much more gradual than people might think, if they do decide to niche down. It’s not like, “Oh, man, I’ve done five websites for accounting firms, and I’ve just decided that’s all I’m going to do. I’m going to change my whole website, and that’s all I’m going to market anymore, and I’m making that change between today and tomorrow.” It doesn’t have to be like that.
It can be something that’s more experimental, so keep your general site exactly the way it is. Consider just starting with a landing page on that site, that’s about a niche service, and see if you can get it to rank on Google or make it something that’s really authoritative and helpful for that type of client you think you want to work with more, and pass that off.
Do some outreach to people, and send them that landing page that explains your niche service. That’s a great way to test something out. It doesn’t have to be a huge decision, a huge life decision, where you quite doing the rest of your business and start doing this new thing. So just pay attention to the type of work that you might want to do.
I think it’s also important to note that I’m not … The more people I talk to about niche-ing down, the more I realise I don’t think it’s for everyone. I think some people just love variety in their creative process, and there are some downsides that come to being a generalist, but maybe the upside of getting to do something different, totally different every day, outweighs that for you.
I think that’s fine too. I just know I have loved the fact that leads come in easier. My services are now productised, so I can scope them out. I don’t have to do custom proposals anymore. My sales process is much shorter. I appreciate all of those trade-offs more than a totally different work style every day. So there are trade-offs and benefits, and you just have to figure out if it seems right for your personality.
Ian Paget: I find it interesting what you mentioned then about not necessarily having experience in the area, because I’m the same. Now I’m in a position where I’m ranking well on Google for logo design. I’ve done logo design projects. I’ve built a logo design community. I’ve built a podcast, and I would describe myself as an expert now, but when I started I’d done maybe like five logo designs. They wasn’t very good.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I did get to a point where I got fed up with doing logo designs, but one thing that I’ve been able to do is diversify, so I have a podcast that makes an income. I have a community around logo design that generates an income, and you can really mix things up, because you can still do other things that are related to that niche, and build around it.
I don’t know if you’re the same, but personally I found the more I’ve invested time in a topic, it then does become even more of a passion as you keep going.
Sara Dunn: Definitely. And you get really immersed in that whole community around whatever your thing is, so I get to watch what’s the news in the wedding industry, and what’s the news in SEO, and how does one affect the other in a way that I can provide a really unique perspective? So I love getting to be a geek about things a little bit, and being in there so deep that you might notice connections that nobody else does.
I love what you said about your work may not be as varied, or the actual product that you’re producing, but the different types of things that you can do can bring you that variety, so I find myself now, I’m doing yes a lot of SEO projects, but I’ve also kind of systemised the process enough that the parts of the process I don’t like very much I’ve actually outsourced to someone else on my team.
And I just get to do the really interesting analysis pieces, and I’m also much more involved in leading webinars and paid speaking opportunities and a variety of other things, so what I’m doing is still pretty varied, even though the topic is pretty specific.
Ian Paget: That’s really great to hear, and you’re a great example of how to do it right. Now in keen to dig a little bit more into something you said then about productising your services and systemising too, is something I’ve been able to do, but can I ask you how you’ve gone about productising your services?
Sara Dunn: Yes, so one of my goals in niching down was I really hated writing customer proposals, and every time I did a website project, pretty much required a customer proposal, and it was a long process, and I had to write it up, which was usually 10:00 at night the day before it was due, and then we had to go back and forth about what was going to be included.
That was one of my least favourite parts of my job, so I said if I’m going to specialise, I want to come up with a couple services that those are what I offer, and I do them over and over again, and kind of develop a process around how those work. So I now offer just two different services to the wedding industry.
I have a roadmap, I call the SEO roadmap, so it’s basically an SEO audit and plan that the client implements themselves. And then I have something I call the SEO intensive, which is a three-month project where I take over the client’s website and SEO and implement my plan for them. And that’s really it.
Occasionally, I do work with a client on an ongoing basis, or I might add in something a little bit custom, but that’s definitely the exception and not the usual case, so I’ve been able to say okay I know exactly how long an SEO roadmap takes me.
I know that I can handle one of those a week, and I’m much better handling my schedule now, because I know that I can start and finish one of these projects in a week, and move onto the next one the following week, and so this is the first time ever that I’m able to look at my calendar and say you know what, I’m booked six weeks out. My next available start date is seven weeks from now.
Because I have this productised service and I know how long it will take, so that’s kind of what I mean by productising. And by systems, I figured out the steps that are required to execute that project. I’ve got a spreadsheet and my assistant will go through and fill out about half of the audit spreadsheet for me of fairly easy and repeatable things.
So because I’m doing the same type of work every week, it’s really easy for me to say okay I figured out how this works. Let me just create a screen cast video of how to find this information, and then I hand it off to her, and she does a great job with it.
So those are the types of systems that I was not able to create when I was just doing custom web design projects, because everyone that I did was different, and so I wasn’t able to really take advantage of that efficiency and scale.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting that you’ve spoken about this, and I can relate with it a lot with what I’m doing, because when you are offering just one or two services, you can write template emails, and like you said, exactly how long things take, so you can schedule it in your diary.
I’m sure you’re the same, like everything I do has template documents. If someone gets in touch, and they want a quote, I’ve got that all templated, so I can just take my template email, tweak it, take that template contract, tweak it, send it over, and that can be done within 10 minutes.
But if someone came to me and wanted like a bespoke website, okay, I have done that before, but it would be so much more involved. I’d have to write that proposal from scratch. I’d have to write all of my emails from scratch, and something that’s taking me 10 minutes now with a process, would take two, three hours. And when you’re a one-person business, that’s hard to do.
And also I liked what you mentioned about systemised, I read a book called The E-Myth Revisited, and it speaks about working on your business not in your business, so I like that you’re creating processes and systems so that one day you could potentially sell your business, because you’ve got the processes and everything in place.
But more importantly, you can bring in people that can just take those processes that you put together, and they can take them and run with what you’ve done, so I think it’s good what you’re doing, and considering that you’ve only been doing it for nearly two years, it sounds like you’re doing incredibly well.
Sara Dunn: Yeah, it’s been really exciting. Yeah, I don’t know if the future holds a sale of the company, since I named the website SaradoesSEO.com.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I understand.
Sara Dunn: But you never know where it’s going to go, and it certainly has a larger audience than my generalist web agency ever did, so that’s definitely more of an option than it was before, for sure, so I agree.
Ian Paget: Yeah, I think to wrap up the interview I wanted to ask you one last question, so two years ago you made this choice to niche down, you had … I’m kind of assuming it was a successful agency, and everything was going well, but you’ve gone through this process of deciding to niche down.
You did it, treated it as a side gig. You built up authority around it, and now you’re at a stage where you have a successful business where you do have … where you basically built what you intended to do. Now that you’ve done that, do you feel it was the right thing?
Do you feel that it is being successful? Do you earn more money now? What are the benefits to going through that process that you have?
Sara Dunn: Yeah, well I love your summary of that. I should point out that I tried two separate specialties that didn’t work. I did a really short stint trying to do Facebook ads for chiropractors, which I really didn’t enjoy all that much, and that was over pretty quickly, and that I actually tried before I started recording the videos.
So it was definitely not a you decided what to do and made it successful. There were definitely some bumps in that road, but it’s definitely something I’m so glad that I did, and what I’ve found I’m actually making about the same amount of money personally, and I’ve actually shrunk my staff.
So from the outside, there have been some struggles from just like an ego and emotional level. I always equated the number of people I was working with to the size of my business, and the size of my success, so that’s been something that I have been struggling with.
I found I didn’t really need to have a designer on staff, since I’m doing so much SEO work, and mostly just need a couple of assistants on support and getting our projects moving, so but what I’ve found is that I have much less stress.
I’m doing much more work that I really enjoy doing, and I don’t feel like I’m just project managing all the time. I feel like I’m really getting in the weeds and doing projects that I really enjoy doing, and also I’m having a lot of different successes than I had before in a way that’s really keeping me engaged.
So I’m really enjoying leading webinars and doing speaking gigs and being a little bit more visible than I ever was just in my local area, so it’s been a really good shift for me, just in lifestyle and enjoying the work and marketing myself in a different way and learning some new things. So I have definitely enjoyed this for me, and I know it was the right choice for sure.
Ian Paget: I’m so glad to hear that you made a success of everything. I think your story is really inspiring, so thank you for coming on and for sharing your story with us. I’m really glad that I reached out to you in the end.
Sara Dunn: Great, thank you, Ian, I’m so glad you reached out too.