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As a small business owner, your greatest challenge is to ensure a steady flow of work that keeps your shop running smoothly and your balance sheet in the black. This means forever searching for new clients to supplement your existing customer base and replacing those who drop off as part of the normal attrition process.
However, if you are like most new product decorators, you likely spend much of your time running from one customer to the next, accepting any order you can get. While this is not a bad approach when you’re just starting your business, it rarely leads to long-term growth.
You need good quality, repeatable sales to keep money steadily flowing into your business. To get this, you need to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to creating and managing a customer base. Without doing so, you will never really gain a good understanding of who your customers are and what they really want. Remember that getting an order doesn’t necessarily mean making a lasting connection.
Now, what happens if you do manage to open a few doors along the way? Do you have a compelling sales pitch, and the right samples and pricing to make the sale? Probably not. Most of us have a tendency to just use a generic sales approach with no real focus, such as: “Hi. I’m Jimmy. I can put your logo on all kinds of great things like phone covers, coasters, flip-flops, t-shirts and more. We do great work and have awesome prices…”
A pitch like this doesn’t differentiate you from any other business that provides sublimated products. When you deliver this pitch, you really aren’t doing much more than presenting something that isn’t unique and may have very little appeal to the customer. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t. And if you are doing the same thing as your competition, then about the only thing that will make the difference is price - and that is not where you want to be.
So what should you be doing? They key to success is really getting to know your customers so that you can offer them items of value that also get them excited. Unfortunately, gaining this knowledge can be very tedious and time consuming if you simply research on a client-by-client basis. However, if you concentrate on a whole market - as opposed to a single company or customer - you can put all of your energy into developing a single strategy that can be applied to multiple clients.
Targeting these niche markets enables you to develop a sensible marketing strategy that focuses on creating and delivering a saleable product to those who want to buy. By putting your energies into a targeted market, you are better able to understand:
In general, a niche market is simply a focused group of similar people or organizations that share common bonds. Niche markets can be business, civic or leisure oriented. Some niche markets include: real estate agents, firefighters, hunters, car dealers, cheerleaders, florists, pilots, art lovers, tourists, etc.
Niche markets are all around you and can be big or small. Size doesn’t matter as much as the quality and strength of the market. An ideal niche is untapped, which means there is plenty of growth potential for your business. However, it’s more likely that you’ll face at least some competition in any given niche, but there will also be realistic opportunities to offer a unique product or service to the market.
Familiarity is one of the most important traits of a good niche market. Knowing the subjects or organizations involved with that market enables you to understand the needs of potential customers and communicate on a personal level. It also makes it much easier to create unique products and services that have instant appeal to the market, and position yourself as an exclusive provider.
Though tapping into niche markets is not a guaranteed profit booster, doing so does have a number of advantages, including:
Let’s take a look at how you can get started finding and developing a unique niche for your business.
It’s important that you choose a market that you have a special knowledge about. It may be related to a hobby or a previous job. Ideally, if you can “walk the walk and talk the talk” you’ll ultimately be better prepared to face this market head-on. The more you know about the organizations and/or people within this market segment, the more prepared you will be to develop a sales and marketing approach. The key thing is to have a unique perspective in terms of your products and services.
The more specific a niche market is, the better, because you can focus your efforts on a clear set of characteristics that define the targeted group. For example, I have a love of boats, water sports and fishing. I wanted to own a marina, but starting a product decorating business was more in line with my budget. I focused my sales and marketing efforts within these niches, spending almost every day working with businesses within markets I was comfortable within and were very appealing to me. That added a lot of fun to the job!
Initially, I catered to boating and fishing businesses, offering them products that featured their logo. Though most of my customers were asking for apparel, that was too common of a product (though I never turned down an apparel sale). As I got to know this market better, I searched for more unique products to set myself apart and increase profits. Soon, I learned that boaters would pay top dollar for personalized products, if they were unique enough.
One such product was personalized floor mats. The blank substrate cost about $6.00, and I would spend about $1.00 worth of ink decorating it for a customer, who would pay $35.00 retail for the finished product. It was a nice markup for a useful product that people loved. The mats offered non-slip rubber backing (perfect for the wet environment on a boat) and washability without fading the design. These mats became very popular in my target market, and enabled me to develop an entire line of products targeted to a wide variety of boat owners
While I initially targeted this niche market, you can also create niches based on a certain product that can be marketed to multiple markets. Our custom floor mats are a good example of this. They not only appeal to boaters, but also to RV owners, business owners, home owners, etc.
Once you have an idea of the specific market that you wish to focus on, look at the size of it. Is it worth a targeted effort? Don’t limit your scope to the local area. Think on a national or global scale. The idea is to grow this niche into something that can provide a positive stream of good-quality revenue for many years.
One of the key things about a niche is that as you immerse yourself into it and develop some exposure, so that people will spread the word about who you are and what you offer. Most niche markets have internal networks, so if you really do have unique products that are niche centric, your clients will share information about them with other members of the market. Eventually, people will start coming to you instead of you having to approach them (which is the ultimate goal).
Almost every niche has sub-niches - other related markets that you can pursue. Identifying them may transform what initially appeared to be a tiny marketplace into a much broader scope of sales opportunities. Make a list of other prospects that you can go after using the same or similar samples and sales presentations.
For example, when I first targeted the recreational boating market, I envisioned boat owners as one group of people. Then, I found that they really fall into several distinct sub-groups: fishermen, sailors, water sports enthusiasts, cruisers, liveaboards and charters.
Once I developed a solid strategy for boaters, I started to focus on fishermen. I discovered freshwater fishermen in the U.S. had a completely different set of characteristics than do saltwater fishermen. Those in the saltwater group typically name their boats and invest a lot of money in buying products personalized with their boat name. This was right in line with what I was already doing.
However, freshwater fishermen rarely name their boats, which took out personalization as a sales pitch angle. Most of them belonged to clubs and enjoyed showing off their prized catches. This information enabled me to focus on pitching club-branded apparel and photo products to this market.
While my initial offerings were successful, they have evolved as I learn more about these clients. Both groups want realistic fish designs that can be applied to a wide variety of products. Photos rarely capture the details they’re looking for, because fish change color after they come out of the water. To address this, I enlisted a graphic artist to create designs that were unique to the niche and unique to me.
In many cases, these images are applied to common products, like coffee mugs or t-shirts, which aren’t unique substrates. But because the artwork is unique, it makes the product unique. The artwork itself is the product and the substrate is just the surface that displays the artwork.
The ends result is that I have a different set of samples, sales pitches and pricing for each sub-group of fishermen. This in turn has generated higher margins and more sales.
Growing niche sales means constantly having fresh new product ideas to show your clients. Essential questions to ask: What are their needs? Where are the product gaps? Can you develop a new product that appeals to the clients in the market?
If you are selling products to resellers, do they open new windows of opportunity for these businesses to pull in new customers? If you can show them how to make more money with your products, you in turn will make more money for yourself. Thus you always want to have new, unique and different products to offer.
Niche products can include unique substrates, designs or even services. In the world of sublimation, there are literally hundreds of blanks that can be decorated quickly and easily -- everything from to flip flops to thermometers to cookie jars. The question is, which are right for YOUR business.
If your niche market is saltwater fishing, you might consider offering boat names on fishing lures as one of your products (yes, they exist!). A similar product that features the name of a business - most likely one that engages in fishing activities or sells fishing products - could work for the promotional products niche, too.
If your niche is pet products, then personalized food bowls would be a big hit. You could easily create packages of personalized items that might include bowls, collars, leashes, pet clothing, etc. Make sure you don’t forget about the humans who love their pets. Owners like to show off their furry babies. Personalized products like apparel, holiday ornaments, photo gifts, mobile device covers, coasters, mouse pads, laptop sleeves and more, let them celebrate their pets at home, work and play.
Some niches will be design or artwork oriented. The souvenir market is a good example. While the substrate may be important, typically it’s the graphics that are making the sale. In the case of souvenirs, the end-user is looking for a memento of their trip. A photo or graphic that captures that moment is essential. Typically text will be used as well, but ultimately it’s the image that is the center of focus.
When choosing substrates, many of them can be repurposed for a different type of applications. For example, with the memorial products niche, jewelry boxes can serve as personalized cremation urns. It should be noted though that manufacturers are now offering substrates that serve this purpose based on the jewelry box concept.
Once you have some ideas about the types of products that will appeal to your niche, it’s time to consider profitability. The key for making a good profit is to have images that are unique to you - meaning the client can’t buy products with those images from anyone else. This is where creativity and artistic ability can make a real difference.
For example, anyone can take a picture of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and put it on a photo panel. How can you do this same thing uniquely AND in such a way that stands above the rest? Keep in mind, if you are selling this to a souvenir shop owner, they, too, are looking for something that sets them apart from their competition. Thus the more unique your product is, the more likely it will catch their attention.
While you could conceivably make money with a very unique interpretation of a world-famous structure, like the Eiffel tower, it is also very limiting in terms of market size. Obviously it only works for souvenirs in Paris, and you will be in fierce competition with others who are constantly taking new pictures with different interpretations of the structure.
Some of the best images for making a profit with a niche are ones that can aren’t necessarily limited by geographical regions. If you have great images of horses, they can be used across the entire spectrum of the equestrian market. Images of aircraft also have very few limits in terms of geography. Guy Harvey created an empire based on fish designs. While the products are important, it’s the images that make his company so unique and more importantly, profitable.
Regardless of what your niche is, one huge key to making sales is having a high-quality set of samples focused on showing off what you have to offer. In addition, your samples should encourage larger orders by having multiple unique pieces that are interrelated. Remember, your clients don’t know what you can do until you show them. Even if they only ask to see a single piece, make sure that you bring along several other products to open their eyes and expand your sales potential.
Once you have a good-quality list of product ideas, start turning them into samples. Focus on samples that can be shown to multiple customers, and be prepared to modify or update your samples as you develop your niche. Though you may have to invest a sizable amount of money and time into your sample kits, this is a critical step for making sales.
Let’s use a real example. Going back to my niche of personalized boat products, here is a list of samples that I put together based on a single boat logo. I did this so that customers could see a nice collection of items that were available for their boat and would encouraged to buy more pieces: coffee mug, serving tray, hand towel, wine bottle caddy, beverage insulator, coaster, baby bib, soap dispenser, etc.
In reality, there were many more products I could have showcased, but this was a good starting point. Each of these products had the same logo because my intent was to broaden a sale by letting the client see how the graphics tied all the product ideas together.
Ultimately, you will want to create targeted groups of samples for each niche and sub-niche that you are pursuing. Always be on the lookout for new products that you can add to the initial base set. Your samples need to be fresh, exciting and different. The graphics need to be eye-catching and should include photo images where possible, as this helps set sublimation apart from many other forms of decoration.
When creating samples, you should avoid using real logos and/or brands, as this can work against you in some cases. For example, if you had the business logo of a well-known company on a group of promotional products and then showed them to a competitor of that company, it might have a negative effect on the client. Same thing is true for fan wear and spirit products. In most cases it's best to create a fictitious entity for your product samples.
On the other hand, it’s ok to have a portfolio of completed client projects, provided your customers approve of you doing so. This can be showcased via pictures in an album or an online slideshow.
Just as important as showing your products is developing the right pitch. Many times, your words alone will determine the perceived value of the product, so invest some time into creating a script that positions your product at the highest level of value possible. There are no magic words here. What you say and how you say it will be determined by the niche itself, which is another reason why research is vital to being successful with your sales.
It’s said that a product is only worth what someone will pay for it.These are words to live by when crafting your sales pitch and setting prices. Margins are controlled by perception of value on the customer’s part. If someone thinks your product is worth $100, then they may be willing to pay that amount for it. If they think it’s only worth $10, then that is the maximum they will pay for it. Your challenge is to find out the perceived value for specific products in your markets.
If you know your customer, because you researched the market, then you are in a better position to create appealing products that will generate higher markups. This is because you are catering to their wants and needs. And by the same token, you will be able to generate the right sales pitch to ensure the highest perceived value of the product and/or service.
The first thing for you to understand is that you aren’t selling sublimation - and for the most part, you aren’t selling products either. You’re really selling something that fulfills the needs of the niche.
What do you see in the picture to the right? A sublimated water bottle? Wrong! This is a billboard for promoting someone’s business, summed up in one simple word: advertising.
Too many times, we don’t place the appropriate emphasis on what it is that we are actually selling. A mouse pad is a boring product. Saying you sell sublimated mouse pads means means nothing to the customer. Saying you sell products that can promote and advertise your potential client’s business fulfills a need, as promotion is an essential part of growing a business.
In marketing terms, this approach is referred to as “spinning,” which basically means elevating an everyday item to superstar status by changing the context in which you frame it. A customer really needs a good reason to spend money with you, so you have to come up with a compelling reason as to why they should.
Simply stating that you produce good-quality products at a great price is not usually an exciting sales approach. Just putting their logo on an everyday promotional product, may not make you very unique. Your goal is to figure out how to set yourself apart. If you are going to target small business, you need to find some unique approaches and that means digging deeper. So let’s do that.
Most businesses already use promotional products as advertising tools. The concept is that if they give out products to their customers and potential clients, they are getting their name out in front of people. This is an effective tool, IF those products get seen by hundreds of other people. Thus, the first characteristic of a good-quality promotional product is that it gets seen. Look for products that serve that need, that is usable and does not get shoved into a desk drawer or discarded.
Effective promotional products also need to make a connection to a company, brand or product. Most are nothing more than a logo, which may mean nothing to someone not familiar with the organization. For example, what does Hillside, Inc. do? They happen to be a real estate company, but their name and logo don’t convey that very well. If you were to integrate a photo onto the product along with the logo, then the product would tell a story, which would make it have a higher perceived value.
Sally Anne’s is a fast food restaurant that delivers. The company name says very little about what it does, but an image of a burger says a lot. In fact, it can make the user of this mouse pad hungry just by looking at it. To capitalize on this reaction, Sally Anne’s has provided a menu and contact information right there for users to act upon when their bellies start to rumble. This is a “call-to-action,” and its inclusion on the mouse pad makes this a very powerful promotional product.
Another way to guarantee that a product gets used (and therefore seen) is to personalize it with a name. Something like a coffee mug with the company logo and the client’s name on it is a fantastic promotional product, as it will likely get used for many years.
Focusing your sales pitch around concepts like these helps you sell your products. And the only way to develop these angles is to understand the market and create unique solutions to fulfill its needs.
Knowing exactly who you want to reach and what the appropriate message should be enables you to spend your promotional time and money wisely. Instead of spending a lot of time and money on hit or miss options that are spread out across a large segment of clients with no common thread, you’re targeting exactly whom you need to hear your messages.
Face-to-face sales are always one of the best solutions for reaching your niche, when practical. Ensure you have a specific set of samples with a specific pitch, then search for individuals or organizations that fit your niche. Work on approaching them, even if it means “cold call” sales. And remember that your chances will be improved because you have a focused approach, rather than a general pitch.
Trade shows and events that cater to your niche can also be useful. One of my best approaches for the boating niche is mobile production at major boat shows. We provide “while-you-wait” personalization services. Not only do we make money, but we also generate a lot of exposure. I really like being able to talk one-on-one about my products and services. In addition to bringing in new clients, this approach has also helped us land some major accounts with large corporations.
However, it should be noted that the effectiveness of mobile production is only as good as the event. Some events netted very little return on our efforts/investment, while at others, we did quite well. Over time, we tried different venues and were eventually able to find some excellent events to participate in over and over again.
Exposure and acceptance work hand-in-hand. With the boating and fishing niches, we donated items to nonprofits associated with the niche. This earned us a spotlight and widespread appreciation for “giving back.” Our goal became total immersion in the market, so that we were part of it, not just a vendor. It took years of effort, but it has definitely paid off.
Joining your local chamber of commerce is also a simple task that can have some nice benefits - if you pursue it correctly. First of all, you get a member list – which equals sales leads! But to really make it pay off, be active in the affairs of the organization so that you get your name out in front of other people and organizations.
You can also use online methods, as most niches have active networks and are engaged in social media. Finally, don’t expect overnight results. This should just be seen as one of many tools to keep your name in front of people.
There are many entrepreneurs doing quite well with niche markets. In fact, most of the really successful companies got there via this route. It’s not a magic solution, but it is a realistic approach for utilizing your resources. There are so many great markets, products, applications, etc., that can pay off if you take the time to research, develop and test market your ideas.
Look, listen and implement! Nothing is an overnight success. You have to start somewhere and then learn from your mistakes. Most niche markets will guide you if you have an open mind and plenty of patience.
Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has over 25 years of product decoration business experience. He has extensive knowledge in many facets of digital decorating and embellishing, including: business startup, applications, techniques, marketing, sales, mobile, production and management. Jimmy is currently Sawgrass' Education Manager.
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