From niches to networks
I am hereby retiring the word "niche" from my marketing lexicon
I'm still a bit stunned by how much the anti-niche essay last week resonated. Really struck a nerve with that one! 🧨
With that said, I think it's important to move beyond a simplistic understanding of this topic where "Niches = Bad." There is some rich, valuable, nuanced gold that lies buried in the world of niche strategy. Having a clear understanding of that territory can make us better marketers, entrepreneurs, and creatives. Even though I'm no longer doubling down on niche strategy with my work, it still absolutely influences how I think and make decisions.
In order for us to get into the juicy overlap between digital strategy and emergent culture, however, we're probably gonna have to retire the word "niche" from our shared vocabulary. Frankly, few of us are on the same page about what it means, and being precise with our language matters. That's how we begin to build a shared understanding of the world, instead of trudging through epistemic chaos and misunderstanding at all times. And right now, nothing about this word is precise or clarifying.
A few years ago, back when I was still actively trying to be The Niche Guy™, I wrote an article trying to clarify how I was using "niche" throughout all of my work. At the time, I saw the term being stretched to encompass more and more concepts, to the point where it became essentially meaningless. It's even worse today. If you ask 10 creators what "find your niche" means, you'll get 10 different answers, many of them contradicting one another.
Some people say your niche is the topic your work centers on. Others use it as a synonym for "personal brand." Some say it's about the format of your work, or the platforms you choose to create on. Many say niches are about your unique perspective, voice, or personality. From there, the concept gets stretched to include more traditional marketing concepts like positioning and differentiation in competitive markets. And some people, the biggest scoundrels of all, use the word "niche" to refer to some nebulous combination of all these things at once, often illustrated through some unwieldy quadruple venn diagram. Can you see how fucking chaotic and unwieldy this all is? Is it any wonder that many creatives have a mini existential crisis when told they'll never be successful until they find their niche?
In my lexicon, I always used the word "niche" to refer to a hyper-focused digital subculture. It's an emergent phenomena where people begin to congregate loosely around shared identities, stories, problems, or desires. This results in an observable digital ecosystem of communities, media, and commerce.
In other words, a niche is just a group of people who come together because they have something in common. And whenever I advised people to “find their niche,” what I was saying was "find a group of people you vibe with and want to consistently make stuff for." That was the heart of it.
For awhile, I planned to fight this battle in our linguistic landscape. Perhaps if I fought hard enough, I'd be able to swing everyone around to my definition, and restore harmony to the creator kingdom. But truthfully, that would be a Sisyphean nightmare. My life would be spent constantly trying to redefine a word that had already taken root in other people's minds. And even if I succeeded with a few people, the "creator economy" meme machine would always keep undermining those efforts, creating a never-ending hellscape of feeling misunderstood. Talk about a shitty use of one's life and energy lol.
So with that, I am proposing a new term for our shared vocabulary. Instead of referring to focused digital subcultures as "niches," let's use "psychographic networks" instead. Cool?
It's a bit jargon-y and technical, but I think it gets at the heart of a few important things.
We humans are driven by a small handful of emotional and psychological needs. The needs to connect, belong, solve problems, find meaning, grow. The needs for security and status, for novelty and exploration. When one of these needs becomes acute or salient in our life, we organically start searching for people, media, products, etc that promise to satiate that need. This has always happened to some degree. But in our digitally-networked world, that process gets supercharged, resulting in an emergent phenomenon where people are always networking themselves together based on psychosocial drives. When we need or desire something, we start looking for nodes within existing digital networks that can satisfy what we're looking for. When we do that, we become part of that network ourselves.
As a result of this totally natural process, our internet is essentially a living, evolving organism. It's a vast, ever-expanding collection of these psychographic networks, which always reflect the many ways we humans go about meeting our needs. These network tend to exist in a few predictable categories.
For instance, there are...
Identity-driven networks, centered around the labels people apply to themselves to create a sense of self, community, meaning.
Ideological networks, centered around any kind of totalizing worldview (this goes way beyond political ideology btw)
Pain/grievance-focused networks, and problem/solution networks
Networks that revolve around a high-profile person
Elon fanboys and haters are both their own unique psychographic networks lol.
And of course, just plain old friend and acquaintance networks
And there are probably more I'm not listing here. The point is, once you begin to see the internet through this lens, not only does it start to make more sense, but it makes nearly everything about the marketing and business process easier. It's like the difference between groping around in the dark and turning on the light.
Back when I was The Niche Guy™ I was convinced you had to commit yourself and your work to one particular network in order to succeed. And I still think that's a viable path for anyone who truly wants to devote themselves to one thing, and who understands the potential downsides of boxing yourself in like that.
But for the rest of us, we can use this understanding of human nature and digital networking to inform how we think about the process of finding the others and creating true fans. The Containers of Aliveness strategy isn't at odds with psychographic networks. These two ideas live alongside one another, and can inform each other. And for someone who’s being intentional about building a business, it makes sense to understand both, and strive to get the best of both worlds.
I've got plenty more to say about niches and networks and strategy. But for now, I gotta go make some breakfast and go for a walk. Until tomorrow, homies.
Rob's Daily Invitation
The first course I ever built for Ungated, back in early 2021, was called Find Your Niche. It was the culmination of all my years of being The Niche Guy™, and the best articulation of my thinking on the topic.
If you want to go deeper into this whole world of psychographic networks, you'll probably love that course. It comes with my entire strategic toolset for identifying and researching niches/networks, so that you can build an intentional business. Of course, you can ignore the parts of the course that say you have to identify just one niche. It'll help you identify a bunch of them, which you can fluidly weave your way between as you find the others and build your business.
Point is, it's still a great course, and it's available in The Frontier membership (along with a whole bunch of other courses and workshops and templates and such). The door's always open if you'd like to join us.
' our internet is essentially a living, evolving organism.' that's such a great way to look at it ! I am definitely reflecting back on my ever-morphing internet sphere which encompasses so many different nodes and points that another person may not connect with. Would make a very interesting visual actually...hm, now you've got me thinking!
One of the epiphanies I experienced in my work in platform strategy was focusing on a "role" as a design construct. A role is active and open-ended, as opposed to a passive customer. A role connects to other roles, collectively creating a vibe of ordinary people that create extraordinary things together, which again pulls in individual, cooperating creators, and platforms are here to support these networks... had to think of that when reading your piece!