Bradley Bloch

Niche Marketing and Thought Leadership

In today's business climate, niche marketing is a compelling strategy. A targeted thought leadership campaign can play a key role in making that strategy a success.

July 11, 2011
by Bradley Bloch

The default rationale for attending professional conferences like the recent Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) Summit in Chicago is to learn new things and meet new people. And it's true, that I heard interesting presentations on topics from creative thinking to managing the business-development pipeline. But confabs like these are also useful because they make it fairly easy to stand back and take the collective pulse of the industry, to see what is dominating everyone's mind.

Not surprisingly, the undertone of this year's AAM Summit reflected the current economy, in which the recession is behind us, but a sustained recovery has yet to emerge. The result is an atmosphere that is in equal measure optimism and concern. On the one hand, there is a push to grab a larger share of the market pie, on the other hand, there is serious doubt that the size of that pie is growing. While the time for hunkering down in the foxhole is over, business development is considered a zero-sum game, or nearly so.
In that environment, you need both a good offense and a good defense. One strategy that provides both is niche marketing, which was the subject of an excellent presentation by Timothy Michel (former managing partner at New Philadelphia, Ohio-based CPA firm, Rea & Associates and current head of the Ohio-based consulting firm, Michel Consulting Group) and Katie Tolin (current marketing director at Rea), and which was also one of the topical roundtables into which we divided ourselves at one lunch. Developing and marketing specialized areas of firm expertise allows the firm to stake out turf within its market, build deeper relationships with the clients that fall within its niches and expand its client base with more authority.

But successfully implementing niche marketing requires navigating a slew of challenges ranging from maintaining a unified firm culture to establishing accountability with the partners in charge of each niche. At a more fundamental level, however, niche marketing puts the firm's expertise under a magnifying glass. Yes, it gives you the platform for more effectively leveraging the firm's intellectual capital, but you had better make sure that intellectual capital is there in the first place. So it was that Michel and Tolin emphasized the importance of defining from the start not just what a niche is, but what it isn't. Establishing a niche is more than a marketing strategy; it's a commitment to build the niche's bench strength.

In some ways, though, that commitment goes against the primal DNA of the CPA firm. As Michel pointed out, accounting firms first began as confederations of individual practitioners seeking safety in numbers and economies of scale. While certain resources and capabilities might be shared, the overall ethos was still eat what you kill — and kill everything in sight. But it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the market if you don't make that differentiation to yourself first.

A Great Equalizer

If defining and developing niches carries a cost, it can be a great equalizer for firms at the smaller end of mid-market cohort. During the lunch discussion on niche marketing, one marketing leader complained that their small, highly specialized firm is having to battle with the Big 4 constantly. While I'm sure that pressure from competitors with vastly larger resources is no fun, her complaint hid the fact that her firm's specialization has allowed it to battle far above its weight class.

One consequence of her problem/opportunity is that the canned thought leadership that firms of her size typically use isn’t appropriate — she knew instinctively that she couldn't showcase her firm's capabilities with generic materials, particularly given how “reputation sensitive” her market is. Across the table, her counterpart at another small firm said she wanted to start more aggressively marketing her firm's well-developed niches with some quality thought leadership, but those efforts were hampered by the fact that she was the firm's entire marketing department.

These two marketing leaders clearly saw the link between niche marketing and thought leadership — niches are predicated on the in-depth intellectual capital a firm has in one or more area, while thought leadership (white papers, surveys, webinars and so on) is the strongest possible way of communicating that expertise to your market.

Strategies for Success

Fortunately for them, thought leadership for niches is more about developing a good strategy than having a deep pocketbook. There's no reason why a small firm can't have world-class thought leadership if it focuses its efforts. In addition to the best practices that apply generally for thought leadership, there are points that call for particular emphasis when creating thought leadership campaigns for niches, no matter what the size of the firm is:

  • Choose strategically. Thought-leadership efforts are always vulnerable to being driven by the whims of individual partners and “topic of the day” thinking. Especially when it is tied to niche marketing, you need to begin by asking: “What is the issue we want to own in the marketplace?” Approaching the task in this way is likely to lead you to something that is both focused, yet substantial and with ongoing value.
  • Do a few things well. This naturally flows from strategic choice. Remember that your audience doesn't need more things to read, they need more insight. It's better to establish a real toe-hold, by, say, starting an annual industry survey or securing and executing a regular bylined column in an industry publication than it is to produce two white papers, a blog that peters out, and a couple of unrelated webinars.
  • Integrate. If you're doing a few things well, make sure you're getting everything you can from them with targeted public-relations efforts and business-development platforms that ensure that your message reaches its intended audience in multiple ways.
  • Replicate. When you find something that works with one niche, try to replicate it with the others. Resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. In addition to increasing your success rate, you'll be building a thought leadership brand that supports the entire firm.


By implementing the above marketing steps, your firm can become more successful in its niche practice.

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Bradley W. Bloch is president of Athlon, a New York-based consultancy that helps professional services firms design and execute effective thought-leadership campaigns.