I’ve always been of the opinion that success as a freelance writer comes easiest when you have a well-defined niche to target. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but at least initially, having a target market dramatically improves your odds of success — more so in 2020 that any other time.
But as you sort through the long list of potential freelance writing niches, you’ll discover that it’s not an easy decision to make.
Your search for an answer will, in most cases, result in questions and self-doubt that leaving you confused and frustrated.
I’ve seen people take weeks and even months before finally choosing a direction. And the “expert” advice you read today will contradict the advice you read across yesterday.
Maybe some of the following rings a bell:
When getting started, stick to the evergreen niches like finance and healthcare.
Pick a few niches to specialize in. That way, if one fails, you won’t have to start from scratch.
Let your niche develop over time. When you first start you’ll have to take what you can get.
Technically, there is nothing wrong with any of this advice. It’s worked for other people and it might work for you. But in the highly saturated freelance writing market, is following the same path as other aspiring freelance writers going to set you apart from the crowd?
If you’re in search of long-term success as a freelance writer, there’s a better approach.
This post is a little on the long side at just over 4000 words but I think you’ll find it valuable. It’s not all-inclusive — there’s a lot more to learn — but there’s enough information and detail here to help you come to a conclusion.
My goal with this post is to teach you how to evaluate a potential freelance writing niche so that you can make your own educated decision. After you read this post, you’ll be able to stop relying on someone else’s advice and have confidence that you’ve selected the right niche.
Walking a Mile in Your Shoes
I understand exactly what you’re going through because I’ve been in your shoes — I still am actually. When I started as a freelance writer I knew almost nothing. I wasn’t an amazing writer (still aren’t) and I’ve never made as much as others in the same or similar niches.
However, with over 20 years of small business experience, I’m not new to this idea of selecting a niche. I know first-hand just how challenging and nerve-wracking the process can be. There is so much regurgitated and trite advice that says “pick a topic you love” or “pick 3 and see what works, because hey, picking one is dangerous”
In my experience, selecting a niche doesn’t have to be a complicated process. But at the same time, it’s not as simple as dart at a dartboard either.
“Bingo! Healthcare is my niche.”
If only it were that simple, right?
Personally, I’ve spent hours, days and even months trying to refine and clarify my target market in a variety of different businesses. Really understanding who your customer is can be a mind-numbingly frustrating process. Seriously.
Over time I’ve discovered a few important things that you need to keep in mind while working through this process and that’s what we’re going to focus most of our energy on. Things like:
- Playing the long game — Understanding your skills and passions. I’ll assume you have a solid grasp of this subject although we’ll talk about how passion plays an important role in your overall success.
- Understanding why niche selection is so difficult – The importance of developing both a short and long-term approach to your career as a freelance writer.
- Why selecting a freelance writing niche is so important and how it really no different than any other business.
- The specific tools and techniques you can use to assess potential niches and things you should definitely avoid.
If you are in the process of getting started as a freelance writer, you’ll want to read through this whole post. If you’re just looking for help on a specific topic, feel free to jump ahead to the most appropriate section.
Before you get started there is one caveat to be aware of:
Your inclination to skip one of the sections below is usually a sign that the subject matter is something you don’t want to deal with. It’s a sign that you need to work on the exact thing you’re determined to avoid.
Filter with caution is all I’m saying — you might be skipping the content which is most likely to help your writing business.
Play The Long Game
Creating a long-term game plan is one of the smartest things you can do to ensure success in your freelance writing career.
Give up on the idea of overnight success because, for the most part, those stories aren’t 100% forthcoming or entirely true. People love to talk about where they are today but rarely the 3-5 years of tough slugging that came beforehand.
My experience with creating a freelance writing income in the WordPress niche is a great example. It seems like it happened overnight but that’s not entirely true. What you didn’t hear about, are the 8+ years I spent learning about WordPress, plugins, themes and various hosting companies before I even wrote my first word.
You can set yourself up for success by accepting that you’re playing the long game. You’re building a business, one brick at a time.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to make an income right away as a writer — especially if you’ve got some talent. But in the short term, you’ll probably end up doing some writing with the sole objective of making ends meet.
Why Selecting a Niche Is So Difficult
I truly believe that this is one of the most important sections of this post. Selecting a writing niche is one part technical, two-parts mental.
The biggest obstacle you’re facing is yourself.
Cutting right to the chase, odds are, the number one reason you’re struggling to pick a niche is that you’re afraid.
You’re afraid to be wrong.
After all, nobody likes to be wrong. I struggle with the same challenge every time I make a business decision. A few of the thoughts that run through my mind:
- What if I’m wrong about this decision?
- If I invest a lot of time and effort into this website and nobody visits it, then what?
- Will people think less of me if I fail?
- What if I spend a lot of time on this project and it fails?
- What if by focussing on this business, I’m missing out on a more important opportunity?
What you’ll discover is that these thoughts are completely normal — they are part of the process. But when you’re in the thick of trying to make an intelligent decision, it feels like you’re the only person on the planet facing this challenge.
Roger Jones from Vintage Hill Partners published a post in Harvard Business Review that discussed what CEOs are afraid of. He conducted a survey of 116 individuals and found that the most common fear was being found to be incompetent. The other most common fears were underachieving, appearing vulnerable and appearing foolish.
Having skin in the game can make the process even more challenging. What if you plan on using freelance writing to put food on the table for your family? If you make the wrong choice, will you feel like you’ve let them down?
It’s important to see how this negative self-talk can spiral out of control. Condemning you to an endless loop, where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
If fear, worry or regret are stopping you from selecting a niche, it’s time to take control.
You need to get to a place in your relationship with yourself where it’s ok to be wrong. It’s ok to make mistakes. In fact, over your lifetime, you may as well accept that you’ll probably be wrong more often that you’re right. And that’s perfectly normal.
Choices that seem poor in hindsight are an indication of growth, not self-worth or intelligence ~ James Clear
So what are some specific steps you can take to overcome this fear? I’ve got two suggestions, both of which I have I’ve found beneficial:
- Start surrounding yourself with positive influences. People, podcasts, books, blogs, videos and courses. The more the better.
- Hire yourself a business coach. I can say with relative certainty that any coach who has or had a successful business, will have dealt with these exact fears at one time or another and can help you overcome yours.
Also, check out this great Ted Talk by Kathryn Schulz On Being Wrong.
The Truth About Selecting a Freelance Writing Niche
Every single venture that I’ve been involved in, both online and offline, targeted a specific niche. Let me give you two examples:
In my early 20’s and I had a choice: go back to school or start a business. I chose to start a business.
Luckily it was a franchise which was a great way to learn the basics of running a business. Almost everything I needed to know was as outlined in a detailed manual chock full of SOPs.
The SOPs made the process easier but most important was that the business targeted a very specific market.
Although our business was in the landscaping industry, we tackled a very specific problem within that industry. You see, many homeowners wanted a green healthy lawn but lacked the expertise or time to do it themselves. We offered about six specific lawn treatments. Every one of which helped to keep their lawn looking beautiful, green and healthy.
We didn’t cut grass or prune trees — those were someone else’s niche (less profitable and more labor intensive). As a result of being specialized, the business was generally profitable and simple to run.
The second example is from my early 30s. For most of my life, I had a fascination with the financial markets — equities in particular. My passion for the stock market led to me pursuing a 10-year career as a licensed equities trader.
If you know anything about the stock market, you know that there are a million ways to make or lose money. For almost the entire 10 years that I was trading, I focused on a single specific niche called risk and statistical arbitrage.
For a long time, it was a profitable way to trade and as long as you stuck to what you knew, it was possible to generate a consistent income.
Eventually, the niche disappeared and I was unable to successfully pivot but that’s a story for another day. My point is that specializing in one specific type of trading resulted, for many years, in a consistently profitable business.
So how does this relate to freelance writing?
Freelance writing is a business — not unlike any other business.
Most businesses are more successful business when their efforts are focused.
Being a generalist might work (who am I to say otherwise) but I think you’ll find it to be significantly more challenging, less rewarding and less profitable.
Note: Just because you’ve selected a niche, doesn’t mean you can’t pivot at some point in the future or expand upon your offerings. This isn’t a lifetime decision you’re making.
You need to quit trying to cover all the bases just because you’re afraid of making the wrong decision. If things doesn’t pan out, pivot into something more appropriate.
What’s magical about this whole process is that by getting started, you’ll gain experience, discover new ideas and have time to refine your business.
How to Choose a Great Freelance Writing Niche
Now that you understand both the challenges and importance of selecting a niche, there are a few more questions that we need to answer:
- With thousands of potential niches available, how do you pick the one that’s best for you?
- What’s the difference between a great writing niche and a mediocre one?
- How can you assess a potential writing niche before you take the plunge?
The answer isn’t always obvious but with a little research and assessment, you’ll be able to increase your odds of starting off on the right foot.
Passion Outranks Profit
The dilemma is, are you better to pursue passion or profit?
With a little digging, you can find some extremely profitable and in-demand niches. And chances are, you’ve also got a list of topics that you’re passionate about.
But how do you decide between one or the other?
Is there a right or wrong choice? Is it possible to find a middle ground?
In the short-term, it’s ok to write strictly for money. You’ve got bills to pay, right?
When you first start, there is no sense in putting your ego first or deciding you’re above writing about boring topics. That kind of mentality will decrease your odds of success.
It’s like the aspiring actor living in Hollywood who decides waiting on tables is beneath them. Nobody is entitled to success — you’re going to have to earn this.
At the end of the day, though, passion is what will keep you motivated until the money arrives — it’s what gets you up early in the morning and keeps you awake late at night. Passion is also something that readers will pick up on in your writing. If you’re truly passionate about a topic, your enthusiasm will show through and keep readers coming back for more.
To summarize: In the short-term, write to pay the bills but make sure you’re also working a long-term plan in a niche that you’re passionate about.
How to Identify a Profitable Freelance Writing Niche
It’s true that there are some evergreen niches like finance and health. If you’ve got the knowledge and desire to make your mark in one of these fields, go for it. Just be aware that there is no shortage of competition — they are often the first place that everyone else looks as well.
If you’ve decided to pass over those two options, don’t worry, there are plenty of great niches out there. You can find a list of 200+ freelance writing niches over on Horkey HandBook.
Once you find a niche that sparks your interest and looks like it might be profitable, there are some specific things you can look for.
Consider the following criteria:
1. Is There Adequate Search Volume?
A good first step is to determine whether or not there is adequate interest in your niche. Try using a tool like Ahrefs or KWFinder to look at the keyword volume and get a feel for how robust the list of potential topics might be.
Let’s try an example using “Digital Marketing”. We’re going to target The United States but you could another specific location if desired. In this example, we’ll use KWFinder.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there aren’t many specific ideas to write about. That’s because “Digital Marketing”, although there is plenty of search volume, isn’t a niche. It’s a vertical that contains many different niche markets.
In this instance, we’re going to get more specific. For example, Facebook marketing is a topic that has considerable search volume. Content marketing is another great example. A quick look at either of these niches reveals plenty of sub-topics and target keywords.
I’d recommend that you spend a little time filtering through niches that are of interest to you. What you looking for are clear indicators that other people are interested in the same topic and that there are plenty of things for you to write about.
There is one situation where it might be acceptable to consider writing about more than one niche:
If your freelance writing niches fall within the same broad category you can still make things work. For example, if you’re writing about social media marketing and break that down into Facebook and Instagram, you’re probably still ok. This is very different than trying to tackle “social media marketing” and “alternative healthcare” at the same time.
2. Beware of “Flash in the Pan” Niches
The last thing you want to do is pursue becoming an expert in a niche only to have it vanish 12 months later. This is actually a really simple concept and it easy to assess using Google Trends. Let’s look two obvious examples:
Look at the relative stability of a topic like “Content Marketing”. You could probably dive into a niche like this without worrying too much about medium-term stability.
Now, let’s assume you’re also passionate about Pokemon Go (don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone). How stable do you think that trend will look? You can see right away that this is a high-risk niche — interesting to write about today and maybe gone tomorrow.
3. Is There Proven Demand for Content?
The next important consideration it whether or not there is a proven demand for content. Not just from an audience perspective but from a paying client perspective. Keep in mind that content can take on a wide variety of formats including:
- Blog posts or print articles
- Ad and Sales copy
- Website content
- Explainer video scripts
- Sponsored posts and more
If there is an obvious demand for content, then you’re on the right track.
4. Follow the Money
If you want to make money writing in your chosen niche. It’d be nice if you had a long list of clients to help facilitate that process, right? This is an area where a lot of people go wrong.
Let’s say you’re a stay at home parent. After spending all day with your kids you might start thinking that parenting is a great potential niche. But is it?
In some ways it is. However, there are also a few problems to be aware of. Although it’s a popular and well-searched topic, there are plenty of websites in the niche which are happy to accept your contributions, for free.
But writing for free is no way to make money.
This doesn’t mean you can’t start a parenting blog that earns you money via ad revenue or sponsorships but for now, you’re looking for clients. And your clients must have a need for content and an audience that consumes that content.
5. Are There Paid Advertisers Within Your Niche?
If there are plenty of products, services and advertisers within your niche, it’s a positive sign.
Chances are good that those companies will want to attract new customers in one way or another. These days, content marketing is what is helping them accomplish their objectives.
Another thing to look for is affiliate offers within your niche. One of the most common ways for affiliates to generate sales is by providing valuable content to their target audience.
6. Are There Authority Websites or Influencers in Your Niche?
Look for authority websites and influencers within your niche — learn a little about the people who will be publishing the content you’re creating.
Let’s take a look at another quick example of how you might accomplish this.
When I got started writing in the WordPress niche, I was lucky to land a few initial clients. Then I started doing some research and discovered that there were plenty of niche websites who might be interested in hiring me.
How did I accomplish this?
Heading back to KWFinder, I looked more closely at a search term like “best WordPress themes”. With plenty of search volume, I turned to Google. What I found was a long list of websites targeting the exact phrase and plenty of variations.
I began investigating the websites that were showing up in the search results and found exactly what I was looking for.
Many of them were using freelance writers to create content.
Also, many of the sites I looked at had a “write for us” page which is another great sign. I got even more excited when I started researching the individual freelance writers who had bylines.
Many of them had rates posted on their personal websites. This meant there was a good chance they were being paid well for their knowledge and skill. Of the published rates I could find, many of the freelance writers in the WordPress were charging healthy rates.
You should definitely spend some time researching the websites and authors in your niche. If all you can find is “write for us and we’ll give you exposure”, there might not be enough demand for paid content.
7. Does Your Niche Help to Solve a Problem?
Another sign that your niche is viable is if the content you produce helps to solve a problem. Especially if solving that problem involves selling something. If the clients you’re pitching have a way to generate profits, there is a much better chance they’ll be able to afford to pay you for content.
This is also an area where your passion can become a determining factor. You want to be compensated for your time and effort. But the only way you’ll be able to stick to your niche for the long-term is if you feel like you’re having a positive impact through the content you’re creating.
Whether it’s for your own website or for clients, content needs to have a genuinely positive impact on your readers. Good intentions and great content trump profit in the long run.
A Few Success Stories
Everybody loves real-life examples right?
Seeing other freelancers who have been successful in a niche can provide a necessary boost of confidence when getting started.
My friend Gina Horkey is an example of someone who’s writing career began in the personal finance niche after a career as a financial adviser. From there, she eventually branched into helping other aspiring other freelance writers (including myself). These days, Gina and I are working together to take Horkey Handbook to the next level and she is a great example of how your business can grow when you put helping other people first.
Joe Fylan at Joe Can Write was one of a few people who helped me get started working as a freelance WordPress writer. He’s established himself as one of the go-to writers in the WordPress space and is featured on many popular WordPress blogs.
Since we used Facebook marketing as an example of a potential niche, I’d be remiss not to use Jon Loomer as an example of someone who’s established himself as a social media expert. While most of the writing he does is for his own blog, you’ll also find his content on sites like Social Media Examiner. You should also take a look at his early posts. It’s a great example of how content can evolve over time and how your niche does not always need to be crystal clear right from day one.
Finally, one more example of a personal finance expert is Zina Kumok. You’ll find her content in places Investopedia, Intuit, Associated Press and The Washington Post, not to mention her own website. Her story is an example of how your niche can change over time. Zina, who has a degree in journalism, started as a sports writer before launching a blog to share her experiences with paying off student debt.
Don’t Be Afraid of Being Wrong
The criteria listed above should be more than enough to get you started. With a little research, you’ll be able to decide whether or not your niche has the potential to be profitable.
The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong. There are an enormous number of profitable writing niches out there, you just need to pick one and get started.
If you make the wrong choice the first time, correct your mistake quickly and move on. Consider it experience earned.
If you’re passionate about a topic, quit second guessing yourself. Spend a few hours performing research then jump in with both feet.
If you’ve picked a decent target market success is yours for the taking. All you have to do is put in the work, establish yourself as a go-to writer in your space and create above average content. Oh, and don’t forget to run your freelance writing business like a business.
Questions or comments about choosing a writing niche? Let’s hear ’em!
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