5 Reasons why marketing to everyone will kill your creative business

Does your website list a half dozen or more capabilities: logo design, website design, print, SEO, photography, video, PR?

Are you afraid of losing out on any opportunities that a client or prospect might bring you?

Perhaps you figure if you cast a wide net you’ll haul in more fish. Well, what anyone with a degree in sales or marketing can tell you is that this tactic not only fails to catch very much, it may actually be hurting your business.

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Here’s why:

1. Lowered credibility

The days of “full service” advertising agencies are over.

(This claim was dubious even before marketing channels began to segment into a million platforms.)

Today the idea that even a massive advertising agency can deliver true “full service” is absurd. So if they can’t do it, how could a staff of twelve or fewer – much less a solo freelancer – ever make such a claim?

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And even if you’re not claiming “full service,” when you list more than just a few capabilities, you’re not making an impression of broad competency. Rather, your first impression often produces incredulity and doubt.

Not a great starting point.

2. Obscured expertise

For the sake of argument, let’s assume you actually have delivered on each of the items on your long list of capabilities at one time or another.

Though you may be able to deliver on all of them, certainly there are a few items on your list where you really excel.

These items are your sweet spot. You enjoy them the most, you’re good at them, your clients appreciate your work the most, they have the biggest impact, and make you the most money.

But by listing everything you can potentially do for a client, you obscure the best things. Why make a prospect guess at which items on your long list are your real areas of expertise?

[Tweet “By listing everything you could potentially do for a client, you hide your specialty. #freelancing”]

3. Minimized experience

Not only does your true expertise get hidden when you cast a wide net, it also minimizes your experience.

If your business regularly delivers on six distinct areas of service, then your experience in each area is divided by six. Your actual experience in doing any of them is growing at one sixth the pace compared to a firm who does just one thing all day, everyday.

If a prospect really needs that one thing, which company do you think they would pick in a head-to-head competition?

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[Tweet “Generalists get paid. Specialists get paid better. #freelancing”]


4. Reduced efficiency

Efficiency is built by repeat performances.

Each time you build a website or produce a brochure, you learn a bit about the process and further refine your approach. You learn from mistakes and improve how you approach the next project. You learn the right questions to ask, and what pitfalls to avoid.

Since profit margins for most design firms can be quite slim (though they shouldn’t be), improving efficiency is one of the best ways to improve your margins.

But by changing gears after each job, alternating between web, print, logo, photography, video; you never do enough of the same kind of work to learn from mistakes and craft efficient processes to improve your bottom line.

Example: After the dot.com bubble burst and 9/11, my web development agency saw whatever work we could find carried budgets of about half as much as we were previously averaging. So we focused rigorously on process and building tools to improve efficiency. After lots of effort, we could eke out a profit margin even on those halved-budget projects.

When the market rebounded and budgets went back up, the differential was all profit!

5. Less effective marketing​

If you offer everything under the sun to just about anyone under the sun, where do you even begin with ​proactive marketing?

  • What companies do you research on LinkedIn?
  • What trade shows do you attend (or seek to speak at)?
  • What publications should you get mentioned in, or write for?
  • What kind of content do you post on your blog?

When every business in the whole world is a potential prospect, where do you start?

Under these conditions, all your marketing efforts or expenses are like chaff in the wind. And so you give up on them, and stick with passive marketing.

But when you take the passive approach, waiting for referrals or repeat business, you want to snatch any and all work that comes your way – which is probably why you set your net so wide in the first place.

If you focus your capabilities, and even focus in on who you perform those services for, you can begin to take control of your marketing and actively find the best clients, who value your expertise.  And it will be much easier to persuade them that you are the best fit for their needs.

[Tweet “If you offer everything under the sun, where do you even begin with ​marketing? #creativebusiness”]

But all this begins by ditching your wide net and choosing just a few (or better yet, one) areas of service to focus on.

The truth about specialization

Casting a wide net may make you feel like you’re going to haul in a large catch, but in fact it’s more like death by a thousand cuts.

Instead, become a skilled fisherman – one who knows exactly what spot, which lure, what time of day, and how deep to set the bait to catch the kind of fish he wants. He’s successful because he’s done it a thousand times.

Narrow your service offerings and you’ll find you actually get more bites, and much bigger fish.

Got a success story on how becoming a skill fisherman sparked your business? Share it in the comments!

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Millo Articles by Eric Holter

Eric Holter is a RISD alum ('91) who studied letterpress printing and wood engraving - this naturally led him to found a leading web development company. He is now a business consultant helping designers from freelancers to mid-sized firms. He can be contacted at RewardingToil.com.
Read more from Eric.

  1. Great article! I feel the reason we need to cast our nets wider is due to our work experience and industry demand. Before freelancing, I worked as a graphic designer for 20 years. I found that as technology and trends changed so did the expectation on me as a designer to be able to understand and deliver each of the new skills. There lies the reason why most of us end up casting the net wide. The issue I am having with specialising, is the interdependence of each of the skills or offering.

    For example : Graphic design and Marketing services. As a designer you have all the relevant skill to deliver a great service. However these two service cover many area. Graphic design, Brand, Print, Web, Social.. Like Eric says above

  2. Is it possible to create different websites marketing different skills? Seems to me that specialization is great … unless the work in that area temporarily dries up.

    1. Eric Holter says:

      Hi Rich. It is true that when you specialize in a niche, and that niche experiences a downturn, that you could be adversely affected. However, it’s usually the generalists that are most affected by downturns. Increased competition in a downturn tends to cause the less experienced generalists to fall off first–leaving the specialists even stronger.

      Of course you could diversify with a couple different brands, but keep in mind, your capacity to take on opportunities is always limited, and so however much you diversify you also dissipate your expertise, experience, and efficiency to the same degree.

  3. Derek Zinger says:

    My experience gels with Kim’s. Smaller clients have diverse needs, and prefer a single designer or agency do everything. I’d be curious to hear how others have dealt with this situation.

    1. April Greer says:

      This is a great opportunity to make some connections and subcontract out work you don’t personally want/have the ability to do. You can be your clients’ go-to designer that takes care of everything, but you don’t actually have to do everything.

      Everybody wins!

  4. Excellent article. I have found this out the hard way, I have too many ideas and too many talents. And I stretched myself so thin trying to do everything in the past 2 years. I pretty much took any job that came my way (especially when I started out). I have seriously cut back and even “fired” some clients that don’t fit into my new slimmed down offers. Thanks for the advise, it just confirms that I did need to change my business model, and I may have to cut a bit more.

    1. Eric Holter says:

      Thanks Samantha! Over the years I’ve had to continually refine, adjust, and focus more and more. In my experience the more focused and narrow a positioning I developed the more effective, easy, and profitable my company became. Even in my consultancy today I’m always thinking about how I can further refine my services. Thanks again!

  5. Kim Hougaard says:

    Hi Eric

    I get your point, and your spot on many freelancers (including myself 😉

    However there is also a lot of new small companies out there, who need a logo, website, business card and perhaps a small brochure. And I am pretty sure they will prefer, if they could get it all from the same company/freelancer.

    1. Eric Holter says:

      Hi Kim. That is a valid point and small companies do have those needs. And if you wanted to fill that niche in a professional and profitable way you could make your deliverables broader but be more selective in who you do them for and how you provide the services. For example, you could offer a suite of basic marketing materials but only for small business in a particular niche (doctors, tech start ups, schools, etc.). This would enable you to market more effectively and build efficiency. Does that make sense?

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