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Today’s Protalk tip is brought to you by Jo-Anne Peck of Historic Shed.

I’ve spent most of my career as a Historic Preservation Consultant serving a niche market for government agencies and engineering firms meeting state and federal regulations. Marketing was minimal though, with most contracts obtained through established contacts or in response to formal Requests for Proposals. However, things changed dramatically in the marketing department for us a few years ago when my husband and I decided to branch out and start a custom shed manufacturing business.

The idea to build custom sheds came from one of our consulting jobs. We had been hired to work on a highway improvement project that ran through the middle of a National Historic Landmark District. The project required that 64 historic homes be moved out of the way of the highway and rehabilitated. Built mostly in the 1910s, few of the houses had sheds or garages on the property. People loved the rehabilitated homes with their high ceilings, beadboard walls and built-in cabinets, but the one complaint that we heard was that they had no place to store their lawn equipment. Knowing that the local historic preservation board would not allow any of the standard pre-manufactured sheds within the historic district, we realized that there was an untapped niche market in our area. We also knew that we were perfectly skilled to fill that market for historic homeowners with my preservation design experience and my husband’s contracting background.

So far, it has been an interesting experiment, and one that has been more fulfilling than expected. However, there has been a big learning curve. Many of our early plans and assumptions have had to adjust as we’ve learned more about our customers’ needs and the realities of building and transporting shop-built structures. The biggest hurdle though has been to let everyone know that a previously unavailable product now exists. Luckily, with our previous consulting business, we know which historic neighborhoods to market to, and have many people who already respect our knowledge. The trick has been to learn how to market in a way that speaks to them.

Here are a few basic things we have learned about marketing a custom product to a niche market:

  • Be clear about what added features or functions you are offering. Figure out how to explain this value to your customer in a straightforward way. It may be obvious to you how what you are offering is better than the norm, but to the customer who is not intimately aware of your business, it needs to be clearly stated.
  • Speak the language of your niche customer. Know the terms that appeal to them and show that you are not an outsider.
  • Do not try to be all things to all people. Focus your product/ service message and target your advertising. That is the point of finding a niche.
  • Be open to tangential markets that may also be interested in your product or services, but be careful not to get sidetracked (for us, it has been artists looking for attractive backyard studios, regardless of the age and style of home they own). Also, notice potential submarkets within your niche and consider tailoring your services or products to meet their needs (for example, there is a growing group of urban chicken farmers within the historic districts in our area, making custom chicken coops a potential product for us to offer).
  • Avoid the ‘lowest price” marketing mentality. As the adage goes, you can compete on price, quality or service, but never more than two at a time. When you serve a niche market, quality and service are the basis of your business.
  • Avoid sales and discounts. Sales devalue the product and make existing customers feel taken advantage of. Price things fair for both you and the customer. If you feel the need to have an incentive, try offering a bonus product, an upgrade, or a follow-up service.
  • Find a way to display yourself differently from the other guys. Make your product packaging, ads and website stand out and reflect your higher standards.
  • Ask for referrals. Once you find an ideal customer that fits your niche, there is a good chance that they know someone else with similar interests or needs.
  • Find complementary companies that also serve your market and see if you can team up. It may be as simple as allowing your brochures to be placed on their sales counter or adding links on each other’s websites. Or consider offering a combination package where both your services/ products are purchased together for cross marketing. For example, we could team up with a pond designer to offer a potting shed and custom pond package.
  • Find non-profits that serve your niche markets. Buy ads and sponsorships in their newsletters and event fliers when the opportunity arises. It reaches your market directly while reflecting positively on your company. Sometimes there is bonus PR. And often it is very reasonably priced.
  • Offer to write articles and blog posts for niche related websites and publications. It establishes you as an expert in customer’s minds.
  • Reevaluate periodically to make sure you are being clear with your message. We learned this lesson through our Facebook page. We thought we were doing great with our Facebook marketing, entertaining our growing pool of fans with photos of our sheds, along with historic images of other outbuildings, getting lots of Likes and Comments. Then we had a comment from someone who wrote, “I wish someone still built like this” under a photo of one of our sheds, thinking that it was a well-kept old shed. We now note “built by Historic Shed” under all photos of our work.

If you liked this post, stop by Historic Shed’s page and give it a like on Facebook.

by Miriam on Dec 5, 2012

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