Carving out a niche in the design/build industry is essential
Over the course of my nearly 25 years in the outdoor design/build industry, I have listened to the owners and leaders of hundreds of companies across the country. Their top concerns always fall along these lines: How do we acquire the right amount — and more importantly, the right quality — of leads, and how do we cost-effectively turn those leads into jobs?
In response, the majority of digital marketing firms — those that work across all verticals — fire off a generic plan designed to increase web traffic, convert that traffic into leads, and yada yada. We’ve all heard this plan before, right? Those fundamentals are certainly relevant when executed properly, but the design/builds I speak with need something else that requires attention first. No matter the geographical service area, the annual revenue of the firm, or the colors of the brand, most firms are making the mistake of competing on the exact same playing field as their peers. Most are battling for the same group of customers as the others in their market and offering them the same services, while trying to use the same “differentiating” points as their competition.
The winner in a crowded, uber-competitive market is almost always, not surprisingly, the company that actually has something different to say. Sounds like Marketing 101? Yes, actually, but as the outdoor living industry has exploded, I’ve found this core truth to be incredibly overlooked in the design/build space. If it is not forgotten altogether, then it is executed poorly. Companies today, it seems, believe something like a certification is enough to set them apart. It was at one time, and education is certainly still a key asset to winning work. But having certifications — especially the exact same ones as your competition — is not nearly enough to make your company stand out—not anymore. The need to develop a laser-focused, effectively communicated niche is more important than ever for success. Before you spend marketing budget, time, and effort to reach your ideal prospect, you’d better have something interesting to say.
Knowing Your Differentiator vs. Flying Blind
At Halstead, we work with many companies that have either already leaned into their niche and are now looking for help in how to communicate it effectively, or that have come to us for “standard” digital marketing services without much thought of carving out a niche at all. Unfortunately, more often than not for design/build firms with less than a few million dollars in annual revenue, they feel pressure to cut proper strategy, creative work, and messaging development from the plan in hopes of allowing for more direct response ad spend. This, of course, is how we got to the current situation of so many companies being essentially “the same” in the first place. In the cases where the client is privy to — or the budget allows—the necessity of strategic niche development and then marketing, the outcome is wonderfully special and certainly much more effective.
So then, how does a design/build firm go about carving out a special place in the market? By asking some hard questions. What does your company do best? Where are you most profitable? What is your team happiest doing? When were YOU as an owner the happiest? Think back over the projects you’ve recently created and see which ones went smoothest and produced the happiest customers. Not just the “Yes, we liked the job you did” happy, but the “Wow, you guys blew us away and we’ve never had another company do this” kind of happy. The answer to those questions will provide clarity on where you should focus your efforts. Perhaps it is branching off as a landscape lighting specialist as a few companies that we work with at Halstead are doing, specifically in the Northeast USA. Perhaps it is something more lofty and ambitious, like improving the design/build model by reinjecting the landscape architect back into the residential market. This is the path one of our clients on the West Coast is pursuing. Whatever defining thing it is for you, your company has to find and double-down on it — it is a MUST to effectively stand apart from your competition.
Is It What You Do or Who You Want to Attract?
Perhaps your niche is that you focus and excel at truly proper landscape design — way more than any, or even the average, design/build in your area does. Your projects are for the discerning client who appreciates a professional in their field, and wants to create something unique in both functionality and beauty. We work with a premium landscape contractor in the Northeast owning this niche, and I can assure you that this is no “normal” approach to design/build. Partnering closely with the owner — let’s call him Jimmie — a super talented designer, entrepreneur, and all-around inspiring guy, Halstead worked to dial-in his unique market position and more effectively communicate it to an appropriate, laser-focused target market. As is sometimes the case with seasoned, experienced owners, Jimmie understands the value of owning a niche. He understands, and believes deeply, that if he tries to be something to everyone, he won’t be anything to anyone. And he lives it through and through — as do we at Halstead. So we worked together to create a digital marketing plan focused heavily on video content production and Facebook and Instagram ads. These marketing channels showcase the firm’s design-first approach to project development and highlights the benefits to their specific customers.
Over the years, Jimmie also worked to narrow in his geographical service area to a close range near his office. If enough work is close by to feed the pipeline, then why look to expand? Unless the service area is saturated or the work slows, stay close to home. I see it often where companies want to blanket a large area with social media ads or Google Ads, not realizing the concentrated efforts win almost every time. So, by analyzing Jimmie’s entire geographical area, we segmented out the zip codes into three tiers, if you will, of potential clients and job sizes. This means for the potential clients who are super close to their shop, Jimmie is willing to take slightly smaller projects, and he works outward on a radius (but still closer than many landscape firms, mind you) to potential clients where the HHIs, project values, etc., will need to be larger for the company to accept a project. And so, with the amazing targeting capabilities of Facebook and Instagram ads, we simply communicated to specifically labeled audiences in the surrounding area, while targeting the higher budgeting clients in farther out areas.
Something to remember: Whenever you change the target audience, it is critical you change the message. Many companies make the mistake of a one-message-fits-all, but success with social media, or any kind of marketing these days, is about getting super specific and initiating the audience with a creative match. A very simplistic way this, tactically, works out is we change the image of the ads (with copywriting being a huge element to success) and base it on the wealth of the potential client. Large scale projects from large homes are shown to the wealthier targets, while simpler walkways and front entryway projects are shown to audiences with potentially smaller budgets. This is just one simple example of effectively matching creative to audience in the social feed.
Beyond attracting the initial lead, we also worked closely with Jimmie to ensure that the seemingly personalized experience the prospect was having continued. Working to match the expectations of busy, professional potential clients, while also trying to improve the sales process and cut down on wasted time for Jimmie, we next implemented scheduling software directly to their website. Think about it: Margins can be thin in the design/build world, and chasing after low quality leads is expensive. That’s why, alongside these communication/messaging changes, we also helped the company optimize their sales process. When I was in design and sales for many years, we would not even have a phone conversation before booking an in-person consultation, a crazy inefficient way to go about it. This is going back over 16 years, and it is certainly what most of the companies I worked with did at the time. I’m sure it has a lot to do with technological advances and the growth and explosion of the outdoor living industry in general, but the point is simple — own the niche all the way, through all the channels and touchpoints, with all potential clients.
Standing Out in a Crowded Market
Another case study worth noting, to demonstrate the power of niches, is a much smaller (but no less impressive) company. They came onboard — let’s call them XYZ Landscaping — for a website redesign with Halstead in spring 2019. They were a young company, having been in the works since 2016, and they were just beginning to communicate fully—and truly own—their niche. Their first project with all the elements of the niche being implemented on a project really happened in spring 2018, and since then it has been all uphill. Originally a deck builder by trade, the owner branched out to natural stone, paver, and wall work. Combining materials artfully is seldom done at scale without the use of a landscape architect in the residential sector in my opinion. At the heart of their unique style was the intersection — literally — of composite decking and concrete paver patios. XYZ designed projects where the materials added unique style, texture, composition, and color combinations, and they began to gain serious traction on social media as a result. By the time we were brought onboard to do the site, they had fully come into their own with a few “banner” projects that are the picture of outdoor living in 2019. In addition to the great combination of all the elements — composite decking, patios, walls, privacy screen walls, outdoor lighting, fire features, and more — XYZ had also become synonymous with a clean-lined, modern, circular-meets-right-angle style, and there could not have been a better time. The landscape industry was taking a turn from curves to modern, and now XYZ was at the forefront.
Now, this is where I tell you what makes them so successful. They do not do just any project. They do not do all projects. They specialize exclusively in this particular type of project, allowing them to build a brand and a name for themselves. And at the core of the website design was that very point. The website’s purpose was to effectively communicate this niche up front and rather loudly, and to educate the potential customer about how XYZ builds their projects and the process, the cost of their typical projects, and to ultimately prequalify online visitors before they reach out to the company. This saves the owner wasted time that he does not have to spare, and helps to deliver quality leads. Rather than a traditional email form as the point of inquiry, we implemented a custom online scheduling experience that included a thorough interview-style “form.” By the time the inquiry lands in the owner’s inbox, he has the first round of prequalifications out of the way. Now, for companies without a healthy lead funnel, this would be the exact opposite approach you want to take. The more questions asked on a form, the less likely a person is to complete it — that’s just a fact. So a company starving for work would need a less aggressive initial approach, keeping them open to as much potential work as possible. But for XYZ, a more selective approach is exactly what they need to further solidify their position, and to let the customer know “this is what we do; are you a fit for us?” It takes some of the “power” back from the lead, and makes them intrigued by how a company could be so forward with their approach.
In case you still doubt the necessity of having your own niche, Ambius, a landscape company in Reading, PA, tied at rank 15 in the 2018 Lawn & Landscape Top 100 issue. This list is a compilation of the best of the best by revenue of landscaping companies based in North America. One of the smaller companies ranked above 20, with just over 1,000 employees, Ambius is mostly competing with larger companies, but this is not what makes them stand out. It is their service offering. While a handful of companies landed at 2%-7% revenue from interior landscaping, Ambius ended that year with a whopping 97% of their revenue coming from interior landscaping, with a 100% of those projects being commercial. Ambius found their niche. With a handful of companies on the list even dabbling in interior landscaping, Ambius reduced their potential competition to less than 3 firms in the top 100 companies. Can you imagine standing out among your peers like that? With a well-developed brand, unique niche, properly targeted audience, and a strategy to communicate it all effectively, that is possible. It’s possible through the power of a niche.