On September 17, Michael Stelzner will go toe-to-toe with Peter Bowerman in the great Generalist vs. Specialist debate, via a free webinar.
They say fools rush in and I’m no exception, so even though the debate hasn’t even happened yet, I’m going to weigh in with my thoughts on this issue.
First, this isn’t about (or shouldn’t be about) talent. Any half-decent copywriter should be able to work well within a variety of industries and in a broad range of formats: print, web, direct, broadcast, collateral, content, etc. The real issue, then, is about positioning or marketing: what’s the stronger business model?
The obvious advantage of the generalist approach is reach: more industries and formats means more possible projects within a larger pool of prospects. But (and this is a big but) it’s a weak strategic position: a person who’s all things to all people means nothing to just about everyone. Tactically, it’s also troublesome. If your claim is broad, where do y0u target your efforts? At which prospects do you take aim? What kinds of content should you publish? In which forums, communities, associations should you be present? The generalist approach leads to a crippling diffusion of marketing efforts — which is why so many copywriters are spread thin without achieving traction anywhere.
Now the alternative: specialization. As I’m sure Michael will point out, a narrow focus gives your positioning laser-like power. Once you’ve staked your turf, you know what to say, where to say it, and to whom to say it. With persistent shrewdness (intelligence plus hard work) you may even get to “own” a particular specialization. Indeed, the widespread adoption of social media methods have made it even easier to define a turf and defend it. And with the Web, one of the disadvantages of specialization — smaller prospect pool — has been offset by the worldwide reach of the Internet itself — you can become the go-to expert in “X” for the entire English-speaking world (and then some).
Yet, for all the advantages, I don’t like the specialist approach. Here’s why:
- Once you’ve claimed your territory, you’ve simultaneously put yourself in a box. That precious claim you’ve made can be undermined by changing demands and shifting marketing needs. Take blogging, for example. I won’t name, names, but I can think of a few marketers who built their brands around blogging expertise. That was great — for awhile. But they became victims of their own success: once blogging became an ordinary part of the communications landscape, their previously unique know-how became ordinary, even commonplace.
- Limited up-sell and cross-sell opportunities. The hardest part of the job is getting past the client’s door. Once inside, however, there should be many lucrative opportunities for expanding your services. But if you’ve defined yourself by one tactic, what else do you have to offer? Time and again, I’ve turned entry projects into longstanding customer relationships in which I’ve contributed website copy, white papers, articles, collateral, print ads, newsletters, case studies, direct mail, etc.
- Boredom. Let’s face it, do you really want to spend your entire writing career creating ONE kind of deliverable? Or concentrating on ONE industry? Okay, maybe you do, but I don’t.
So what do I advise? Multiple specialties. I believe in cultivating experience in a variety of copywriting areas. This is not generalization under another name; you need genuine expertise in a cluster of marketing mediums — and a willingness to walk away from projects that lie outside your set.
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