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I've 15 years of experience in media product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. Prior to this, I was a Knight Fellow with ICFJ.org and have co-founded two companies. All views expressed here are my personal opinions.
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I've 15 years of experience in media product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. Prior to this, I was a Knight Fellow with ICFJ.org and have co-founded two companies. All views expressed here are my personal opinions.

How to pick a niche for a media product

Published Jun 03, 2021
Updated Nov 28, 2021

Previously, we discussed two statutory warnings about why niche news products tend to fail to become meaningful businesses.

A new small business is like a child. It needs a safe space to play, experiment, survive, and grow. A niche provides you that. Hence, it is wise to a startup in a niche and then scale from there.

Yes, choosing a topic of deep interest is the most organic and serendipitous way to start. You are actively following the topic for yourself. Might, as well, take the extra step to make it public and find more people interested in the topic.

What if you are interested in more than one topic? Alternatively, what if you want to discover a new niche. Finding a niche is a combinatorial problem which means there are infinite possibilities.

In this post, we discuss how to evaluate niche ideas in a structured way. Just like with photography, finding a niche takes constant zooming in and out, finding the right focal point, etc., to get it right. There is no correct answer. Hence, you need to move between step 1 and step 2.

Step 1: Find a niche to own

Below are a few methods to find a niche.

1.1 Focus on a specific beat or industry

Rafat Ali, the founder of Skift.com, says, “Look for an industry where there is much growth, change, flux, and opportunity. Also, look for an industry with sufficient spending capacity.”

In the image, Rafat explains why he started a media product to cover the travel industry.

1.2 Vantage point of X

Are you deeply interested in a crowded subject area? Then, provide a new lens to look at that subject. E.g., cover government policy, budget, and decisions from the lens of impact on women’s everyday lives. Of course, it won’t be a neutral coverage of that issue. Still, it will deeply resonate with your target audience.

1.3 Democratize tough to access niches

Find a topic that is scarce/expensive to access at scale and make it available. Few examples come to mind. Paper.vc and Zaubacorp make accessing the Ministry of Corporate Affair’s company database easy. People’s Archive of Rural India gives a view of rural India to urban Indian and international audiences.

The unbundling of Craigslist.

1.4 Unbundle a mega-corp

What can you unbundle out of a catch-all media platform and do better than them?

For further reading, check out this article on AZ16. https://a16z.com/2019/09/11/platforms-verticals-unbundling/ 

1.5 Bring structure to an otherwise fragmented market

The Internet rewards clear and structured products, especially in fragmented markets that are low in trust. Two non-media examples that come to mind are RedBus and Housing.com, which brought structure to otherwise low-trust markets.

Step 2: Evaluate if the niche makes sense

If all of the following rejection criteria are not met, then discard the niche candidate.

  • Avoid competition. The idea of building niches is to be so unique that there is no other competition. Pick a distinct slice of the economic pie.
  • Is enough of a population interested in the topic? Can this niche be scaled to include ~10,000 or at least ~1000 paying subscribers?
  • Is this something that society does not know how to get by itself at scale? New businesses should serve nonconsumers — people who find the existing alternatives so expensive or inconvenient that they would prefer not to consume them. Targeting nonconsumers ensures that you get the time to grow in that niche without worry about competition.

Of the niche candidates that remain, carefully evaluate the niche candidates basis the selection criteria.

“The winners in these markets either offer the broadest breadth or the deepest depth. In evolving markets, neither the broadest nor deepest is in trouble, but the middle market is withering.”

Marc Andreessen, months before AZ16’s investment in Buzzfeed
  • Is the topic deep enough to attract experts or enthusiasts who want to dig deeper?
  • Is the topic broad enough for year-on-year consistent daily coverage? If the topic is too wide, it will be tough to collect an audience.
  • Is it multi-dimensional in nature? Will the topic crop up in conversations across the board?
  • Does the topic require tracking across an extended timeframe? If yes, the site can build a longitudinal outlook towards the topic.
  • Is there an existing community online or offline that is already talking about this topic? Can you co-opt them? It is challenging to build an audience out of individual interest areas.
  • What industry are you betting on? Does that industry have a ready set of funders/brands you can rely on for revenue? E.g., Rafat choose the travel industry to bet on because it has big-ticket purchases, extremely high turnover, international scale.

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