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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.

Long term, niche products aren’t viable or defensible

Published Jun 02, 2021
Updated Nov 28, 2021

A Digiday article talks about the story of Mic.com. It started in 2012 and across its lifetime has raised ~ $60 million. From 2012 until 2019, it has pivoted multiple times, each time struggling to find a moat.
Each of its pivots was an attempt to find a new niche news product at a unique intersection.

Let’s say there is a market out there for people interested in progressive ideas. A subset of that audience will be interested in policymaking. An even smaller subset of that would be young. This narrow niche news product was Mic.com’s first product in 2012.

In 2014, they decided to pivot. This time, Mic.com dropped policy and started covering news, and doubled down on Facebook. But, unfortunately, that was an even narrower market.

In 2016, they dropped Facebook and started focusing on traffic from SEO. In 2017, they dropped articles and started focusing on videos. In 2018, they made one last pivot towards trying to become a content agency.
Eventually, in November 2018, Mic.com laid off the majority of its staff.

What are niches

The idea of intersection comes from set theory in mathematics. Set theory is a branch of mathematical logic that studies sets, which informally are collections of things.

Let’s take an example. There are two sets, A being young people and B being the people who like listening to Pink Floyd. Then the intersection of A and B (represented mathematically as A∩B) is young people who enjoy listening to Pink Floyd.

A niche media product is hyper-targeted to the needs of a particular industry, product category, or other groups of customers with specific needs. Thus, it offers an experience tailored to a particular group of users’ unique needs.

Often startups or new initiatives build unique niches around the following factors: Topic, Political Ideology, Channel, Format, and Prism. For example, NewsDeeply sat at the intersection of single-issue and deep reporting. It covered issues such as the war in Syria, global malnutrition, the health of oceans, the global migration crisis, the water crisis in the US, the economic advancement of women in the developing world, etc.

Yes, there are advantages to launching niches

Prior to the Internet, a writer, journalist, teacher, musician, or performer was restricted by time, energy, and geography. For a niche interest to be viable, there had enough of a following (interest) within a 10-20 km range. The Internet changed all this. Now, you can now reach, connect with and interact with others who are interested in the same obsession.

Yes, a novel new niche is a great way to start a company or launch a product.

Novelty makes it easy to find a landing spot in a crowded market. Unfortunately, when businesses define extremely narrow niches, they dominate that niche by default initially.

But eventually, they struggle.

Broadly, there are only two possibilities.

One possibility is that the niche is often so narrow that there isn’t a viable business. What is ignored is that the competitors of left-leaning-ideology x opinions publication aren’t other left-leaning-ideology x opinions publications but the universal set of all news sites. All news sites, in turn, compete with all media and entertainment. Netflix famously said that their primary competitor isn’t other production houses but sleep.

The second possibility is that if the niche turns out to be lucrative, then competitors will follow. You cannot stop them from copying you.

Ben Smith, in his column in the New York Times, says, “And The Times has swallowed so much of what was once called new media that the paper could read as an uneasy competition of dueling traditions: The Style section is a more polished Gawker, while the opinion pages reflect the best and worst of The Atlantic’s provocations. The magazine publishes bold arguments about race and American history, and the campaign coverage channels Politico’s scoopy aggression. “

In the next post, we evaluate how to find niches.