Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to realize you need to change something about your business. In this episode, Sara Dunn tells us about experiencing that shock and how it motivated her to find her niche. She speaks with Alastair about the importance of specialization.
How to Specialize: from Web Generalist to Industry Specialist with Sara Dunn
I love Sara’s story, and the fact that she documented her journey for us to see, I do highly recommend you checking that out.
Today, my three take-away points are:
- Firstly, the shocking story of how a lack of differentiation led to an absolute the kick in the teeth, where her expertise and years of experience were effectively devalued to nothing. That’s what can happen when you appear to be a replaceable commodity.
- Secondly, she talked about how as a specialist marketing is so much easier. She said “a lot of the success I’ve been able to have, I think is attributed to how specifically I can market now, I don’t think enough attention is paid, when people think about specialising they don’t realise how much easier it will be to market their services”.
- My third take-away is that specialists can truly become experts in an area, because all of their focus is on one thing. When you’re a generalist, your attention is fleeting and you can’t go too deep, because the next problem is different, whereas the specialist can look at things at a much deeper level.
Links mentioned in the episode:
Sara Dunn is an SEO specialist focusing on the wedding industry – but she wasn’t always! After 6 years building WordPress websites for clients, Sara started a long road toward niching down, documenting her journey each week on YouTube. In 2018, she landed on wedding SEO, and has since served over 130 wedding clients through SEO services, a group SEO program, and digital products at SaraDoesSEO.com. Sara has shared her journey to niche down as a guest on podcasts like Unemployable, the Matt Report, Live in the Feast, and How I Built It, as well as on her blog at Sara-Dunn.com
Sara Dunn 00:00
So there was one particular instance that really was the turning point. I was talking to someone that I knew through networking group, he had a jewellery store. And we talked about making a website for his business. I was really excited about the project. I gave him a proposal. And I checked in with him a week later, and he said, you know, thank you so much for this proposal, but my niece is taking a web design class in college, so she’s just gonna do it for us. And I realised at that moment, I was so frustrated, and I said, I haven’t differentiated myself. Having done this for six years now, versus someone who has taken one three credit course in college. This person perceives that we basically know the same amount about this topic, and I said, this is a problem.
Alastair McDermott 00:59
Hello, and welcome to Marketing for Consultants. This is the podcast that helps independent consultants and subject matter experts to get more clients without having to beg for referrals or make soul-destroying cold calls. I’m your host, Alastair McDermott, and today my guest is Sara Dunn. Sara is a search engine optimization specialist focusing on the wedding industry. But she wasn’t always after six years of building websites for clients, Sara started down a long road towards niching down her business, and she documented her journey each week on YouTube, which is how I first found her. So today you’ll hear how she chose wedding SEO as a specialist niche. But before we get into my favourite topic of specialisation, Sara, can you tell us how you originally got into running your own business?
Sara Dunn 01:45
You bet. So it was not something that I ever intended to do. I had always tinkered with websites more as a hobby, even through junior high in high school. And I went into the working world and actually started a business importing wine. And I discovered that I didn’t really like that business all that much. And my favourite thing that I did for that business was make the website for it. I spent hours researching platforms, learning WordPress, figuring out what images to use. And I was always tinkering with it, and really, really had fun with that. So someone, a friend of mine heard that I knew how to make a website and this was probably 2011. And he said, Hey, can you help me out with a website just on the side? I don’t know what I’m doing. I said, Well, I’d love to. I love this. It’s so fun. So I made him a website, he told someone else, I made a political candidate a website, they told someone else. And eventually I had this whole side business to the point where I had to decide was I going to sell wine or make websites. And when you think about an industry of perishable products where you have to ship them from overseas versus Hey, I can sit on my computer and make something creative. It was a pretty easy choice. So it was 2012. I started making websites as my full time business and eventually grew it to an agency about four people. We were doing web design, branding, graphic design, mostly for small business and nonprofit.
Alastair McDermott 03:19
Right, okay. And so at some point, you then made the decision that you needed to specialise. Can you tell us how that came about?
Sara Dunn 03:29
Yes, I felt like in my agency, I was hustling for every single project, I was doing so much networking, I was always having to pitch my services or meet new people. And all of this information I heard on the internet about inbound marketing, content marketing, I just couldn’t figure it out. I was like, I don’t know what I would write a blog post about that would cause someone to hire me. And so all of my work, I felt like came from really hustling, going to networking meetings and getting in front of people so that they would know and trust me. Even though I was doing all of that kind of work. And it felt really hard to me. I still felt like people didn’t really understand that I was actually knowledgeable in digital marketing. So there was one particular instance that really was the turning point. I was talking to someone that I knew through networking group, he had a jewellery store. And we talked about making a website for his business. I was really excited about the project. I gave him a proposal. And I checked in with him a week later and he said, you know, thank you so much for this proposal, but my niece is taking a web design class in college. So she’s just going to do it for us. And I realised at that moment, I was so frustrated and I said I haven’t differentiated myself. Having done this for six years now versus someone who has taken one three credit course in college. This person perceives that we basically know the same amount about this topic. And I said, this is a problem. And to me, I eventually realised the problem was I was too much of a generalist. When you go to someone, you say, I can make you a website, I can help you with your social media, I can help you with your email marketing, I can help you with your graphic design for your flyers, I can help you put together a marketing campaign for this. And you work with all different types of businesses. I do this for a mortgage company, I do it for a dentist, I do it for a jewellery store. People don’t understand that you’re actually an expert in anything, because you’re throwing too much at them. And they can’t understand why you’re different or better than anyone else. So I became, at that point, a little bit obsessed with the idea of becoming a specialised expert in something. And the problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to be an expert in. So right, I went down a long journey, where I said, I am going to niche down my business, and I’m going to figure out how.
Alastair McDermott 06:05
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, I’m going to come come to that in a minute. I just want to one comment I want to make is, when you talked about not being able to figure out what to write for a blog post, and not being able to do this inbound marketing thing. That is exactly the same problem I had. I loved writing blog posts. I just wasn’t writing blog posts that were bringing in business. And that was, that was a real problem for me. I couldn’t figure out what is the topic I need to write because if some of my clients are dentists, and another client is his owns a query, how do I get those people advice for their websites? You know,
Sara Dunn 06:44
Alastair McDermott 06:45
Sara Dunn 06:46
And not only did I not know what to write, I knew what I ended up writing wasn’t interesting to anyone, because it was so general. So it didn’t actually help someone. So here, I was trying to put out content, and it was a waste of my time and of the readers time.
Alastair McDermott 07:03
Absolutely. So yeah, I mean, I, I so feel failure, because that’s exactly what my journey was like, too. So. So you got to the point where you realise that you wanted to be an expert in something. And so what did you do next?
Sara Dunn 07:19
So I started taking in any content I could from people who were specialists, I remember listening to a podcast where the guest was a specialist in membership websites. And I was like, Okay, that sounds really cool. I want to hear about how they talk about that. But I realised I didn’t really want to build membership websites. So I tried to find information from someone who had actually talked about how they had niche down how had they become a specialist or chosen a certain market vertical to work with. And I really couldn’t find a lot of very good advice. So I was like, all I am finding people that have already specialised their business and are really successful. But I haven’t found anyone that talks about how to do it, or how to figure it out. And I got really frustrated when a few people just said, Oh, you know, now I work mostly in this niche, but it kind of just happened to me, you know, I worked with one person in the niche, and then all the sudden, that was all the work that I was getting. And I was like, Oh, I wish I wish would just happen to me. But it didn’t, I had to really focus and try things and explore that.
Alastair McDermott 08:31
Okay, and so we were just talking beforehand, because I’ve been following your, I guess you’d call it almost like video journaling, of your of your story of your of your journey. Through specialisation, you now have, I think, 60 videos or 62 videos on YouTube, and I highly recommend it if anybody’s really interested in specialisation to watch through that whole thing start to win, because it’s fascinating to see the journey over time. But yeah, so. So you eventually did find that so how did you go from that place where you were frustrated looking to finding something?
Sara Dunn 09:09
Well, we should talk about that YouTube channel because it actually follows me every single week through that process. And that was what I couldn’t find. When I was looking for advice on how to specialise. I couldn’t find anyone that documented their journey from generalist to specialist. And so I said, Okay, I’m gonna start with one video. That’s about here’s where I am. Now, here’s what’s frustrating me. And then every single week, I’m going to document something I tried to move closer towards specialisation. And I was very naive about this because I thought, Oh, you know, I’ll do like six videos, and I’m sure I’ll have figured it out. I think I did 40 videos of here’s what I tried. Here’s what I learned. It didn’t work. Here’s a book I read. Here’s What I learned from it. So all of the videos are really short. I think they’re usually about three to six minutes. But it’s just kind of a recap of something that I learned along the way. And it was a really fun project. For me, I actually haven’t made a new video on the channel for probably about a year. But I’m so glad to have that video journal of the whole process. And I have heard from others that they really identified with it and appreciated being able to see that real behind the scenes.
Alastair McDermott 10:30
Absolutely. I think it’s brilliant, to see what’s working, what’s not working. And just to follow along. Fabulous. So eventually, you picked something and I think maybe a little bit ironically, given what you just said about people stumbling into things. What what happened with you in finding your niche.
Sara Dunn 10:51
So here, I was trying to really actively, like research different verticals and try different things. And I ended up at the end of 2017, at a women’s business conference where I met a woman named Allie, I am forever indebted to her. We got to talking. And she heard that I did digital marketing and search engine optimization. And she said, Oh, my goodness, we have to talk. I had a website built a few months ago. And I used to rank on the first page of Google for Chicago wedding planner. And since this new website has launched, I have fallen to page seven, I can barely find myself and my clients can’t find me either. It’s really been bad for my business. I said, Well, that sounds fun. You’re cool. This sounds like an interesting project. Let me see if I can figure it out. And she gave me all the accesses, I got in there and realised her web designer knew nothing about SEO had messed up all sorts of technical things. And I fixed them. And she was very patient with me, because I didn’t really offer standalone SEO Services at the time. So I didn’t even charge her. I just said let me play with this. Let me see if I can figure it out. And I loved it. And Alec is an amazing connector. And she said, You’ve done a great job for me, I want to refer you to everyone I know. And that was how I landed on doing SEO specifically for the wedding industry. And that’s what I’ve been doing full time for about the past two years.
Alastair McDermott 12:25
Brilliant. Okay, so So you did kind of stumble into I did kind of i think i think the the the exploratory phase that you went through, you probably wouldn’t have recognised it if you hadn’t gone through that, right.
Sara Dunn 12:43
Yes. And I also when it happened, I realised Okay, I am actually going to pursue this. I’m going to say yes, alley, please refer me to everyone, you know, and I’m going to take on some more projects as a test before I say this is for sure what I’m going to do. So it was definitely something even though I stumbled on to it, I would say it didn’t just happen to me, because I did make the decision that I was going to pursue that and consider what I want to actively make this my full time job and the only type of market that I work in.
Alastair McDermott 13:16
Right? Wouldn’t one fear that people have when they’re specialising is about turning away all of the other opportunity. So what about all of those other projects, people asking you to build WordPress websites for dog walkers or hairdressers or whoever it is? What about those projects that you’re that you’re turning away? And you’re losing out on? How do you feel about that?
Sara Dunn 13:38
So in the past, so while I was making the transition, I actually kept taking some of those more general projects, just in case the wedding SEO thing didn’t work out. So while I now only take on wedding search engine optimization projects, it was probably like a year and a half transition where I slowly said, Okay, I’m going to take that on because the money’s good or Okay, that seems interesting. I’m still going to take that website project. So I was able to pursue that niche while still keeping income coming in. And kind of having a backstop. So I actually created my niche brand on a separate website. So if it didn’t work out, I could totally just shut that down and go back to what I was doing. That was for sure still providing me an income at this point. It’s really interesting, though, because I don’t just get wedding SEO inquiries. You know, a lot of people, a wedding florist, she knows another business in her local town. And she’s like, Hey, I know this realtor who’s really cool. You should work with them. And I get to choose. Do I want to take that on because I find it interesting or do I want to turn it away because it’s outside of my specialty and I don’t really find it interesting. So I’m pretty stuck on wedding SEO, but I do actually have an upcoming project that I took on A woman reached out to me someone I really admire. And she said, Hey, I know you only do wedding SEO, can you refer me to someone else? And I said, Well, wait, wait, wait. Can I talk to you about your project? Because I really like what you do. And I would be interested in taking that on if you would like to work with me. So I have an upcoming project for someone who isn’t in the wedding industry, even though I’m just so I have found that just because I brand myself as a specialist in wedding SEO, that doesn’t mean that’s the only opportunity that comes my way. So the fear of turning away work. It’s almost like you get to make more strategic choices for yourself. And actually turn away the work that you don’t want and only take on more general work that really excites you and makes you excited about it.
Alastair McDermott 15:52
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m finding that with, you know, with specialisation, there’s no specialisation. Police are gonna come along and say, hey, you’re not allowed to do that project. So you can take on other projects, if you want to, if they come across your desk, you know, it’s it’s, that’s absolutely fine. But, yeah, and so you were I mean, you’re only in I mean, even though you’re even though you are taking these other projects, you are all in on specialisation and and your your niche of wedding wedding SEO.
Sara Dunn 16:28
I, yeah, I only market myself that way. So right. The only content I’m putting out now is for the wedding industry and other opportunities still come my way, even though I don’t talk about them.
Alastair McDermott 16:40
Yeah. How are you finding inbound marketing working for you now and and writing those blog posts and things like that.
Sara Dunn 16:49
It’s so much easier. So in in the comparison, let’s, let’s look at 2018 Sarah or 2017, when I was trying to just write a blog post about anything, I would have just written a blog post called 20, blog post ideas for your marketing, kind of boring, I now have a blog post on my website that is 11 blog post ideas for wedding planners that will help your SEO, it is a lot more specific. It’s a lot more interesting to my target client. And people actually search on Google wedding planner, blog post ideas. And so the right people are coming to my website. And if they like me, and if SEO is important to their blog strategy, they are on my website and ready to sign up for something that I have as an opt in. So content marketing actually works when you know who your audience is, and you know what they’re searching for. The other thing that’s been really effective is I actually know what conferences to go to what podcast to get on. Because I know who my target client is. And I can think about where are they showing up? What are they listening to? And how do I make sure that I’m there?
Alastair McDermott 18:04
So because you’re vertically specialised, your audience are congregating together? Yeah, they’re reading the same trade magazines. Yeah, yes. Yeah. And this, this is why we’re both such huge fans of specialisation. And I think maybe you’re a big fan of vertical specialisation specifically.
Sara Dunn 18:22
I am. I am. And a lot of the success I’ve been able to have, I think is attributed to how specifically I can market now, I don’t think enough attention is paid. When people think about specialising they don’t realise how much easier it will be to market their services. Because now I can say from a really confident place. No one knows more about wedding search engine optimization than I do. I spend every single day studying how engaged couples search on Google for their wedding advice. That is all I do. That is what I look at. And that’s really compelling to people and I can now charge a premium rate over someone that is has no wedding industry experience, because I know what has worked in the wedding industry before and what people need to be found for.
Alastair McDermott 19:15
So you are number one in the world you can say hand on heart. Yes, I am.
Sara Dunn 19:21
I can, yeah, but it’s it helps that almost no one else is specialised in this. I know there are a lot of other specialties where there are other players who are competing with each other, you know, websites for dentists very competitive while being very specialised. I don’t think someone needs to specialise and find a niche that no one else has thought of, but it really does help. There There are definitely people that are doing SEO for wedding photographers or something like that. But I specialise in as in the wedding industry as a whole. So I can really have that full look at the end game. Just a couple as the searcher. So head on heart, I would say no one knows more about this than I do.
Alastair McDermott 20:06
Yeah, I’m I 100% believe that. So I want to just talk about the expertise thing a lot, a little bit, because I think that I’ve been in that place where I’ve been really good as a generalist at a lot of things. But I think there is a big difference when you start to specialise. And you start to just narrow your focus down, and you just taking about one target market, and one group of people and one groups and their problem. So I think you can get a deep expertise because of that. Can you talk just about how your expertise has developed?
Sara Dunn 20:43
Yes. I think what’s most interesting is that when you specialise in something really small, you can spend your research time you’re digging in hours, getting even better at that one thing, when I was trying to help people with websites, Facebook ads, email marketing, SEO, I had to really quick when I had a problem, kind of like search around and try to find the answer. And I would learn a little bit about email marketing on Tuesday, a little bit about Facebook on Wednesday, and so on. Now, I can look at things at a much deeper level. So when a Google algorithm change happens, I have the time to be on top of that, because my attention is so scattered among so many things. The expertise is really, really important. Though I have found in talking to people about specialising there are certain personality types that are like, I don’t want to focus on the same thing every day, I think that would be really boring. My personality type is much more one where I want to pursue excellence in the thing that I do. And so I love digging into the same thing. I love spending my time improving my process, instead of learning new things all the time. And I still learn new things on the side. I’m taking a Google Ads course right now I’m taking a Facebook ads course. But I’m not going to market those as part of my services. Because I still want to stay very crystal clear on what I offer. And what what people should think of me for.
Alastair McDermott 22:22
Right. What about the Let me think I want to ask that question. Sorry, I’ve lost my my question. I was gonna ask you about about SEO. Sorry about being boring, but doing the same thing over and over again. And then I had another question I forgot. So we’re gonna have to do some editing. So editing is all about specialisation. Oh, I know what I want to ask you. Okay. Do you productize your services? Have you gotten to a stage where you’re repeating your what you’re doing, and you’ve started to productize it and
Sara Dunn 23:05
Yes, I love having a really narrowed in service, which again, is something that’s a lot easier when you’re serving the same market, providing the same outcome. So I used to offer two different one to one services, I would do an SEO audit, or I would do a full what I called SEO intensive where I actually create the plan and then do the SEO for the client. What I found was I was getting enough inquiries that wanted that high level service, the one to one most expensive, and they were getting much better results. They were happier clients. And I had now offer one service only. So if you want to work with me, you sign up for an SEO intensive it’s a three month programme. It is my premium service. And that’s the only way to work with me one on one.
Alastair McDermott 23:58
Right. And that’s fixed price. Yeah,
Sara Dunn 23:59
Yes. Yep, same price. Every time I don’t write proposals anymore. clients come to a consultation call already knowing what it costs. So on my website, there is an opt in for my welcome and pricing guide. That’s the only way to figure out how to get on a call with me, you have to opt in for that. And then it actually walks them through. Here’s what SEO is at a high level, here’s five signs, you’re actually ready to hire help. Here is the pricing, here’s a success story. And here’s how to schedule a consultation. So I’m no longer getting on the phone with people trying to like figure out what they need. being worried about having the price conversation. Most of the time our conversations since they already know what it costs is, when can you start and do you think I’m a good fit? And that’s it.
Alastair McDermott 24:48
Sara Dunn 24:49
So it’s, it’s so much more efficient than I hate writing proposals. I really do it. It crushes my soul. It takes so much time and you Don’t know if you’re going to get the work. So I don’t waste a lot of time anymore.
Alastair McDermott 25:03
You’re waiting. Where did you get my email last week?
Sara Dunn 25:06
Alastair McDermott 25:07
Yeah, I, I think that specialisation productized services go hand in hand, they just feel like such a good fit, because you are doing the same thing over and over again, with different clients. And I know some people might find that boring. Personally, after 14 years of being a business, I would be quite happy to do the same thing over and over again. Yes, enough exploring and learning. And so maybe it depends on where you are in your kind of stage of your business life.
Sara Dunn 25:35
Yes. And I will say that, for me, even though each client is in essentially the same business, they’re our wedding planner, or photographer or venue, I get to learn about each new client, each of them is slightly different. What do they want to be found for? Do they specialise in small weddings or large? Do they do luxury weddings, or affordable weddings, or if they’re a venue do they specialise in outdoor weddings or indoor so I’m always looking at different types of keywords, I’m doing slightly different things, I still have the fun of the research and discovery. But it’s all very related. So I don’t feel like I figure something out for one client that I’ll never get to apply to anyone else. When I have a big win for one client, I get to say, oh, how exciting, I can actually take that learning, and go even do a better job for the other clients I have now and in the future, which is super fun for me. The other thing about specialisation, that has been a huge turning point for me in 2020 is because I’m only offering a premium one to one service, I figured out there’s a lot of need for online education. I think course creation, group programmes. Those are big buzzwords in online marketing, too, and something that I would never have figured out as a generalist. But because there are 1000s of wedding pros who all want to get found online, and not all of them can afford to work with me one to one, I’ve been able to create a group course that I offer a few times a year. So I’m able to get 35 people into a class together paying a lower amount. But it’s still really profitable for me and allows me to serve a bigger portion of the market
Alastair McDermott 27:24
And scale that by having more people. Yeah.
Sara Dunn 27:26
Exactly. So I don’t just offer one to one services anymore, I get to have a scalable, digital course. And this year, I think I’ll probably change it to evergreen so people can buy the class anytime they want to and work on their own SEO with me.
Alastair McDermott 27:45
I’m gonna have to ask you to come back and talk about that. Because that’s a fascinating topic as well. I’m sure our listeners would love to hear about that. Okay. I’m going to wrap up of a couple of final questions for you. Have you experienced any failure that you can tell us about that you learn from in business? What happened and what did you take from that?
Sara Dunn 28:07
So when I was trying to specialise actually explored a couple of different niches that were total fails. One of them in particular that I got the farthest on was doing Facebook ads for chiropractors. And I even had a whole website for it. I blogged for several months on the topic. And then I realised a couple things. I didn’t know much about chiropractic care. It was a very technical topic that I had zero experience in. And I didn’t really enjoy working with chiropractors as people, they tended to be very busy during the day and wanted to text message me at night, which just didn’t fit with the way that I wanted my business to operate. So that was a big fail. For me. I learned a lot and I’m not sad that I invested a long time going down the wrong road because I learned a lot. But that was definitely a failure.
Alastair McDermott 29:01
So so you can specialise. Go down that road, and then turn back and come back and try something else.
Sara Dunn 29:08
Yes. And that’s why my approach has always been put up a separate website, about your specialised thing if you’re going to niche down, keep up your general thing that’s kind of working already set up a separate website that’s about your specialised thing, because then you haven’t taken over your whole brand announced that you’re only working with chiropractors now and then have to back it up later and go oh, just kidding. You can just make that website go away and pretend it never happened.
Alastair McDermott 29:37
Love it, love us. What is your favourite business book? Do you have one?
Sara Dunn 29:42
My favourite business book is actually it’s Setting the Table by Danny Meyer’s which is actually a restaurant and hospitality book. But I absolutely love it. It is all about creating a great customer experience. And it tells the story of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City, which has now expanded to include all of the Shake Shack brand restaurants, which is my favourite place to go. Awesome.
Alastair McDermott 30:13
Okay, I’ve got to have a look for that. Do you have a favourite fiction book?
Sara Dunn 30:17
Oh my goodness, I read such trashy stupid fiction. My favourite book is called the Royal We and it is a fictional account of an American who marries a prince in England. So
Alastair McDermott 30:35
Awesome, I gotta check that out!
Sara Dunn 30:37
You really don’t! But I found it really good.
Alastair McDermott 30:40
I’m gonna look it up. Anyway. Sara, thank you so much for being with us today. Really appreciate your time. It’s been great to talk to you. I love talking to you about specialisation, and, and business in general. So I have to get you back on to talk about the online online training courses.
Sara Dunn 30:59
That sounds great. I would love to. It’s great to be here with you. And thank you so much for having me on.
Alastair McDermott 31:04
Thank you. And you can be found. Sara Does SEO dot com.
Sara Dunn 31:09
Yes. Sara Does SEO is my website for my business. Now. I do have all of my specialising journey over on Sara-Dunn.com.
Alastair McDermott 31:20
Super and I will link to those. Thank you again.
Sara Dunn 31:22
Alastair McDermott 31:25
Thanks for listening. If you’re interested in Sarah’s journey, you can find her YouTube videos linked in the show notes I highly recommend you check those out. And you might also be interested in my free seven day email course about Marketing for Consultants that can also be found in the show notes and MarketingForConsultants.com