A question I regularly hear from readers of this site is some form of:
“How did you grow a site without having a niche? Shouldn’t you pick a niche for a blog and write primarily about that topic? Your site seems like it’s all over the place but it does well.”
The common advice says your blog needs a specific niche, but this is only half true. It’s good advice in some cases, but in others, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, or rather, it does but not in the way you think it does.
Whether or not you should niche down to a specific topic or write about whatever you feel like as I do depends most importantly on one question:
What’s your goal?
The point of most blogs is not to create good writing or to inform people as best as possible, but to sell things. 99% of the blogs online are traction channels for a product. That doesn’t mean they can’t have good writing or valuable content, but we have to be honest about the true intentions.
But the goal of this blog is to be a good blog. I love blogs like Wait But Why, Slate Star Codex, Farnam Street, The Last Psychiatrist, Samzdat, and in all of these, the first intention seems to be creating amazing content. Monetization is a secondary consideration. That doesn’t mean you can’t monetize, but rather that the writing comes first. (I’ll talk more about monetization later, you can still make money off your non-niched blog directly and indirectly).
If you’re starting a blog to sell a product, then certainly, you should niche down. It wouldn’t make sense if Teachable published an article about brewing kombucha. But if you’re starting a blog for yourself, like this one, then not niching yourself can be a smart move.
Here are the main problems with people taking very niche-specific approaches to their blog.
The biggest problem with a focused blog is how quickly you will burn out your topics for good content. The only content worth writing is in-depth, useful articles that people can refer to for years to come, and when you pick a narrow niche, you will run out of those topics very quickly.
Let’s say you start a blog about dog training. You follow a method like my 0-10k article, but after a year or two, you start to get stuck. You already wrote detailed guides on house training, every trick readers would want to know, socializing, etc. and now you’re out of those big important topics to cover.
At this point, one of a few things will happen:
Right when your doggy bloggy was getting popular, it’s going to get stale and start to decline in quality.
This happens to blogs all the time. The Sumo blog used to put out massive, highly valuable marketing guides, but they’ve run low on those topics and suffered. The Buffer blog used to be a behemoth of high value social media posts, but that well dried up. I Will Teach You To Be Rich had to get into health topics and break out into Growth Lab.
Compare that to this blog. I’ve published a number of very in-depth articles about sex for men, but when I felt like I’d said enough on the subject, it was no problem to focus on other topics. I’m writing primarily about college and learning now, but that will change too.
By being free to jump around to multiple topics, I can provide more detailed, high information posts without burning my list of ideas out. I never have to try to make up new information on a topic, and I never have to split the value of a post into multiple ones to ensure I can keep my posting schedule. Instead of 5 different posts on the problems of Soylent, I can write one epic one. Instead of 10 articles on building my first lifestyle business, I can do it in one.
Now, of course, there are exceptions. Brian Dean of Backlinko does an excellent job of being niche without wearing himself out. How? He posts infrequently. If you want to have a clearly defined niche and deliver high quality content on it, you cannot be posting too frequently.
Another example is Randall Eliason of Sidebars. Though he posts more frequently than Brian Dean, he’s providing legal analysis of current events, so there’s a steady stream of new topics.
Without a model like either of those, niching yourself down is going to do more harm than good. And by not niching yourself down too narrowly, you can explore your interests as much as you want, and write about them in complete, useful ways, unlike in all the ways that give blogging a bad name.
I get bored extremely easily. I can obsess over a subject for a few months, then get bored of it and quit completely (as I did with VR development).
If you’re like me, a niched down blog will become a problem. Part of why I eventually moved on from my habits blog was that I got bored of discussing that subject. We sold Programming for Marketers because we got bored of it. If you get bored of topics easily, then you shouldn’t assume that you’ll magically stick with your narrowly focused blog for years to come.
The biggest problem with the “you need a niche!” argument applied to blogging is that it’s ignoring the narrowest niche in the world: you. It’s easy to find another health blog, yoga blog, gardening blog, but you will never find another Nat blog, Justin blog, Taylor blog, Charlie blog, etc.
A business needs a niche because the product has to solve a certain problem. But with a blog, the problem you’re ultimately solving is attention and interest, and the most effective way to maintain someone’s interest is through being interesting and irreplaceable. If you’re spitting out the same lifehacks as every other productivity site, you’ll develop no loyalty, but as an individual, you can carve out your own unique mindshare in readers that a topic-d blog never will.
Now, that said, there are some challenges of not having a niche that we can’t ignore.
From my experience growing this blog, growing the Sumo blog, and working with others, there are a few clear challenges to not having a well-defined niche.
When you do your blog in this style and don’t give yourself a clear niche, it’s harder to sell people on reading your blog or subscribing to it. What do you say to pitch them? For this site I’d have to say “hey you’ll learn about learning, college, sex, philosophy, marketing, travel, money, photography…” it’s all over the place.
You can’t do the flashy “GET MY 10 TIPS FOR BUILDING A BIG THROBBING EMAIL LIST!!!” like you can with a marketing blog… but I’m okay with that. Yes I’ll never have a 10% email opt-in rate, but that’s worth it to not piss off your readers.
Making money off of an un-niched site is considerably more difficult. Bryan Harris turned what was a blog on email marketing into a diverse internet marketing product company, and it made sense every step of the way. His products fit under a strong umbrella and are all interconnected.
This site’s products make no sense when looked at in aggregate. There’s an app for men’s kegels, a course on SEO, a course on programming for marketers, I do SEO/content consulting, there’s a medley of affiliate deals sprinkled throughout…
You have to get creative with your monetization, and you can’t follow the traditional models for “making money from blogging.” My approach is to keep writing articles about what I’m interested in, and then create products around the topics that do well. Sex was a big one for a while, which inspired those products. My marketing articles do extremely well so I offer SEO and content consulting to startups (email me if you’re interested).
I prefer to create products that can sell themselves through the blog consistently and stay relevant for at least a few years. I don’t like doing the big launches you typically see bloggers do, since it burns out your email list and forces you to focus on list building. I’d rather create evergreen content that can naturally transition to being the top stage of the sales funnel.
The last thing I’ll say on monetization is that I deliberately under-monetize the site. If I milked it for all it was worth, I would easily be making 3-5x as much from it, but that would destroy the experience and decrease the total potential in the long term. If your goal is to make as much money as possible, blogging is not for you, and nicheless blogging definitely isn’t for you.
This challenge isn’t so bad, but it does get confusing even to yourself when you try to explain what you do. If someone asks me “what do you do?” I’ll usually say “writer,” but then if they ask “oh what do you write about?” It will either be a 5 minute explanation or I’ll have to say something incomplete like “practical psychology,” or “college and learning,” or “whatever I feel like.” Sometimes I forego the complication altogether and say I’m a marketing consultant instead.
Really, though, this is just one you have to get over. Not having an identity is good, you won’t have as much sunk cost fallacy or consistency bias, and you’ll be able to tailor your description to whoever you meet. You’ll probably be one of the more interesting people in the party, too.
Now some tips for making it work if you go down this route.
Since you have no niche, you can write about literally anything you want, and you should! You never know what sub-niches you’ll discover from experimenting.
Some of my best-performing articles have been on completely new subjects I was experimenting with writing about, such as photograph composition, white privilege, financial runway, group dinners, LSD, shampoo, soylent…
The first sex article was written on a whim while drunk and it turned into a year and a half long project and the passive income to sustain my lifestyle while being a full time writer. Nat Chat came from people resonating with my arguments about the problems with college and how we can learn on our own.
You never know what will do well, so you have to keep experimenting.
You also need to dispense with any notions of putting marketing first or spending “20% of your time on content creation, and 80% on promotion.”
You’re a writer now, and your job is to make an amazing blog. You can’t entice people with promises of living on a beach while wage slaves in India do their work for them. Your only promise is that you’ll be interesting, and you have to deliver that.
And once that’s done…
Email marketing won’t work as well for an un-niched blog since your calls to action won’t be as strong. Instead, focus on SEO and social media.
But don’t find topics that will do well on SEO or social and then write them, rather, tailor what you were going to write anyway to SEO and social media. Have good titles, do your keyword research, use compelling images, but don’t churn out high-SEO-potential articles like a content mill. Take what you were going to create anyway and make it as easy as possible for people to find and share it.
With that, you should be good to go. Best of luck, and don’t let any of the naysayers telling you that you need to specialize in northern-climate bred houseplants get you down.