If you’ve spent any time online trying to make something happen with your art or photography business, you’ve no doubt come across the notion that in order to effectively bring in the sales, get folks to sign up for your newsletter, or even read your blog if you have one, you’ve got to have a “USP,” or unique selling proposition.
Meaning, you’ve got to “differentiate” yourself among the gobs of other artists and photographers with a web presence in order to stand out in an oversaturated market and get noticed.
While the term “USP” may sound slick and “jargon-y,” for our purposes here, we can simply think of it as the combination of factors, that taken together, set you apart online from others who do what you do.
I prefer to call this set of factors your “meaningful difference” (which I’ll be using interchangeably with the term “differentiation,” and which came from a fellow called Nigel Hollis. Hollis’s quote on differentiation is further down in this article). And you’ve got to have a meaningful difference if you want to get traction in your business and sell your work.
If you want an “official” definition of what a USP is, here’s one from businessdictionary.com:
Real or perceived benefit of a good or service that differentiates it from the competing brands and gives its buyer a logical reason to prefer it over other brands. USP is often a critical component of a promotional theme around which an advertising campaign is built.
The Importance of Differentiation
What happens when you have a poorly defined USP?
When someone searches online for that thing you do, if you look and sound just like everybody else, you’ll end up getting more than your fair share of folks who are shopping based on price alone, and assorted other pains-in-the-you-know-where, instead of happy-making ideal clients and customers who are willing to pay a premium for your work.
This is because if you’re indistinguishable from the hundreds of other artists and photographers out there, price is the only determining factor people have to base their purchasing decisions on.
And if they’re making purchasing decisions based on price alone, and your work is a smidge more expensive than that other artist’s work they saw and loved, then you can bet they’ll go back to that website and buy. Or they might even reach out to you and say they love your work, and would love to buy it, but it’s just “too expensive.”
The cure for this is differentiation.
Differentiating yourself in the online marketplace is absolutely essential to your success as a small creative business, because without it, you’ll be just another cog in the wheel of online commerce, a run-of-the-mill commodity whose work and/or services clients won’t place a premium on. You may have even experienced this. I know I have.
Here’s a great quote from the afore-mentioned Nigel Hollis that sums up the importance of differentiation:
“In the absence of a meaningful difference, the cheapest brand may be regarded as the best choice. Lack of differentiation turns brands into commodities and marketing messages into white noise. But a meaningful difference can spark consumer interest and fuel demand for a brand, even when that brand carries a significant price premium.” ~Nigel Hollis
Some obvious examples of effective differentiation and the premium pricing that goes along with it are Apple, Harley Davidson, and designer Tory Burch, to name just three. You could buy a computer or a motorcycle or clothes much more cheaply from lots of other companies, but the cache attached to these three brands because of their position and differentiation in the marketplace makes their ideal customers insanely eager to pay premium prices for them. Heck, they even line up around city blocks for hours, just for the privilege of paying premium prices, in the case of Apple.
Just something to keep in mind.
How to Determine Your USP or Meaningful Difference
I know there’s a lot of stress around how to figure out one’s points of differentiation, because I hear it from my blog readers and newsletter subscribers on a regular basis. And I hear it from my copywriting clients, too.
What I say to blog readers and clients alike is that it’s not usually one big thing that sets you apart, it’s a combination of smaller things, that woven together, make up your meaningful difference or points of differentiation and help you stand out to the clients and customers you’d most like to attract.
Let’s take me, for instance. I’m a copywriter, one of thousands and thousands easily found online with the click or two of a mouse.
But here’s what sets me apart:
- I work mostly with creatives; and I specialize in writing web copy, mainly. I’m also well-versed in web marketing, so I bring that knowledge to the table too. And I have a background in PR, advertising and sales.
- Plus, part of my “backstory” is that I once studied photography, applied to art school, and got accepted to the photography program at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, which gives me at least a little bit of “street cred” with creatives who want to hire me.
Those elements taken together make up my meaningful difference, which becomes part of my compelling marketing message. And that compelling marketing message is what continues to get me clients who are just right for my services.
A few years ago when I was just getting started online, I spent a couple of weeks digging deep and figuring all this stuff out, but you could probably sit down and figure it out for yourself in a day or two. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s an iterative process, and you will be refining it over time.
And if you dig deep and figure out what makes you and the art/product/service you provide different and better and you convey that in everything you do across all the touch points of your business, you will attract clients who are happy to pay what you ask for your work, without the bargain-hunting drama.
You’ll refine as you get feedback and results, so don’t worry that you need to have every detail figured out before you begin implementing your points of differentiation into your business.
I’m going to share the exact process I used to figure out my own points of differentiation, a process you can follow to do exactly the same. If you’re an artist or photographer who doesn’t provide services of any kind, the same process applies, you’ll just have to get creative and resourceful to determine how to make it work in your particular situation.
Here’s the process I used to determine my points of differentiation:
- The first thing I did was buy myself a notebook and start brainstorming ideas.
- I made a list of all the possible categories I thought I could differentiate myself in, including the kind of clients I serve, my personality and unique skill set, the specific kinds of copywriting packages I offer, my approach to customer service, my website design, my educational background, etc., then looked at other copywriters online and saw how they presented themselves in each of these categories.
- I then methodically made notes from each category about what made me unique compared to my competitors. If it was too much of a stretch to find something unique about me or my business in a category, I scrapped it and moved on to the next category on the list.
- After that exercise, I read Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham, and took the Strengths Finder Test to determine my 5 top strengths. This was amazingly helpful for getting a bead on the intersection of what I love to do and what I’m naturally gifted at doing.
- I then made a list of the relevant experiences and “stories” from my life that have some bearing on my business, such as my background in PR and Advertising, and getting accepted to art school (& not going), etc. The key here is to choose stories you’ll share with your audience that are relevant to your business.
- And something that was uncomfortable, but worth it: I emailed 15-20 people – a mix of clients and friends – and asked them what they felt my 3 best qualities were. Almost everyone said some version of the same thing: sense of humor, easy to work with, and enthusiastic. So those three things became part of my meaningful difference and what I try to covey in my web copy and all my marketing.
There were a few other things I did, books I read, and questions I asked myself, but that’s the top-level overview of the process I used.
For you as an artist or photographer, among the factors that combined together will help you stand out in an oversaturated marketing are: your medium, your message, your style, your philosophy and approach to the work you do, your creative process, your preferred subjects, and the customer/client service experience you provide.
Also your “backstory,” or your “why” for doing the work you do, and if you have a blog or a newsletter – because many artists don’t – that will help you differentiate yourself as well.
Examples of differentiation from artist & photographer clients I’ve worked with
A fine artist who paints in the realist style
We determined that the combination of her “Old World” style and subjects, along with her method of working “one careful brushstroke at a time,” plus her philosophy that we should all slow down and appreciate the timeless beauty that surrounds us, is a big part of what makes up her meaningful difference, and one of the reasons collectors love to buy from her.
A photographer of Western landscapes
This photographer isn’t just taking shots of Western landscapes and lifestyles, he’s helping record a way of life that many say is disappearing – that’s part of the deeper message of his work, and part of what makes it compelling to his ideal collectors. Plus, he mostly lives the lifestyle he photographs, traveling around the American and Canadian West and having fun adventures, which he plans to share details of in his newsletter content.
A wedding photographer in Arizona
The internet is lousy with wedding photographers; there are literally hundreds of them in any given locale. So how do you stand out? What I did in this situation was brand my wedding photographer client as a photographer of young, first-time, 20-something brides, who shoots outdoors in natural light, against iconic Arizona landscapes, applying a fine art style and sensibility to her work. Plus, because of her background and experience, she’s also game to lend a helping hand in the wedding planning process itself, another factor that sets her apart in her niche.
Wrapping It Up: YOU Are the Meaningful Difference
You can see in each of these situations that it’s not one thing, but several, that make up the meaningful difference or points of differentiation, and you can probably see too how these three creatives are able to pull in a better quality of client/collector because of it – those who don’t shop based on price alone. ☺
So what I want to say to you today is that you have something unique and compelling to offer: your experience, background, founder story, talents, skills, gifts and abilities; the type of clients or collectors you work with and the kinds of products and services you offer, all combine to make up your meaningful difference and your compelling marketing message.