What’s your creative advantage?

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Competition is healthy. It drives up the quality of work we produce.

If you’re writing a blog, you’re competing with millions of other bloggers out there (with thousands more starting each day). You’re also competing with Time.com, Facebook, Twitter and every news outlets for attention.

If you’re a musician, you’re competing with the thousands of established labels and musicians already entrenched on your audience’s iPhones and Spotify playlists. You’re also competing with the thousands of indie artists and amateurs uploading their songs through GarageBand on their new Mac to share on YouTube.

If you make physical products, you not only have to compete with Target, Amazon, and other established brands that provide a one-stop shop for virtually anything your customer might want. You also have to compete with all of the new store owners powered by WooCommerce, Etsy, Shopify, and Square. Let’s go ahead and add in the entrepreneurs on Kickstarter as well.

The same concept applies for podcasters, painters, photographers, and any other creative out there on the planet.

In The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, he presents two simple facts applicable to creatives:

  1. The potential audience for your work is growing. Unbridled selection on the internet and powerful search tools means it’s possible for a consumer to find virtually anything they want online including your work. You can now build a diehard audience without the previous constraints of an existing distribution list, special connections, or physical proximity.
  2. Along with that potential new audience comes competition. While it has become easier and easier to reach your target audience, it has also become easier and easier to produce art as well.
A graphical depiction of the long tail
Photo credit: LongTail.com

This all boils down to a simple question: You’re always competing against someone for your audience’s attention. You have to identify your edge.

What dimensions of your craft can you compete on and have an unhealthy advantage?

The Aspects of Competition in a Creative Age

Historically, certain aspects of commerce have always lended themselves to creating an edge. Speed, price, quality, selection, etc have been and will always be part of the equation.

Amazon succeeded largely because they offered an unmatched selection of books. Whereas brick and mortar competitors had a finite amount of shelf space, Amazon could offer customers practically any title whether it was on the bestseller list or somewhere deep in the back catalog.

Jimmy John’s has built an entire brand based around speed and ease of delivery. Plenty of other sandwich shops offer subs of similar quality, but they don’t deliver them nearly as fast.

Lululemon has an empire based around quality. It’s surely not the cheapest pair of workout shorts you can buy, but they’ll last you awhile. They even offer to fix their workout clothes for free if there’s a tear or rip.

Amazon has selection (and now price and speed). Jimmy Johns has speed. Lululemon has quality. What do you have?

The rise of the creative long tail creates several new aspects that you can use to differentiate yourself from your competition including all of the big box stores and massive producers that already occupy a stronghold in your customer’s mind:

Speed – Can you produce this good or service faster than anyone else in your industry?

Cost – Is your good or service of equal value at an unmatched cost to the consumer? The cost for producing creative work is slowly dropping to zero, which makes cost insanely difficult to compete on. Competing on cost is a race to the bottom.

Popularity – Are you bringing an audience with you that will instantly jump on whatever you produce? Kevin Hart spent years going from city to city, building his list of email subscribers, Twitter followers, and overall platform. He was then able to use popularity as a negotiating chip during movie talks later on. A diehard audience that devours what you produce is a competitive advantage. The Tim Ferriss effect is a real thing.

Feeling – Do you give customers an opportunity to feel something different than your competitors? Blue Apron competes with dozens of other food delivery services across the nation, but they give customers the feeling of accomplishment. Whereas other meals come pre-cooked, Blue Apron gives you the feeling of accomplishment. You put this together. You made this. Exclusivity is also a feeling that you’ll notice any creatives using in their work. “Space is limited.” “When we run out, we run out.”

Quality – Do you offer an unmatched quality compared with everyone else? Farnam Street is an excellent example of quality. There are hundreds of other blogs out there writing about business, leadership, and psychology. Now, Farnam Street can offer a uniqueness factor (in the guests they can attract to their podcast) and popularity/exclusivity (they have endorsements from very prominent CEOs and leaders), but initially, Shane, the creator of Farnam Street, competed on quality. He built a brand around articles of unparalleled depth.

Simplification – Are you able to turn a complicated process into something insanely simple? Trunk Club and other similar clothing services make shopping a breeze. Online aggregators and newsletter lists build brands around simplification—Overwhelmed by everything that’s going on? We’ll package it for you in this neat, readable email. See The Skimm for an example.

Uniqueness – Are you the only one that offers your service? For example, Offscreen magazine took a unique angle by creating a print magazine all about digital life. At a time when most publications were moving to online-only, they went the other way.

Authority – Can you draw from past experience in a way that immediately makes you an authority on this topic? Noah Kagan leverages his past experience building Facebook and Mint.com all the time on podcasts, blog posts, etc. It’s one way he can differentiate himself from the rest of the crowd and establish some authority. “I have experience building some of the biggest brands in the world successfully. Listen to what I have to say.”

The hardest aspects to compete on are speed, cost, and popularity. There will always be someone out there that’s cheaper and faster. Audiences aren’t built out of thin air. It takes time, which means that unless you have famous connections willing to endorse your work immediately, popularity is out.

The others are differentiators you can use to separate yourself from the competition. Here are some examples in the real world:

Case Study #1: Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis stands out as a creative that has hit on both quality, simplification, and uniqueness. He started by writing articles only he could write (unique) that weren’t available anywhere else. He usually produced only one a week (quality), and he built an audience by sending those articles to his newsletter first. Now, he builds online courses (like Chimp Essentials) that boil complex topics like marketing and building an audience down to a simple process (simplification).

Case Study #2: Tynan

Tynan used uniqueness and quality to build an audience on his blog. Few blogs are writing posts about buying an island, living in an RV, or why they don’t drink. Not only are his articles insanely unique, they’re well-written and often highly practical to the average reader.

Case Study #3: Jocko Willink

I’m a big fan of Extreme Ownership, the leadership book written by retired Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. They’ve both parlayed their unique and authoritative background in the SEALs into a chart-topping podcast and consulting business. It didn’t hurt to have Jocko hop on the podcasts of Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan; that’s a solid popularity boost.

Case Study #4: Jean Hsu

I’m a big fan of Jean Hsu’s work on leadership for engineering teams. She’s currently building an audience on authority (after working at Google and Medium) and quality (her articles answer common questions with practical takeaways).

What Aspects Are You Competing On?

This all boils down to a simple concept. What aspects can you use to differentiate your service from your competitors?

When I first thought about rebooting my monthly newsletter, I considered this in-depth. Speed, cost, and popularity were out of the question. Feeling is difficult to elicit in an email. I elected to go with quality and uniqueness. Quality means sending only one email out a month and making sure the content is applicable to my audience. Uniqueness is emailing everyone when they sign up (manually) to establish a connection and giving away a book each month with a hand-written card and marginalia marking my favorite passages. We’ll see if those aspects make a difference.

You need to think about this prior to launching your service. List out the aspects you can compete on and exactly how you’re going to use each to separate yourself from the competition. Consumers face endless choices. You need to stand out.

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