The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Unique Selling Proposition

Written by Corbett Barr

Hands down, the question I get most from readers is “how do I make my business or website unique?” I’ve talked to at least 10 of you over the past couple of months about that very topic.

In marketing speak, this is known as the unique selling proposition, or USP.

Note: as a follow-up to this original post, you might also want to check out these 10 killer unique selling proposition examples from around the web.

And it’s a fantastic question because deciding on a USP is possibly the most important decision you can make about your business.

If you make your business stand apart from the crowd, everything you do will be easier. Customers will be easier to come by. Adoring fans will gladly spread the word about what you do because they love it.

On the other hand, if you don’t develop an effective USP, building an audience or getting any customers to pay attention to you will be a constant struggle.

Your USP can mean the difference between success and failure.

And every time I have that discussion with one of you, you say “you should really write a blog post about this.” That’s a great idea, so here we go.

What is a Unique Selling Proposition?

First off, if the word “selling” turns you off, you can think of it as the “unique market proposition” if you’d like. It’s not about selling, it’s simply about differentiation.

Your unique selling proposition is what makes your business stand out. It’s what makes you different and earns you a special place in the minds of your potential customers.

Now, before any of you marketing geeks out there get on my case about the definition of USP, hold on. I know there’s another concept known as the Point of Difference (POD), and that there are probably a dozen of other different academic marketing terms with nuances they taught you in grad school.

Whatever you want to call it, that’s fine with me. The point is, differentiating your business is a Good Thing, whether you’re talking about the business itself, your products or your marketing.

I like to think of your overall USP as your reason for being. Think about it from your customer’s point of view. With tens or hundreds of potential options out there, you have to answer the question, “why should I buy from you?” Or, “why should I read your blog, when there are millions of other blogs I could be reading?”

If you don’t answer that question quickly, your potential customers or readers will move on. It’s really pretty simple.

It’s Not About Being the Best

Having a great product or superb content is probably not enough of a difference to make your business stand out. In most markets, having a great product is just the price of admission.

When you’re small, it’s hard to compete on product or content quality alone. You need to change the conversation. Instead of screaming “hey, look at me, I have great stuff too,” you want to confidently say, “hey, I’m all about X, we do things differently. If you’re into X, we’re the only place you can get it.”

Cal Newport wrote about what he calls The Superstar Effect over at the 4-Hour Workweek blog. Cal showed why it’s a losing game to try to win by being the best at something everyone else is also trying to be the best at. Think about getting into an Ivy League school, for example. Virtually everyone who gets in is a valedictorian with perfect SAT scores. How do you compete against that?

The answer is that you don’t compete at all. Instead, you become the best at something no one else is attempting.

That’s how Michael Silverman got accepted to Stanford, despite his middling SAT scores and G.P.A. Michael focused his energies on a series of environmental sustainability projects, and earned a reputation and press coverage for his accomplishments. He became the best at what he did, and stood out amongst 32,000 applicants to Stanford earning a unique place amongst the 7.2% who were accepted.

Instead of playing a game he couldn’t win, he changed the game.

That’s the power of a unique selling proposition. You want to be the best at something, but you can make it far easier if you define your competitors yourself.

Promotion is Only a Small Part of Marketing

When I started planning to create this blog, it struck me that most people get traffic building all wrong. At its essence, “building traffic” is really synonymous with marketing. Only, I knew that the world needed another boring marketing blog like it needed a hole in the ozone layer.

I decided to use the word “traffic” in the site’s name because I knew that’s what every website owner craves. You want more traffic. The trouble is, getting traffic isn’t about what you think it is. Most people think getting traffic is about promotion, but it’s really about holistic marketing.

Promotion is an important part of building a big audience, there’s no question. But promotion alone can’t entirely make up for a crappy product, mediocre content or the lack of a unique selling proposition. That would be like putting lipstick on a pig, as one of my old bosses used to love to say.

Building a high-traffic website or successful business starts with your point of view. It begins with your thesis, how do you see the world, how you care for and help your customers, and extends through to your content, products, customer interactions and then finally to your promotion.

Attracting customers isn’t something you “bolt on” in the end. It’s something you work on at every stage of your business, and your unique selling proposition is the first stage.

How to Find Your Unique Selling Proposition

So, you’ve bought into the idea that a unique selling proposition is important, but how do you define yours?

There are a lot of different approaches you can take. Your USP might end up being a combination of things. There’s no one right answer. And depending on what business you’re in, even a small amount of differentiation could lead to a much greater shot at success.

Here are a few simple ways to differentiate your business. These aren’t the only ways, but it’s a starting point to get you thinking.

Use Your Personality

If you’re running a very small business (like I do), or are are the primary owner of your business, sometimes your personality alone can be a powerful difference.

You have to have a personality that resonates with some people to pull this off, but by putting your personal stamp on many aspects of your business, you create something no one can directly compete with (there is only one you, after all). Gary Vaynerchuk is a great example of this approach.

Explore the Intersection of Ideas

Interesting things happen at the intersection of ideas, as Adam Singer likes to say, and plenty of ideas haven’t been combined before. Merge Manhattan-bred customs with African-inspired music and you get the band Vampire Weekend. Mix collective buying power with the social web and you get Groupon.

Think about the topic your business is about, and what you could add to the mix to make it more interesting and unique. It doesn’t require inventing something new, just combine two things you already know about.

Narrow Your Target Audience

Here’s another technique that’s pretty easy to pull off. You can choose a narrow target audience who has never had a business like yours cater specifically to it. For example, become a web designer for plumbers, or a plumber for recreational vehicles, or write about online marketing for dentists.

Think about this from the customer’s standpoint. If you were a dentist and needed help with online marketing, wouldn’t you be inclined to choose the business that specializes in dentists?

The other benefit of specializing in a narrow market segment is that promotion becomes much easier. You know where to find dentists together at conferences and where they hang out online, so you know how to target them.

Narrow Your Topic

Finally, you can also specialize narrowly in one particular aspect of your topic. Instead of being a web developer, become a web developer who translates visual designs into working WordPress websites. Instead of being an auto mechanic, become an auto mechanic who specializes in American-made electric vehicles.

See 20 examples of killer USPs in our free guide. You learn a lot by looking at these great examples with 25+ pages of examples and commentary from us.


Remember, You’re Not Trying to Appeal to Everyone

When starting out, creating a USP might seem like you’ll be leaving out some potential customers. It’s a natural tendency to want to please everybody.

But when you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one. The goal of your USP will be to connect more strongly with some people, and not so much with others. This is what you want because when you connect strongly with a smaller audience, your influence can spread much more quickly.

Have you heard the tale of the old man, boy and donkey? I read this in Michael Port’s excellent Book Yourself Solid. This might help:

An old man, a boy and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the donkey and the old man walked. As they went along they passed some people who remarked it was a shame the old man was walking and the boy was riding. The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed positions.

Later, they passed some people that remarked: “What a shame, he makes that little boy walk.” They then decided they both would walk!

Soon they passed some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So, they both rode the donkey.

Now they passed some people that shamed them by saying how awful to put such a load on a poor donkey. The boy and man said they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned.

The moral of the story? In Marketing, if you try to please everyone, you might as well… Kiss your ass good-bye.

Branding, Design and Messaging

Once you’ve developed a unique selling proposition, your job is to communicate it clearly and often.

That’s the role of branding, design and messaging. A great name, tagline and design can really tie this whole concept of uniqueness together.

And remember that the USP isn’t a one-time decision. You have to constantly remind people of what you stand for. Tell them in no uncertain terms on a regular basis why your business is different.

See 20 examples of killer USPs in our free guide. You learn a lot by looking at these great examples with 25+ pages of examples and commentary from us.

Download 20 Killer USP Examples »

Be Unique, But Not For Its Own Sake

Being unique is an important marketing strategy, but beware of being unique for its own sake. Being the only business who sells waterskis in the desert makes you unique, but it doesn’t mean there’s a market for your product.

Your unique selling proposition only works when you’re addressing some demand. It’s not necessarily about defining an entirely new market with unproven demand.

Being unique also requires clarity. If the unique selling proposition you come up with takes someone minutes or hours to understand, it probably won’t be effective. Being clear is another essential aspect of building a successful business or popular website.

Can you succeed without a dynamite USP?

Yes, of course it’s possible to succeed without a great unique selling proposition. It’s possible, but definitely not as easy. And success without a good USP requires better product development and promotion, along with some outside factors (maybe a little luck).

Sometimes there is so much demand in a market that multiple (virtually identical) businesses can succeed without working hard to differentiate themselves. In these cases, as long as you have a great product and a way to reach the market, you might be able to break through.

Look at the WordPress themes market, for example. There are lots of successful players in that market, and not too much difference between them.

Another example is the tech news + social media blog space. Back in 2005, Mashable, Read Write Web and TechCrunch all became giants, and did so by focusing on content and promotion more than starting with a unique angle. Of course, Mashable had Pete Cashmore and TechCrunch had Mike Arrington. Remember that a strong personality can be a USP in itself.

In terms of audience building, a USP is really the foundation of your efforts and will have a multiplier effect on your product and marketing.

You can always create a great product and rely on good old fashioned hard work to grow your business, but by adding a solid unique selling proposition you’ll reach your goals faster.

What if your business doesn’t have much of a USP?

So, you have a website or business, and now you’re thinking, shit, I didn’t really think about this USP stuff before I started. What do I do now?

Don’t do anything rash, first of all. You can refine your unique selling proposition without scrapping your entire business, and still make a big difference. The important thing is that you now understand how to use uniqueness to your advantage.

See 20 examples of killer USPs in our free guide. You learn a lot by looking at these great examples with 25+ pages of examples and commentary from us.

Download 20 Killer USP Examples »

20 examples of killer unique selling propositions

And here’s a word of caution. All of this can seem a little daunting at first. I’ve seen plenty of people get hung up on the concept of the USP for weeks or months. But remember that research and planning with no action won’t get you anywhere. It’s better to start working on your idea and refine it as you go along than it is to get stuck contemplating the perfect USP without doing anything.

What’s your unique selling proposition? Have any great examples of dynamite USPs? Share in the comments!

photo by nickwheeleroz

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