This is a guest post by Michèle Hansen, a French to English translator specializing in medical, global health, and international development translations. Michèle took my direct client marketing course a while back, and has since capitalized on her love of continuing education (and travel!) to build her direct client business by attending client-side conferences and educational events.
Why attend client-side events?
Regardless of where you are in your career, you need to be thinking about finding new clients or keeping existing ones. I’ve taken a couple of Corinne’s marketing courses and found them helpful, and I want to share how one strategy—attending client-side conferences—has proven to be a successful way to find and retain clients while learning about the sectors you translate for.
I used to exclusively attend events about translating, editing, and writing. These were a great source of information and contacts within our industry, and continue to energize and educate me even after some 25 years in the business. Most of my agency clients came through direct or indirect connections made at ATA conferences. However, by limiting myself to “insider” meetings I was not connecting with potential direct clients in any meaningful way. Attending events not aimed at language professionals has opened my eyes to such clients’ expectations and misperceptions and helped position me as a solution to their problems rather than as a barrier.
Inside and out
My translation work is divided between medical and pharmaceutical projects on the one hand, and global health and development projects on the other. While the latter clients are more attuned to multilingual communication, I’ve still encountered a surprising amount of misinformation about what we do. Meeting people face-to-face is a terrific way of educating them about what professional translators and interpreters offer. I’ve used dozens of conversations at coffee breaks to explain our industry, often to people who will never have a need for my own services. I view that as “client outreach” for our community generally, and hey, you never know if they might pass my card along to someone else!
People like to complain, especially among colleagues who they trust will understand their problems. When you are seated at a lunch table or standing around the exhibit hall, you hear a lot about insider issues and can strategize about how to be part of the solution. Of course, you might realize instead that you will never be a good fit for their organization. Either way, that is valuable information.
Think outside the box
It wasn’t until I began attending client events that I realized how truly broad the international development sector is. I knew about the big international and inter-governmental organizations, donors, NGOs, and so forth, which already constitute a large pool of potential clients. However in many ways these are all grouped under the same umbrella. A whole other umbrella is the world of academia. Many industry and development organizations have affiliations with universities, and academic researchers publish a significant body of work. Academics writing in a non-native language sometimes require editing more than translation per se, so you can market yourself as a target language specialist familiar with the field rather than just as a translator.
Another potential client base I learned about through conferences is private-sector companies. You’ve all heard about public-private partnerships or enterprise-led development. Corporate social responsibility is a similar idea that has led many large companies to set up internal divisions dedicated to developing or partnering with development programs. For example, Chevron and Conoco are involved in such projects in Nigeria. They need a local workforce that is educated and healthy, and their profits depend on a strong government that can enforce property laws. Therefore they have invested in a variety of projects, most not directly related to their core businesses of oil and gas: developing fisheries, empowering women, increasing civic involvement, etc. And did you know that Land O’Lakes has been involved in international development for 37 years and has donated nearly $2 million towards philanthropy programs? I sure didn’t! Since I work in the health sector I had never thought to reach out to companies in other fields, but now I do. So even if you don’t know anything about a particular industry, you might be a good match to translate their social enterprise materials.
Honing Your skills
Conferences are a perfect opportunity to keep up with ever-changing terminology and cultivate subject matter expertise. They are also a perfect opportunity to ask dumb questions! Odds are nobody there knows you, and you aren’t approaching them to ask for business (yet), so you can dare to show your ignorance. Exhibitors and presenters, especially, are there to showcase their expertise, and will likely be glad to enlighten you. On the other hand, if you’re already knowledgeable about a topic, you can engage them in a discussion about their specific activities or recent advances in the field, and come off as a peer rather than a vendor.
Meet on their turf, prove your worth
Most attendees at an industry event work in that industry. When a translator or interpreter shows up, you are automatically interesting to them. They are impressed, because they know that you have taken the time and paid the fees to be there. Your presence alone indicates that you don’t live in an echo chamber, you invest in your business, and you are committed to staying up-to-date on that sector’s issues.
Of course, if you’re there to sell yourself you need to do your homework first. Subscribe to newsletters to stay abreast of industry news throughout the year. Look at the lists of sponsors, exhibitors, presenters, and attendees on the conference website. You need to show that you understand their business even as you represent an outside view.
Time and money are the major reasons many people do not attend conferences, and those are valid concerns. This marketing strategy requires careful planning and prioritizing. I live in the Chicago area, so I scour the various newsletters and industry websites for local events that won’t involve travel costs. As a French to English translator, I like to attend a meeting in a francophone country if I can, and combine that with a family vacation. I look for other synergies: Do I know anyone in the conference city I can stay with? Can I combine the event with an in-person meeting with a local client?
Still, there is no getting around the fact that conferences cost money. However, I have found that my upfront investment has paid off. In the past 18 months, I spent about $7K in registration fees, hotels, and travel, but earned nearly $15K from new clients. I hope and expect that these clients will continue to send me work in the future, without any additional investment on my part.
Here’s what happened last month: This year’s ATA conference was immediately followed by a tropical medicine conference that was not only also in New Orleans, but in the same hotel! That was too convenient to pass up. I paid the extra hotel nights and the (hefty) conference fee, but received a 6,000-word translation project from a new client that same week. The day after I got home I received an email from someone else I chatted with asking for my CV and rate sheet to share with their colleagues, and four others connected with me on LinkedIn. I met with an existing (but fairly new) client for coffee, who was pleasantly surprised to find me there, and ended up hearing about their 2019 project pipeline and where I could fit in. Granted, I don’t always get this much interest at every event I attend, but the balance sheet has thus far been in my favor. I’m confident this strategy will be successful for others who enjoy live networking, are willing to do their homework, and can afford to be patient while the conference seeds germinate.