Spider Marketing: How to Get Clients to Come to You

When it comes to practicing spider marketing, your web needs to have many strands.

At the Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (METM) in 2015, I was inspired by a presentation by a very experienced translator, Graham Cross, a freelance technical and legal translator and former chair of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the U.K. Graham was talking about churn, the marketing concept that dictates how many of our clients end up disappearing for one reason or another. His basic point was that, due to this seemingly inevitable factor, investing a large amount of time and money in marketing is a waste because, even if you do find new clients, it’s highly unlikely that they will earn you enough to repay the effort.

This attracted my interest because it was certainly my experience that a great deal of time and effort can be wasted on marketing. That year, for example, I had been to a big trade fair in an attempt to sell my services. I had brochures printed and went around meeting people and handing them out all over the place. Some of the responses were quite encouraging, but the effort didn’t win me any new customers. I had also been to a networking event for entrepreneurs in a bar in Barcelona. I prepared myself, got up on a stool, and presented my business for two minutes, which is the format for these meetings. The reaction was very good and it was a fantastic exercise in getting out of my comfort zone, as I’ve never considered myself a public speaker. But once again, it was an absolute failure in terms of winning new customers.

My point isn’t that going out and selling yourself is never worthwhile. I’m sure the way I went about things in those two examples can be dissected and the reasons for my failure laid bare. What I’m saying is that it’s possible, and even quite likely, to spend lots of time and energy on marketing with little or no result.

But back to Graham Cross. He was asked the very reasonable question: “If marketing is a waste of time, then how do you find clients?” He replied by explaining the two theories of capturing clients: the “Tiger” and the “Spider.” The Tiger represented going out and hunting for clients, with the risk that you might chase a juicy deer and end up with a rabbit or a rat. But he identified with the spider, waiting for the clients to come to him.

The following provides some thoughts on how to “weave” a marketing web to attract clients. It’s based on a presentation I gave last year at the METM16 conference in Tarragona, Spain.


So, how does being a spider work? Well, on this one I’m not with Graham in terms of shying away from technology—he was such a technophobe that he dictated all his translations and had them typed up by a secretary to avoid having to use a computer. This is the 21st century, after all, and we have all sorts of electronic means within our grasp to help us reach potential clients.

First, there are the social networks. I’m not going to spend too much time on this because we all know about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and so on. All I will say about them is that, in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter which ones you use as long as you’re there somewhere. For example, I can be found on Facebook, but, until very recently, not on Twitter. This has been a personal choice. I know many people who use Twitter very successfully. I simply have limited time to spend looking at and dealing with social media and have chosen to ignore Twitter for the moment.

All the networks have their peculiarities. Lately, Facebook seems to be trying to discourage business pages; LinkedIn, as always, seems to be full of potential but never quite lives up to it; and Google+ seems to be dying on its feet. You can post across several social networks using Buffer or Hootsuite, but my advice is to make sure, above all, that the content you post is good and worthwhile.

Have I won clients through social networks? Yes, and one or two good ones, but to be honest not that many. A good spider’s web needs to have other strands. One of those, of course, is the online profile. There are many kinds of online profiles on sites like ProZ and others, and some of these may be worth having, particularly if you’re not ready to take the step of having your own website. They can attract offers of work, although often the conditions will be so poor they won’t be worth considering.

To my mind there really isn’t any substitute for having your own website, although I have to confess that mine hasn’t brought me huge numbers of clients. As much as anything, I see it as an electronic business card where I can direct potential clients to find more information, and I know for a fact that my site has helped convince clients to entrust their translations to me. I believe the most important thing is to try to connect with your customers with a message that says a bit more than “Here I am, I’m very good at my job.” Mine, for example, makes the point that if you hire me, as a freelance rather than an agency, you know exactly who is doing your translations. You will no doubt either have found or will find a message of your own.

So, here are my website tips. First, as I have said, connect with your customers. That would include making sure you have your site in their language(s). Then use a professional designer. There are plenty of programs that allow you to do it yourself, but I don’t see how we can, in one breath, ask people to use professional translators and, in the next, say we’re going to build our own websites. But even when you use a professional, make the style your own. There are lots of possibilities, but your site should be original and reflect your personality or the personality you want to put across.

Tying in with that is the content: make sure it’s well written and don’t try to artificially fill it with keywords. Now, keywords are related to search engine optimization (SEO), which means getting your site to appear high up when someone searches with Google or another search engine. As I’m not an expert on the subject, I asked a more knowledgeable colleague what she thought, and I was greatly encouraged because many of her tips turned out to be very similar to mine. That means Google is now set up so it actually rewards things it ought to be rewarding. But she also had some other advice I thought I’d share.


First, she made the very important point that you should concentrate on the experience visitors have on your page, and, following on from this, stated that conversions matter more than clicks. In other words, it’s all very well getting people to your page, but it’s no good if they don’t buy your services. My colleague also said it’s important to consider all elements of SEO and use Google Analytics to make sure it’s working. In terms of finding out more information on SEO, she recommended visiting https://moz.com/learn/seo, reading Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, or simply googling “SEO basics.”

Moving on, there are also translators who have blogs. Blogs can be used for selling, although I’ll be the first to admit that mine actually isn’t. It’s written in English and talks about translation. If I was really going to use it for selling, I’d write it in my source languages and concentrate on subjects of interest to clients. At the moment that’s a future project, although I have the capability to do it, as my website is multilingual. Strangely, my English-language blog has actually helped me win some clients. I know this because they have mentioned that they picked me because of my writing style, which only goes to show that you can’t always predict the results of what you do online.

But Where Do the Clients Come From?

Everything I’ve mentioned so far accounts for what you might consider to be the main strands of a spider marketer’s web. Nowhere, though, have I given examples of anything that has attracted lots of new clients. To explain why, let’s go back for the last time to Graham Cross. At the conclusion of his presentation, he was asked another good question: “Where are my clients going to come from?” to which he replied “The people sitting next to you: your colleagues.” This set me thinking. The marketing initiatives I had launched had largely failed. I had what I considered to be a good website, but it wasn’t bringing in lots of customers, and yet I considered myself reasonably successful, with plenty of work. So, I did something I had never done before and started looking at who my own clients were and where I found them.

First, I was amazed to discover that 85% of my clients had come to me, rather than me going to them looking for work. (It turns out I really am a spider.) Then I was surprised at how many direct clients I have—they make up 36% of the total, followed by colleagues at 31%, and agencies in third place at 29%. This year’s figures would show a different proportion, with agencies dropping still further after I raised my rates again at the beginning of the year.

Relationships with Colleagues

Looking a bit more deeply I realized that a lot of the direct clients had also come via colleagues. Taking this into account, colleagues were clearly my most important source of work, just as Graham Cross had predicted. So, what is it that makes our colleagues such good clients? One reason is, as I’ve suggested, that they often bring us into contact with direct clients. More importantly, they bring us into contact with direct clients at a time when those clients need translations. Maybe if we had run into that same client at some event they would have taken our business card, but would probably have lost or forgotten about it by the time they needed work done. But if we’re introduced by a colleague it’s because that end client needs a translation now. If we do our job well, we have a good chance of keeping the client. Not only that, but if our colleague has a relationship with the client, it probably means that the client is a low risk in terms of non-payments, which is something else that could otherwise be difficult to discover on our own.

Even if the colleague doesn’t put us in direct contact with the end client and decides to act as an intermediary, the rate we can obtain is often better than an agency rate. This is because, generally, our colleagues are not motivated by profit when passing translations on to us. What they are usually concerned about is solving a problem for their client. Sometimes they don’t even make money on these jobs. They just want to help the client by getting them a good translation with as little fuss as possible. Their profit will come from the translations they regularly do for the same client.

This is one reason why colleagues make up such a large proportion of my clients nowadays. My rates are becoming too high for many agencies to pay, but colleagues can still afford me for their clients, provided they are not concerned about making too much money from the job. Colleagues who work in this way are also generally reliable payers. I have some who pay within a day of receiving the invoice. Why do they do this? It’s obvious, really. They know exactly what it’s like having to wait for payment themselves.

So, where can we find these colleagues who are going to bring us all this work? It’s possible to find them online, of course, but I’ve found the best source to be translators’ associations. A survey of my own clients clearly showed where a large proportion (31%) come from: my membership in the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Catalonia (APTIC). Why? Well, it’s because most of its members work in precisely the opposite language combination to me. Colleagues working in the same language combination as me will only send work when they are rushed. However, when colleagues working in the opposite language combination are asked to translate into English, they will generally refer work to a colleague rather than risk their professional reputations. So, they look for someone who they think can do the translation well. The trick is to be the person they think of when they’re looking.


There are various ways of being that person. You should, first, appear in the association’s directory, such as ATA’s Directory of Translators and Interpreters. You can also, for example, participate in the association’s online discussion lists and forums so that people get to know your name. Then you can attend the association’s social events and get to know other members. For example, I make a point of going to the APTIC Christmas party and chatting with people I know and people I don’t know. You might think this is a trivial point, but when I went to my first party several years ago, I was sitting at a table with three other people. I still work for those colleagues and they are still recommending me to other potential clients. I should stress that I have done none of these things consciously, or at best with a vague desire for “networking,” but I can vouch for the fact that these techniques really do work.

Another way you can make the most of associations (and this is more the spider venturing out of its web occasionally) is by chasing after jobs advertised to members. I would advise you to do this as often as you can, provided it’s a job you can do well. But when you take on these assignments, be quick. With this sort of job offer it’s definitely the early spider that catches the fly. It isn’t necessarily the job that’s advertised that you’re interested in, though, it’s more the long-term connection with the client concerned, often a direct client. The job isn’t always what it seems, anyway, as demonstrated by this example.

Last year, I saw quite an interesting job advertised on the APTIC e-mail list. I wrote expressing my interest—it was a 3,000-word French translation related to history, which is one of my specialty areas. After speaking to the client, it turned out that what really had to be translated was an exhibition catalogue amounting to almost 100,000 words of Catalan and French. It was one of my biggest and best jobs of the year.

Of course, once you’ve managed to get orders for work from colleagues or other clients, you need to keep those clients and, just as importantly, find ways of getting them to recommend you to others. I discovered that 11% of my clients came through this kind of recommendation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of the 44% of clients whose origin I don’t know or can’t remember also came in this way. So, how can this be done?


I started writing down some tips, based on my own ideas and conversations with some of my colleagues and clients, and I can only apologize for the fact that the headings below sound a lot like the kind of dating advice you might receive from your mother:

  • Be different. Sometimes it helps if you can offer something different—an unusual language combination or specialty area, for example. Mine is French>English translation, which isn’t an unusual combination except in Spain, but has opened many doors for me.
  • Be yourself. Remember not to work outside your specialty areas. You won’t impress if you mess up a translation for which you’re not really suited.
  • Be available. Sometimes you need to make an extra effort to secure this type of client, working the odd evening or weekend, especially at the start. You can set boundaries later, but you want the client to come back.
  • Be good. I can’t stress this one enough. Be the best translator you can be, taking advantage of all possible forms of self-improvement, including attending conferences. And it’s not just me saying that. For example, ATA Board Director Chris Durban, who many of you will have heard of as someone who has, in the past, stressed the need for translators to adopt business-like attitudes, left the following comment on my blog last year: “I would dearly like to hear more support for the hottest tip I know of for translators looking to build their business. Ready? Here we go: become a better translator.”
  • Be on time. Deadlines matter, but it’s amazing how many translators don’t realize this. How do I know? Because some clients have been astonished simply at the fact that I always deliver on time. To me, as a former journalist, it’s second nature. Make sure it’s second nature to you as well.
  • Be nice. This can take whatever form you like, but it puts your relationship on another level. In my case, I just try to be friendly and make my e-mails a little more personal, especially if the other person takes the lead. Others make homemade holiday gifts. One thing I do is to think about who might become a potential client in the future. Project managers, for example, often leave agencies and set up on their own. If you find out one is leaving, write her a message wishing her luck. Next week she may need a translator into English.
  • Be reciprocal. Pass on work you can’t do to colleagues. It helps make them think of you when they need something done.

Follow these principles and I can’t promise you’ll find Mr. or Miss Right, but you should satisfy your colleagues and clients and win more recommendations, which is the point of the exercise.

Take Away

So, I would say the above pretty much explains what it takes to be a successful spider. It’s a strategy that perhaps won’t take you to the very top of the profession. After all, a spider is unlikely to catch big game. What it will do is provide you with a good base to build on with clients who will pay you reasonably well and reliably, and who will help you break out of the agency market. And that’s something well worth considering. 

Simon Berrill is a translator with 15 years of experience. He works from Spanish, Catalan, and French into English for agencies, universities, and private customers, largely in Spain but also in the U.K., France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and other countries. His specialties include journalism, history, tourism, business, sports, food and wine, and art and music. He worked as a journalist in England for many years. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, Catalan Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, and Mediterranean Editors and Translators. You can find his blog at www.sjbtranslations.com/blog. Contact: simonberrill@sjbtranslations.com.

3 Responses to "Spider Marketing: How to Get Clients to Come to You"

  1. Natalie Pavey says:

    Excellent article, Simon! This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone mention the benefits “networking” with colleagues (although I would argue that it’s more like socializing than anything, lucky for us) but I agree that referrals from colleagues are one of the primary ways to get new clients. It’s quite possibly the main reason why translators associations exist! Thanks for spreading the word.

  2. Paula Gille Loubier says:

    Thank you for a very enlightening article. I do not have a personal website (although I’m on a number of directories as well as LinkedIn). But after reading your article, I will seriously considering setting (a professional) one up. Thanks!

  3. Jackie Metivier says:

    I enjoyed your article, I think I’m a successful spider! I’ve been in business for 26 years providing English/Spanish translation & interpretation services . The majority of these reliable clients have come from referrals, as you stated in your article. I am not one to keep up with Facebook or Tweeter, but I have a large network of contacts in LinkedIn and LOVE my profession.

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