Cold Emailing: What Not To Do

Martin Boyd

spamfolderWhen novice translators ask me how they should begin establishing a client base, cold emailing to potential clients is rarely one of the strategies that I suggest. As a general rule, unsolicited emails are much less effective than responding to job postings, attending conferences, establishing a solid online presence or simply being available at the right time (i.e., all the time). As a freelancer I have had only very occasional success with cold emailing (indeed, it has been many years now since I last employed the strategy), and as the director of a small translation agency I receive hundreds of unsolicited emails a month from freelancers offering their services, the percentage of which I actually retain for future reference is negligible. Nevertheless, there are occasions when cold emailing may yield results, provided that, as a bare minimum, the following basic guidelines are followed. Most of these points may seem obvious to any freelancer, yet I can assure you, based on the many cold emails I receive, that they are all too often overlooked.

  1. Select your potential clients carefully and personalize your email to them. When sending out CVs to potential clients, many freelancers adopt a bulk emailing approach, equivalent to the “strafing approach” used by bomber pilots at war. The problem with this approach is that while in a war zone the objective is to hit anything that moves, in job-seeking it is not enough merely to hit your target, but to consider the kind of impact you’ll have on that target, and whether it is a target that you actually want to hit. I run a small agency dedicated exclusively to Spanish-English translation in a few specialist fields, a fact that is quite clearly stated on the home page of the Diálogos website; nevertheless, I receive huge volumes of cold emails from translators working into or out of French, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and Somali, to name but a few. I also receive many emails that make no reference to my agency at all, and some that even address me anonymously as “Dear ,”. Even if they do reach a potential client with an interest in your services, impersonal emails like these are likely be deleted as soon as the recipient sees the blank space for the addressee’s name at the top. It is essential in your cover message to show some indication that you have actually researched the client you’re soliciting work from, and have recognized that they may have a need that you have the skills base to fill. Otherwise, your email is really just spam, and will be treated accordingly.
  1. State your language pair(s) in the subject of your email. It should perhaps be obvious to most translators that the language pair or pairs you work in is the first piece of information you should provide to clients, yet it is surprising how many freelancers bury this indispensable bit of data down the bottom of their email… or don’t even include it at all! This oversight is especially common among French-English translators in Canada, where you can still find lingering traces of the antiquated chauvinist notion that Canada’s two official languages are the only languages, even in a multicultural context that makes such chauvinism look highly ludicrous. I have also found it quite common among Spanish-English translators based in Latin America, where this language pair tends to dominate the translation sector. It is essential to provide the information on your language pair first (preferably in the subject of your email), because (as should be obvious) all your other qualifications are irrelevant if the client you’re approaching doesn’t work with your languages.
  1. Check your spelling, grammar and phrasing. In any field of employment, cover letters with spelling or grammar errors would probably be used as an excuse to disqualify a job candidate; but for linguists, where your language proficiency is one of the skills you are marketing, an error or awkward phrasing in your cover email can be fatal. Consider, for example, a freelance translator whose cover email to me included the sentence: “I dominate perfectly both English and Spanish languages.” With his awkward use of language, this translator has managed to make an affirmation about his English language skills and, simultaneously, to contradict that affirmation. In linguistic terms this is quite an impressive feat, but it is not the sort of achievement that you would want to become known for among your potential clients.
  1. Avoid translation industry clichés. Words like “accuracy” and “faithfulness” tend to get thrown around a lot in the translation industry, but in a cover email they don’t convey any real information about you and thus tend to look like filler. The assumption that a professional translator will endeavour to produce an accurate translation that is faithful to the source text should be so obvious that to state it is redundant. On the other hand, blithely employing adjectives like “accurate”, “faithful”, “flawless” or “verbatim” to describe your translation skills may give clients the impression that you haven’t really reflected on the contentious and subjective nature of these terms, which should be a point of reflection for any serious translator. The best approach is thus to avoid making what may sound like hollow or meaningless claims, and let your qualifications and experience speak for themselves.
  1. Be concise. It is important to bear in mind that any unsolicited email you send to a potential client is essentially advertising, and as such you need to apply the rules of effective advertising. One of the most important of these rules is to keep it short, offering the essential information about you and your work in as few words as possible. Given the limited amount of time that clients have on their hands to review their inboxes, any cold email that exceeds two short paragraphs will probably be deleted immediately. Do your best to hone your cover email down as much as possible, focusing on a short set of key points that the potential client really needs to know (language pair, fields of specialization, academic degree, translator’s certification, years of experience, past clients), and expressing those points as succinctly as you can.

Of course, following these guidelines will not guarantee success with cold emailing, which, as I suggested above, can be a less than rewarding client-hunting strategy at the best of times. However, I can guarantee that ignoring these guidelines will ensure a swift journey for your cold emails out of the inboxes of your potential clients and into their junk folders. And if you want to see something come out of your work in preparing your cold emails, that is a journey you will want them to avoid.

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