Getting an article in a publication your clients will read has the added bonus of making you look like an expert in their business as well as yours. But before you see your name in print, you’ve got to learn how to pitch your article so that it gets picked up.
Of all the ways to market your skills, getting an article in a publication or posted to a blog your clients will read is my all-time favorite method. It’s much cheaper than advertising and has the added bonus of making you look like an expert in their business as well as yours. As if that wasn’t enough, there is the rather bizarre possibility of potential clients spotting you at one of their events and saying they saw your article. That connection will make any conversation much easier.
How do you do it? There are several stages to pitching an article and you won’t master any of them the first time. I accrued a lot of rejections and missed opportunities at the beginning. While rejection hurt like mad at the time, it really helped me hone my craft. To make this little guide easy to follow, I will go through the process chronologically.
First, Pick an Audience
I really shouldn’t have to write this, but bad targeting is a really common mistake. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have pitched material for my blog with no idea which audience I target or even which audience they wanted to reach!
The more specific the definition of your audience is, the better. My top target at the moment is U.K.-based events managers who organize international events, but who don’t have an interpreting team or are looking for a change. My secondary target is event managers who want to shift into the international events market, but don’t have the supplier contacts to do so. In both cases, I’m aiming more at the younger, tech-savvy market than at the massive established players. I’m also more interested in those who don’t specialize in fashion or medical products.
That’s how specific you need to be, at least at the outset. If you want the full reason why you need to be that specific, listen to any podcast on marketing. The short and dry version is that it’s much easier to write a brilliant but narrow pitch than to try to please everyone.
Next, Hang Out with Them
Before you even think about what and where to pitch, you need to spend time (preferably in person) with people from your target market. Go to their events, subscribe to their magazines, and join their LinkedIn groups. Do anything, in fact, that allows you to learn how they communicate (including industry jargon) and the issues they view as important.
If you try to skip this stage, you might end up in the same ridiculous situation I encountered when I pitched an article to an events magazine on running successful “multilingual” events. I received a very nice e-mail from the editor saying that my topic was outside the magazine’s interests. The next day the magazine published a very similar article on running successful “international” events by another writer. Lesson learned—one ill-chosen word equals one very annoyed interpreter.
You simply can’t write a great pitch without learning the industry jargon and style used by your target audience. This is, by the way, another reason for being specific. In my case, I need to learn how the attitudes and communities of younger events professionals differ from their older counterparts.
Listen a Lot
This is an extension of the point above, but the slight repetition is necessary. It will always be tempting to jump right in and pitch an article after receiving your first issue of an industry magazine or skimming a single blog post. However, I can just about guarantee that this approach will fail miserably.
My mum used to say that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. And that adage applies here. In the same way you might slice apart a project brief or comb through a source text, give yourself time (i.e., at least three magazine issues, three all-day events, a few months reading a blog or studying the comments in an online discussion group, or some combination of them all) to soak up the atmosphere and outlook of your target audience before you even consider pitching.
Strangely enough, over time, something amazing happens. As you get to know the people you want to reach, ideas for pitches seem to arrive by themselves. Suddenly, the gaps in their knowledge and, more importantly, the things they perceive to be important become obvious. Once you understand these gaps and what your target audience deems important, the rest begins to take care of itself. However, it takes practice.
Let me add one little note based on brutal experience. Before you pitch, make sure all your interactions with your potential audience are professional and try to resist the urge to correct misconceptions. No one likes a smarty-pants and criticism will not be welcomed until you’ve built up a really strong relationship with the target group. I’ve lost count of the number of people in my own profession who have thrown away any chance of having a positive influence by publicly criticizing current and potential clients.
Practice in a Safe Environment
At the same time that you’re getting to know your target audience you should be working on your writing craft somewhere semi-public, but where you can’t be rejected. I will go a bit against the grain here and say that, for most people, a personal or business blog is not the best place to practice.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that in both the target sector (e.g., for me, it’s events management) and the translation and interpreting professions, the posts that get shared the most tend to be those written for fellow professionals in that sector. So, unless you’re extremely disciplined, you can get sucked into writing more in that vein to get your stats up and receive praise from colleagues, rather than polishing a client-friendly style.
Places like LinkedIn Pulse and the groups where you’re listening to potential clients are much better venues to hone your writing technique. As far as LinkedIn Pulse is concerned, try writing a few posts on the basics of working with someone in your profession, but aimed at people who don’t even know what, for example, an event manager or translator/interpreter does.
As simple as those posts might sound, they’re tricky to get right. They also receive a surprising amount of feedback. So, if you can make these posts sound informative but not preachy or didactic, you know you’re on the right track. If your colleagues accuse you of writing really basic stuff but your potential clients start sharing your content, that’s a sign you’re getting it absolutely right!
When it comes to online groups, practice writing brief responses to any relevant questions or blog posts that come up. You can get the same kind of practice by going to networking events in that industry and practicing having good conversations that don’t turn into a sales pitch. In both cases you should be aiming to sound like an expert in that particular area who just happens to be a genius when it comes to translation or interpreting. Avoid coming across as someone from those professions who snuck in when no one was looking!
Target More than One Editor at the Same Time
Once you have some practice under your belt, and especially if you have gathered some positive feedback from people in your target market, you can start to find editors. Editors are your gateway to valuable space in magazines and blogs, and should therefore be approached with due care and something nearing adulation!
Seriously, the best tactic I’ve found, which I still use, is to follow trails through articles posted in market-specific groups (e.g., works cited, blog rolls, or additional links to recommended articles) and then compare this list to the publications that appear when you search on Google for terms describing your target market and the words “magazine” or “publication.” Often, the leading industry magazines will actually be called something like [industry field] News or [industry field] Weekly. If you can see circulation numbers, all the better. But remember, you want the best publications for your specific target market, not necessarily those with the highest numbers.
In my market, I could easily pitch to magazines with huge circulation numbers that target the U.S. But given that readers of these publications would be highly unlikely to hire me, that would be a pretty pointless exercise!
Once you have this information, always send pitches to two or three potential target publications at a time. Experience has taught me that editors are juggling about a million things at once, so it’s likely that a large proportion of editors you contact will either never get back to you or won’t reply for at least a month. Don’t worry. By contacting a few editors simultaneously, you can reduce anxiety and increase the chances of getting an early win. Just remember to develop a system to keep track of what you said to whom!
Do not, however, fall into the trap of blanket pitching too many editors at once. Contacting two or three editors at a time is about right. By the time you do proper research and familiarize yourself with these editors’ needs and publication styles, you’ll find that even keeping track of two or three pitches takes work. But it’s more than worth it when your pitch lands you an article.
Base a Pitch on the Editor’s Needs (and Your Expertise)
Editors have three basic needs: 1) solid, relevant content that requires as little work as possible, 2) more hours in the day, and 3) coffee. Once you realize that, you can make sure that you hit at least the first two areas in every pitch.
I always pitch by first looking through one or two recent issues (or, if I’m aiming for a spot in a blog, about a month of blog posts) and imagining where my content might fit in and what attraction it might have for the audience. Before I even start writing to an editor I ask, “If I were reading this magazine or blog, why would this content be important to me?”
Notice that I didn’t say “for me.” We all think our business is absolutely vital for our clients, but if we can’t make a compelling case for why they’ll agree with us, the editors of the publications aimed at those clients will just dismiss us. Answering that question badly or not at all has been the number one reason for me receiving rejections. And I’ve had a lot of rejections!
A simple way to reduce the risk of making that mistake is to try to include the phrase “I was reading the latest issue of [magazine] and I noticed that …” in your e-mail. You could also say, “I noticed that you had a great piece by John Smith on [insert topic] for international associations,” or, “I noticed that you were going to discuss selling across cultures in a future issue.” You can phrase your introduction to an editor any way you want, but hooking on to what the publication is already saying is a great start and shows that you’re reading carefully!
A word of warning, though. If you’re going to finish that sentence with “I noticed that you haven’t covered [x],” be very careful. Often, that just gives editors a reason to tell you that your pitch is outside the publication’s scope, since you’ve just revealed that it isn’t a common topic. The only time that angle has worked for me is when I found that a publication had covered something near my specialization, but left an important bit out. In that case, I would write something like, “I noticed that Joe Bloggs wrote a great piece on international events, but he didn’t talk about working with interpreters. Since that is such a vital part of making international events work, I would like to build on what he wrote.”
Make Life Easy for Yourself (and the Editor)
The most important part of pitching based on an editor’s needs is making it easy for the editor to make a decision. Most magazines are split into sections, so you should absolutely suggest the section in which your article might work the best, based on what has already been published.
You can make life easy for yourself by reducing the entire article down to a three-sentence paragraph, including the context, the problem, and the solution. For a recent blog post on the website of a leading industry magazine, I mentioned the need for British events companies to win international business post-Brexit, as well as the problem of the U.K.’s less than stellar record for language learning. The solution, I argued, was to work effectively with interpreters. To ease any doubts, I threw in some links to existing content that talked about some of those issues. Within 24 hours, the editor contacted me to offer prime space on the blog.
That three-sentence summary lets the editor quickly tell if you have a good idea, but it also gives you a ready-made structure for your final piece, with enough wiggle room to allow your creativity to shine. In a pinch, you can also use this summary as the introduction of the final article, at least temporarily.
The very last part of writing the pitch is making sure it’s way shorter than this article on how to write pitches!
Remember, editors are busy so make sure your e-mail can be read in about 30 seconds and skimmed in under 10. The longest version of your pitch should be three paragraphs long and look something like this:
- A short, suitably complimentary introduction, including your hook, a maximum of one sentence introducing yourself, and ending with the topic of your suggested article in five words or less.
- The trademark three-sentence summary of your suggested piece.
- A suitable friendly sign off, inviting the editor to get back to you.
Feel free to keep the pitch even shorter, but resist the temptation to stuff everything into a paragraph that looks like it has eaten too much Christmas turkey. When in doubt, cut stuff out.
Welcome Failure, Celebrate Success
And after you’ve done all that, will success be assured? Sadly, no. Part of the process of pitching is the “fun” of failure. Some e-mails will never be answered. Some will come back with a rejection. Some—those precious ones—will come back with acceptances.
It always pays to remember that a “no” from one editor is often a stepping-stone to “yes” from another. Some publications won’t be suitable for the content you want to write, and that’s okay. For others, the timing will be wrong. That’s okay, too.
The skills you pick up from studying clients and learning their needs and then writing appropriate pitches become a vital part of your toolkit for other areas of your marketing, including writing for your business.
Add to that the joy and interest you get when clients see you as an expert in their field, and the work is definitely worth it!
Jonathan Downie is the owner of Integrity Languages in the U.K. He provides French<>English conference and business interpreting services, public speaking, and content writing. After two years as a columnist for industry publications, including the ITI Bulletin and VKD Kurier, he published Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence (Routledge, 2016). His work has appeared in magazines for senior administrators, the U.K. events industry, and Flight Time, the in-flight magazine of the European regional airline, Flybe. He is a board member of the European Society for Translation Studies and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. He has a PhD in interpreting from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, U.K. (thesis topic: client expectations of interpreters). You can find his blog at www.integritylanguages.co.uk/blog. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.