Nov 11, 2009

In the echo chamber of social media

Rod said...
I see you're going hog wild in the social media echo chamber ;-> I bet in the end that quietly doing translation work and then enjoying your free time will prove more profitable than chasing after loopy followers.
This comment on my Listening to Jeffrey post by our colleague in Japan reflects the confusion that a lot of people have with regard to so-called "social media" and the role these now play and will play in the future in our business and others. In fact, the latest newsletter from Mr. Gitomer included an interesting article on this very subject. According to Mr. Gitomer's definition of social media and my own understanding of the term, this "echo chamber" is where I and many others make a living. All of it.

Nitpickers will point out that Gitomer's definitions of social media confuse Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 media, but I don't think such distinctions are particularly productive. I think it's important to consider one's online presence as a whole. This will include e-mail, static media, dynamic media and interactive media, and the lines are not always clearly drawn between these areas. In the end what matters is that potential clients and colleagues with shared interests can find you and interact in some useful way, with the ultimate result hopefully being that the electric bill and a few other things get paid.

My business uses no local advertising. I have a sign next to the door so temporary postal workers don't walk away with my business mail undelivered, but local directories, yellow pages, etc. are not graced with my business presence in any form. And as much as I agree that it is valuable to attend local business chamber mixers and get involved in other community organizations, time is short, and I usually prefer to spend that limited time exercising the dogs, hunting or studying for a test. The time I spend "advertising" my business - or more correctly making the world aware of the fact that I exist and offer certain services - is generally better leveraged online. The experience of others may differ, of course. And along with the inevitable echo that over 30,000 Google hits brings (one friend recently complained that Google autocompletes my name, but I think that's normal), comes a steady stream of interesting professional contacts and inquiries resulting from the full range of online media I use.

What are these media and how do I use them? Some of this is covered in many earlier posts, but I'll take this opportunity for a recap and overview, because my approach is developing as I learn more, and it might be useful in six months to a year to see what has changed.

Let's start with e-mail. That's not really what one thinks of under the category of social media, but it is the most frequent direct means of communication that many of us use with our clients and colleagues, and it is often a gateway to social media interactions. How is that? In my e-mail signature I list addresses for my business web site, translation blog and translation-related Twitter account (so far, perhaps more to be added). I don't list my Skype account, though many do, and many use that tool to communicate with agency PMs and direct customers. Some of my signatures also include my pompous-sounding, legally protected German professional title as a state-examined, court-sworn translator. As silly as it sounds, it does carry weight with some clients, and it answers the question "Can you certify a patent translation?" without anyone saying or writing a word. There are many opportunities to use an e-mail signature effectively as a tool for improving communication and promoting your business.

There's this blog. Despite the irritating overabundance of comments on translation portal politics and other irrelevancies from time to time (virtual watercooler gossip, not to be confused with Any Bell's excellent Watercooler site), most of the posts reflects my professional interests as a translator in some way, including resources and tools which I think make my work easier. In some cases this provides information to prospects or current customers that make it clear that a particular project might be a good fit. Or tips I provide in the blog or a public forum may head off a private e-mail request or telephone call asking for help on a subject I have already explained a few hundred times. I began to write and publish little "how to" guides in PDF format a few years ago, because colleagues, customers and complete strangers were asking an enormous number of questions which often could be grouped in a few simple categories and handled in a 5 page written guide with a few screenshots. I usually give these away or actively promote them on web sites, public portals, Facebook, etc. This ultimately saves me time that I can spend on other things, and it demonstrates my competence in certain subject areas, which is often good for business.

My business web site is horribly outdated. I think it was last worked on seriously in December 2004, though a few minor changes have been made since then. Its successor has been in the works for over three years, but lack of time and my teenage daughter's opinion of my bad German have caused some delay. (I have been criticized for having a business web site only in English when I live in Germany and have most of my customers in German-speaking countries. However, the glass can hold only so much fine wine, and the tablecloth is ruined from the overflow as it is. I also got a belly laugh that the fellow with the harshest critical comments is a German who has French, German and English listed on his web site's landing page, but only the English link works, leading to pages that are shockingly ungrammatical.) In any case, with all its flaws, our site brings in steady business, even from customers who don't speak much English. Some day I'll do these nice people the favor of introducing myself online in German, but not before I have a full time secretary or project manager in my office to answer the phone and say I'm busy.

Online professional forums. For me these include the closed BDÜ members forum (not viewable by the public) and ProZ. Significant business volume and professional support from colleague has been derived from both platforms. I also have profiles registered with at least half a dozen other portals and forums, but these have not been very productive for me (and I haven't invested much time in them to be honest, so that may be the result), and if I could figure out how to delete some of these profiles (often quite difficult), I would.Depending on your location, qualifications, etc. the ITI, ATA and other organizations may offer other useful alternatives. These forums also contain searchable directories which have resulted in many referrals and excellent new clients over the years.

LinkedIn and Xing are favored platforms for "connecting" with business clients in the opinion of many. I'm present on both, and I find them to be useful tools to keep track of some colleagues past and present as well as clients, but I spend more time reading the Xing hunting forums in German than I do looking for business there. I think there's a lot of potential there, but my presence is and will probably remain largely passive. The structure of these environments doesn't really fit how I prefer to communicate, though I think forming ad hoc groups to discuss issues like crowdsourcing has some value.

If I did training videos as a way of promoting training or other services, I would probably use YouTube. I don't.

Even flawed online content publishing sites like eHow, where I have invested a little time, have brought in interesting business inquiries, though so far nothing of note has come of these. However, the fourteen short articles (11 related to translation) have been viewed over 2700 times in the past 5 months, which might prove beneficial in a business sense at some point if it has not already.

When Rod refers to "echo chambers", I presume he means Twitter and Facebook. I've written enough about the former I think; while I get irritated with one translator who seems to feel the need to let the world know every time she washes her hair, for the most part I have found the Twit Stream useful for communication in both directions. However, I am concerned about the manageability of that data stream, so I follow very few people. I think I've added one (Kilgraymemoq) in the past three months. Twitter has actually become the major mode of communication with a few colleagues who are very high on my professional respect list. Most of our useful exchanges fit well in 140 characters, and I'm sure they're glad not to see my pompous e-mail signature several times a day.

Facebook. Although I've used that platform to keep in touch with old high school friends and college buddies, FB has been a dilemma for business. I have a few friended colleagues there, most of whom I would consider actual friends in the real world or persons whom I would gladly have in that role, but when I get a request from a stranger or business I don't know I am not comfortable with given them access to my personal profile. I really don't think they need to see rude remarks from my sister, the stoned ravings or a high school friend who still hasn't overcome his substance abuse problems after 30 years or the political and military commentaries of my Texan cousin. Recently I read a blog post by Pat Flynn which seems to offer a solution to this problem or at least a plausible approach: Facebook "pages". I looked into this function and discovered that it works almost like a second profile and allows me to collect translation business information in a way that might be useful to my colleagues and clients without annoying the motley crew that constitute my friends and family. For the most part, I've found the setup and maintenance of my Facebook page for translation to be simple, and it lets me organize a few things in a way I cannot currently do with other tools. It feels comfortable. One thing that annoys the heck out of me, however, is the term used to refer to persons who subscribe to the profile stream or request access: fans. Elton John has fans, but until I learn to play piano and sing, I'd prefer a different word. I'm just not sure which one. My Facebook page allows me to organize information I may have published elsewhere in more useful, accessible ways. My "target price defense tool" - a spreadsheet for calculating a word or line price to counteract a Trados scale one disapproves of - has been available for some time on the How To tab of my ProZ profile for over a year and was even mentioned on this blog in its early days, but except possibly for members of a Bavarian BDÜ chapter who may have received the German version on a CD, I don't think many are aware of it. FB provides another channel which allows me to help fellow translators with information like this or agencies and direct clients with other issues.

As for chasing loopy followers, if henna gaijin applies, it's your issue, not mine or anyone else's ;-) Doing business involves letting people know what you do in a variety of ways, and I don't generally find it useful to put a money meter on every activity. Really understanding the changing world of online media means hands-on involvement, not eternal grumbling over a sake flask. Moreover, teaching and communication are important to me, and I will offer information in any channel which I think is of potential use to those who may benefit. Sometimes this may involve looking beyond the edge of my plate as the Germans are fond of saying. The world continues to change, and the long term viability of a business may very well be tied to taking steps today to explore communication media which may be important tomorrow and which are not obviously related to my main professional activities. If in five years most translation buyers and translators hang out on Third Life, I'll probably be there somewhere.

There are some things I plan to publish on my business page on Facebook which I really don't know where I should put elsewhere. I have a huge number of links to online dictionaries and other resources which follow various topics I translate frequently. I suppose I could do a "Links" page on my business web site, but I would really rather not for various reasons. It seems to me that the Facebook "Notes" function might be a more useful way to organize links related to hunting terminology, sustainability and corporate responsibility, materials science, etc. If desirable I suppose I could even use the Facebook pages or groups functions to organize information on specific translation topics. I might have to look into that someday.

And the next time I am accused of robbery, I'm sure that my participation in Facebook will prove useful :-)


  1. Hi Kevin, I could have written this post. I too haven't updated my website in ages and only use Facebook to keep up with friends. Susanne III is trying to get me on Google Wave, but I'm not so sure of its value. XING and LinkedIn are interesting, but I haven't really gotten too much work from them. I put more effort into LinkedIn than XING while XING has presented the only nibble client-wise, so maybe I should change that.

  2. The main "value" I've gotten out of LinkedIn has been to see what jobs various old coworkers have held since we parted company. And to keep current on the contact info for friends who move around and job hop frequently. I'm actually a paying member of XING, which is bigger on the European scene, but that's more for the contacts in the dog and hunting worlds. I haven't had the time to think about serious Neukundenakquise there. There are forums for translators there, but I haven't looked into them much, as a lot of my limited time for that is spent silently haunting the BDÜ forums, which gives me a lot of information relevant to my local market. (Yes, silent for a change. I actually think before I write in German most of the time.)

    On the whole I would have to say that I've gotten the most business value out of translator forums (public and private), blogs in various fields and Twitter. Used properly, Twitter is simply superb for exchanging short bites of information. I receive something very useful or interesting at least once a day. I am very curious to see where the FB page experiment goes. I see a lot of potential for information exchange among colleagues here without the heavy hand one finds in some places dedicated specifically to translation. The format seems a bit more collaborative than a blog, or at least different in ways that I like. And if someone is logged into FB anyway, it's easy to hop over and have a look at resources or threads of interest. If anyone else tries this medium for promoting professional translation, feel free to post the page link here in the comments.

  3. Thanks for the follow-up Kevin.

    What I mean by the 'echo-chamber' is the circularity that you see in all the 'self-published' media, whatever the format. Somebody posts something on a blog, then other people quote it and post links to it. Then other people send congratulatory messages about it. "Great post!"

    But when you look carefully at the actual content, usually it doesn't bear scrutiny. Often it's of a very general nature and full of unverifiable, unquantifiable claims. Take for example the guy who claims not to be a millionaire but who makes a living online. How much of a living? Is he single? Does his wife work? Does he have a mortgage? How much moolah does he actually rake in? I bet it's not as much as if he were a professional translator.

    The Gitomer article you posted actually has far less content than your current post. In fact, the Gitomer article is just froth - nothing in it of substance at all. I do see that he talks in grandiose terms about opportunities and money, but I don't see any of the sort of concrete figures by which I do business. How much is he making?

    In media related to translation, I keep seeing exhortations to 'go the extra mile'. Now that sounds thoroughly desirable in theory, but then if you actually engage your business mind, it begins to seem like the vapid nonsense it is. In Japan, there's a whole business culture of 'going the extra mile' by offering things that nobody is asking for or needs, and it's bloody annoying. My service already meets the agreed terms, so no amount of blog fluff about going the extra mile is going to help me, or my clients. But people lap it up and post links to it. I guess some of them beat themselves up trying to achieve it too, although I rather doubt it.

    I have actually played the online game to a certain extent. When the economy here stopped dead in its tracks for a couple of months I was quite active on LinkeIn for a while and it was fun. (And Proz, which wasn't fun.) I made some nice online friends. But it has resulted in nothing of business use. Zero. Although I've talked to a number of potential collaborators and customers, it always turns out that their situation is identical to mine. They're on there because they have time on their hands and are looking for leads. Now that business is picking up again, they've gone quiet, like me. I really got the feeling that people do the social media thing out of a sense of obligation and false hope, because they see everybody else doing it and assume there's easy value there.

    However, during the huge slump that we experienced here, I didn't neglect the traditional channels of contacting agencies and companies that might need translation. And in marked contrast to my forays in the echo chamber, these old approaches have landed some nice work in the medical field. Difficult, but interesting and lucrative. My new client seems to be quite satisfied with my standard level of service, so I'm spared the trouble of going that extra mile.

    Incidentally, it's henna gaijin. And I prefer my sake chilled out of a big 1.8 l bottle. I'm drinking a very nice organic sake at the moment, although I don't really like the faddish word 'organic'. ;->

  4. @Rod: I see what you mean about the echo and agree for the most part. There is a certain emptiness and bouncing off the walls in many cases, and I do agree that the Gitomer post I cited isn't up to his usual standard. I think like a lot of people he's feeling his way in the new media, but that is also a good thing, because newcomers see things fresh and may occasionally spark a useful idea in other heads.

    If you're referring to Pat as the guy who makes a living online, most of the details you ask are published on his web site. Unaudited, but fairly plausible in his case. His main source of income in the past year since getting laid off was a study guide for an architecture exam of some sort. A lot of what he's into doesn't interest me, and some of his promotional activities go into territory that I am not comfortable with myself, but we're very different people and I'm sure that I get at least as many eye-rolling reactions as he does on a percentage basis. What interests me most with the information he publishes is the personal experience he shares for e-book publishing. Carsten Peters (a children's books publisher and translator whom I follow on Twitter - calutateo) and others have also pointed me to useful information in this regard, but on the whole I found Pat's series post on e-book publishing the most accessible for an initial overview. His goals for publishing are very different than mine, but nonetheless I find his description of the experience useful, and if he occasionally belabors an obvious point, I just remember that for a guy in his 20s some things probably seem new that were old when Cicero was a punk kid.

    I like your cynicism about the "extra mile", because without detail it really is just fluff, and in some cases it's another way of saying "Thank you, sir, may I have another" for whatever form of abuse is at hand. What I would think of as the proper extra mile isn't extra, it's normal. Honest communication. Reasonable effort for a reasonable fee and a personal twist to the service that reflects your "brand". My brand has a lot to do with certain subject matter and an approach to technology and problem-solving that has a lot to do with my previous background. Not everyone's cup of tea, and even for those with the taste, maybe not something for daily consumption. But if you need a certain combination of professional services, it's hard to find it anywhere else. That's not extra. It's just me. Or you in your own way. Or someone else. Sometimes we're perfectly replaceable and sometimes we're not, and perhaps through social media communication these zones can be defined better.

    Some may be in the forums, LinkedIn, etc. in the hope of filling up the work schedule, others may look at these media as a way of upgrading the client base or focusing more on a particularly enjoyable area, and others have very different goals. My heavy involvement with the ProZ forums began about two years ago when I thought about writing a help book for CAT tool interoperability with Trados. My first look at the beta for SDL Trados Studio 2009 sent that plan into the dustbin, but a lot of the time I spent in those forums was to get an impression of the very routine troubles that average users experience, not just the higher end craziness my techie friends deal with. And although Plan A is definitely dead now, I think on the whole the time was well spent, because it's given me a better feel for the average situation than I might have gained otherwise. This helps me in small, but important ways, like being more patient with my partner, who wisely does not share my enthusiasm for technology in most cases but views it as a necessary evil (emphasis not on necessary).

  5. I first got attracted to Web 2.0 out of pure curiosity, in that we obviously have to keep abreast of what is going on.

    What fascinates me now is the extent to which these platforms are interoperating and indeed how this interoperability will develop.

    Finding useful blogs (like this one) used to be kinda hit and miss. Thanks to platforms like Twitter and FB, I've found all sorts of interesting stuff where I can either take a one-click read or subscribe on RSS for a weekly digest.

    Like Jill, I find Xing more potentially interesting than LinkedIn for the simple reason that it's based in my target area.

    It's been useful on occasion when I've seen who visited my profile and got in touch with them.

  6. Coincidence: the New York Times published an article on marketing your business with Facebook today. But you read it first here, folks ;-)

  7. Very interesting, thorough post Kevin. We enjoyed reading it. We really love the "newness" and endless possibilities of social media, and we have barely scratched the surface. The ROI and value are difficult to quantify, as many customers won't remember how they found you -- we just got a call along those lines today ("we found you online"), but the investment requires is relatively insignificant. Of course, as entrepreneurs, the only resource we have is our time, so we need to use it wisely. We tweet, blog, update our business website, our Entpreneurial Linguist website, have strong presences on LinkedIn, XING, etc. I think it's key to view these activities as long-term investments into your professional future, just like traditional networking and advertising.

    Keep up the great posts!


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