How I Get Freelance Writing Clients at Conferences -- on the Cheap

How I Get Freelance Writing Clients at Conferences — on the Cheap

Editor | 43 Comments
find freelance writing clients

It never fails. Whenever I speak with friends who aspire to be successfully self-employed, one of the first questions is, “How do you find your clients?”

Sometimes the answer is, “accidentally.” But more often, it’s “persistence,” “planning,” and “organization.”

One of my best attributes is that I can schmooze. Another is that when I find something that works, I’m smart enough to keep doing it.

That’s how I developed my conference and trade-show strategy for finding new clients.

And while most conferences have been forced to go virtual over the last year during the pandemic, many are expected to return in the near future as the vaccine distribution continues to ramp up here in the US. That means now is the perfect time to start planning to utilize this tactic.

Furthermore, you can even apply many of these strategies to virtual conferences as they also offer online networking opportunities!

 

My first conference

Although I don’t maintain a blog of my own, I dream of launching one someday.

I heard about the BlogHer conference when it came to my hometown – but the last-minute price for admission was out of my budget.

The organization intrigued me and the conference agenda looked packed with value, so I got on the events mailing list and registered at the early bird price for the following year’s event.

That gave me 11 months to plan out a budget-friendly trip.

 

The big surprise

I expected to enjoy the sessions and workshops (and did), but was surprised to be blown away by the sponsors and exhibitors.

At most conferences, exhibitors generally try to sell their useful services and products to the attendees. That was still true at BlogHer, but a huge percentage of exhibitors also want to develop strategic and mutually beneficial relationships with bloggers.

These companies – hundreds of them – were there actively seeking bloggers. That probably means they have corporate blogs of their own.

It definitely meant they are marketing their products online. The number of possible opportunities for a freelance writer was virtually without limits.

Next, I attended NMX (formerly known as BlogWorld) in Las Vegas. Again, I registered at the early bird price.

But this time I decided to skip the sessions altogether and purchase a very inexpensive exhibit hall-only pass. That turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because some big names in the blogosphere – like Pat Flynn – gave outstanding presentations.

But I made the decision to keep my costs low and stick to my purpose, which was to network.

 

Stepping up my marketing efforts

A couple of months before NMX I had professional photos taken, and used the new headshots to update my website.

I also worked with a nonprofit student design firm to create an 8×5 glossy postcard to hand out in lieu of business cards. The cost for design and printing (500 copies) was under $100. The tactic set me apart from everyone else handing out cards.

Once at the conference, I made a point to introduce myself and hand out a postcard to every exhibitor. Even for a schmoozer, it’s not easy to maintain a genuine smile and remain interested and interesting all the time, for two or three days in a row.

But you never know which contact will turn out to be the one who has work, so I powered through and stopped at every booth. Several turned out to be good leads. I made a point to follow up within a couple of weeks, while our conversation was still fresh in recent memory.

My success rate?

At least one lead has turned into a client after every conference I’ve attended. In fact, all of the clients I’ve found at the conferences have turned into ongoing monthly clients, not just one-time jobs.

 

6 Tips for Using Conferences to Find Clients

Here is my rundown on how I prospect at conferences:

  1. Pick a conference in any industry where you want to make connections. For instance, I attended AFCEA – its focus is information technology issues affecting the military (not my niche). I do have experience writing military training materials though, so it was worth my time to shake a few hands and introduce myself to the exhibitors. Bonus: Attendance is free and the event takes place in my hometown. I also attended the bike-industry conference Interbike, which offers a special discount to media representatives.
  2. Look for discounted admission. Register early. At conferences that charge a registration fee, find out if you can obtain a less expensive “exhibit hall access only” pass. Some conferences also offer student discounts and press passes. If you already write for a company in the industry, try to leverage that relationship for a better price.
  3. Stay close to home when possible. Once you factor in airfare and hotel room costs, trade shows and conferences can get pricey. Browse the website for your local convention center and see what’s on the schedule. It’s generally available for free to restaurants and other businesses nearby around conference time.
  4. Plan ahead. Don’t panic if you find out about an event at the last minute, and don’t pay a premium for last-minute admission. Use the 11th-hour discovery as an opportunity to get the best price for the following year.
  5.  Stick with what works. If a conference fits you, go again. Exhibitors change – you are likely to meet new leads the second and third times around. Plus, your experience, skills, and professional exposure will have grown, possibly opening the door to new opportunities with leads from past years.
  6. Follow up. In case you haven’t noticed, this whole post is about networking and building new relationships. Connect via LinkedIn and Twitter to as many conference attendees and exhibitors as you can. Create lists and groups. Follow up while the memory is still fresh. Be direct, brief, and polite. Don’t badger anyone and ignore those who don’t respond to you. When the chemistry doesn’t work, just cheerfully disengage and leave them off your mailing list.

 Have you ever prospected at a conference? Leave a comment and add your tips.

 

Kimberley Rotter is a freelance writer and content strategist in San Diego.

43 comments on “How I Get Freelance Writing Clients at Conferences — on the Cheap

  1. Nomadic on

    Thanks for the tips Kimberley. I find the follow up part the most crucial. Getting the potential customer’s social details like their Twitter or Google Plus account can really help you connect with them, and also possibly gain you a follower therefore improving your brand’s social signal strength. Win win!

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Agreed. A commentor above was surprised when I said I can’t always follow up within a couple of weeks. The truth is, sometimes it takes me even longer than that. It’s one of the key things I need to improve in my own strategy. You’re right about connecting. I like LinkedIn and Twitter the best.

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      It’s always worth looking into the attendance price structure. Some conferences also offer a discounted pass to members of the media, so if you have a good portfolio of written work on respectable sites, they might consider you a journalist and let you have a cheaper pass. I have been turned down, though, in the past for the media price, so don’t be too surprised if that happens to you.

      Also, you might be able to get in free late in the day, or on the last day of a multi-day event (if it’s an event that you really, really want to get into but can’t afford).

  2. Meredith Blevins on

    I’ve attended many conferences including food manufacturing, writing, travel, and… the list goes on. (Such is what happens with age!) Some advice:
    1) B e careful when selling or approaching people about your services on the exhibit floor. Exhibitors have paid for their booth, and they aren’t always happy about sharing their time with non-clients.
    2) Don’t leave cards or postcards around, even in the ladies room!, or you will run into a security guard.
    3) Have your own badge made by a pro company, go to the hotel restaurant and bar during the convention and after. Then network.
    4) Ask a company, in advance, if you can help them work their booth.
    5) If a con looks particularly suited to you, go ahead and fork out the dough for just a table with an inexpensive banner. Just a few clients will more than pay for this expense!
    Best to all —
    Meredith Blevins

    • Carol Tice on

      I don’t know that you need your own booth table to approach the exhibitors about freelance writing. But I do know what you mean — if you’re aggressively marketing in the halls you may get busted as someone who didn’t pay to exhibit.

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Thank you for the great tips. Good to keep in mind staying on the right side of the fine line between networking and stepping on toes! I have never experienced any resentment from exhibitors because they are the ones I’m trying to develop relationships with (as opposed to compete with).

      I completely agree about the business card drops. Tacky and zero-percent effective.

      Not sure I understand what you mean by “have your own badge made” but I always register as an attendee, so I have a badge that is issued by the conference organizer.

      I can see now that I failed to clarify in the post that I don’t crash conferences just for the sake of selling. I attend conferences in niches that work for me. To the exhibitors, I’m a potential lead. To me, so are they. Unless it’s a writing conference, I’m often the only attendee pitching myself to exhibitors. It turns out to be an unexpected and memorable twist.

  3. Darlene with BlogBoldly on

    Fascinating subject..

    I’ve thought about just buying the “exhibit hall access” pass at events where all I cared about was the networking but haven’t tried it yet.. Good idea!

    Little surprised at the suggestion “I made a point to follow up within a couple of weeks” Couple of weeks?!? I’d say THE week following the event for sure..

    ~ darlene 🙂

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      🙂 Agreed! But I’m fortunate to be busy with client work these days, and I made a zillion contacts at the last BlogHer conference. I can’t dedicate myself full time to following up immediately, so I do it as fast as I can.

  4. Kristen on

    I’m heading to Content Marketing World, my first conference for myself (as opposed to for a client) in September. You’re not kidding about the costs getting up there with airfare!

    As of this year, I’d been planning to aim to go to at least one a year. With your recommendation of keeping an eye out for local conferences, I might be able to up that number without spending too much.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about is how to plan ahead to get the most out of the conference I’ll be attending.

    I’d love to reach out to a few people before going to let them know I’ll be there and would like to meet, maybe have a meal or drink together. Have you ever done advance prep and planning along those lines?

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Great question! Some conferences make it easy to reach out ahead of time. NMX hosted a contact database in which attendees could shoot out a meeting request to almost any exhibitor (unless they chose to exclude themselves). If I remember correctly, the system also had a way to like or favorite other attendees’ profiles, and you could see contact info and connect outside the system. BlogHer sends out regular emails (almost all year round) prior to the conference with information about sponsors. Many of those emails include specific information.

      If the conference organizers don’t facilitate the connection, you can always go to the sponsor / exhibitor’s website and try to find a marketing email address. Many also have Facebook pages that are regularly monitored. Also, use the conference’s hashtag on Twitter to develop a list and connect with attendees and sponsors. The closer you get to the event date, the more effective that will be.

    • Darlene with BlogBoldly on

      Kristen.. Just noticed you’re in Austin. I’m in the TX Hill Country!

      As you know BlogHer just finished in Austin.. but BloggyBootCamp.com is coming to Dallas Nov. 2013. That might be a good one.

      ~darlene 🙂

  5. Rhonda Kronyk on

    This is a brilliant way to network that I likely never would have thought of! I am trying to get into the trade mag industry as a way to earn money and allow me to do ‘fun’ writing on the side. It would be ideal for me to go to conferences in similar trades and network in person.

    Thanks for the great tip

  6. Eve Gumpel on

    I’ve been networking my heart out for the past year — but I’ve avoided most conferences because of the cost. I’ll definitely look seriously at adding that to my repertoire.

  7. Melissa Breau ( on

    Hey Kim,

    Im particularly intrigued by your postcard idea — was it just a business card writ large or did you create something more like a direct mailer, but delivered in person?

    Would love to hear more about it.

    – Melissa

  8. Angele on

    I’ve been doing this since I started my business! tradeshows & conferences have the biggest return after local networking. Great tips!

  9. Terr on

    I like the idea of finding the non-profit student graphic designers. I also like the idea of finding the most cost-efficient ways to get things done. This post even gave me ideas of how to expand the clients/editors I market myself to.

    For example, I want to write in the self-improvement/self-actualization niche. But I also want to write about romance and the “s” word. So, I’m thinking there are ways to marry these niches in with an industry niche such as bridal. I have no clue about the bridal industry but I do know it’s an “evergreen” and highly profitable industry.

    In other words, I need to start my business by focusing on industries that have proven to be profitable and aren’t going anywhere. Finally, I’m planning on moving to a city that hosts a ridiculous amount of conferences, many of them nationally recognized. I think it will be a blast to start hanging out at these conferences while networking.

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Great! You’re lucky if you live in a conference hub, for sure. And yes, I think you will have a blast. I’ll see if I can dig up the contact info for the student design firm. They don’t seem to have a website.

      • Terr on

        Thanks for the link Kimberly. I’m looking at this now but to clarify, is this your company that also produced your postcards?

        I’d also like to add that it’s a swell idea to help the students to build their portfolios. Using students for projects is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

  10. Lori Ferguson on

    Thanks for this great advice, Kim. I live about an hour from Boston and must admit, with red face, that I’ve never looked into the convention center schedule there to see what’s doin’, but I’m betting there’s some good stuff, so that’s about to change! Love your approach with the postcard, too. Very smart. This post hit my desktop at just the right time. Thank you again!

  11. jordan clary on

    Thanks for the tips. I hadn’t considered conferences before but I’m going to see what might be going on in Reno, the closest city to where I live.

  12. Terri on

    I have to totally agree with your tactic. Most of my regular clients were found at showcases and conferences. I make a habit of attending bridal shows regularly (even though I’m not getting married) because I do a lot of writing in the bridal industry. Many of the businesses pay for their booth in hopes of getting business from brides. So I figured that meant they must have money to spend on marketing endeavors. Just like Kim, I walk around each table and chat up the person there and vow to keep in contact with them. Several of those bridal show contacts turned into editing jobs, blog writing gigs, and content marketing assignments.

  13. Suzanne Wesley on

    I’ve actually networked with prospects on the plane on the way to a conference. Anytime anyone asks you “So what do you do?” is an opportunity … You just need to be ready for it at any time!

  14. Lindsay Scheerer on

    Thanks for the tips, Kim! I hadn’t thought of that tactic before. It is probably so successful because the potential clients network with you in person – that leaves a much stronger impression than even a stellar web site. 🙂

    • Kimberly Rotter on

      Right! Shaking hands and chatting with someone stands out way more than an email. Also, the approach is unexpected. At BlogHer, they’re expecting bloggers who are looking for sponsors or partners, not someone who wants to basically join their team. So attending an industry conference as a freelance writer will always set you apart from all the other attendees!

Comments are closed.