You’ve just gotten the word from your CEO that you’re entering a whole new market, and you’ve been given the budget and resources to make it happen. Sounds like a career-defining opportunity, right?
It could be, or it could turn into a disaster.
As someone who’s been involved in multiple global expansions from complex CMS builds, to full-blown market entries, I can tell you first-hand, reality does not always meet expectations. Things can go awry for a number of reasons – from companies entering markets too early, to relying too much on machine translation, or feeding inaccurate assumptions into the planning process.
In this article, compiled from my own experience and industry best practices, you’ll not just learn why you need a solid content localization strategy, but also when is the right time to localize, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to do it, so you can maximize your chances of success.
What is content localization?
Simply put, content localization is about making your content feel 'at home' in different regions—be it through language, imagery, or tone.
It involves changing the content to resonate with local customers. The goal is to provide an experience that feels native to people in their region, ultimately boosting engagement, trust, and conversion rates.
Content localization is used in a number of places, including:
- Publications and media
- Marketing collateral & campaigns
- Documentation and support
- Legal and compliance materials
Localization is NOT translation
An oversimplification I’ve come across many times is that localization is the same as translation. Just send our whole content library and website to an agency, and we’re done, right? Wrong.
I once worked at a content company where we had hundreds of thousands of pages of instructional material, and we had ambitions to expand our presence in the Middle East and Europe. So we hired a reputable agency and translated it all into Arabic, French, Italian and Spanish, and then called it a day.
Once we started selling into those markets, people were angry. Not only did they pay a premium rate for our content, but it didn’t make any sense. We hired base-level translators to translate advanced scientific content into other languages. Let’s just say, it didn’t end well and it took a long time to fix things and earn trust in those markets.
This harsh lesson taught us that cutting corners in content localization can result in not just financial loss but also damage to brand reputation that would take years to recover.
Why content localization matters
If done right, content localization can be a powerful lever for any business looking to expand. Some of the main benefits are:
- Increased market penetration – getting in front of audiences in new regions can help grow sales
- Boosted brand trust and loyalty – local consumers are more likely to buy in, and trust brands that follow their local language and dialect
- Competitive advantage – if you’re in a crowded market domestically, you can stand out and gain first mover advantage by expanding beyond traditional borders
- Reduced Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) – localized content on your website and other places can lead to lower bounce rates, more organic traffic and a better cost per click on ads
When to consider a content localization strategy
In my experience, the top mistakes companies make when doing content localization for the first time are they either do it too soon, or underestimate the level of effort required to do it right.
If you’re not sure content localization is for you, here are some scenarios where it may make sense to start localizing:
Reason to localize
Market research indicates demand
Legal or regulatory changes
Just because your business meets one or more of these criteria and you can localize, it doesn’t always mean you should. In the next section, let’s take a look at some of the common localization strategy pitfalls.
Content localization pitfalls to avoid
Doing it all, too early
Diving head-first into content localization without adequate preparation can be a recipe for disaster. It's tempting to go global as quickly as possible, especially when you see a market opportunity. But taking on too much too soon can stretch your resources and lead to poor quality, and even worse – confused and angry customers and prospects.
It's better to phase your approach, perhaps starting with one or two key markets, and a portion of your key content (e.g. your home page and a brochure), before going all-out.
Using machine translation
Picture this - over a decade ago I was setting up a CMS for a company that was looking to expand into “every European country” (their idea, not mine). I asked, how do you plan to localize this content?
They said they’d get Google to do it. After cautioning against it, I finally bent to their will and installed the Google Translate toolbar on their website, which instantly translated whatever page you were looking at into more than a hundred languages.
When the customer went to present the shiny new website to their global sales team, he got a mouthful from them. They were offended by the quality of the marketing content and demanded he instantly remove the Google Translate toolbar. Yikes.
While machine translation has come a long way thanks to advancements in AI, it's not bulletproof. Utilizing solely machine translation can result in context loss or in this case, embarrassing errors. Moreover, literal translations don't account for idioms, slang, or cultural nuances. This can make your content come off as unnatural or even offensive. If you’re going to use software translation, be sure to combine machine efficiency with the right level of human oversight.
Localizing for language but not region
Language is just one part of the localization puzzle. Regions with the same language can have vastly different customs, regulations, and consumer behaviors.
A while back, I was on an extended trip through Latin America. At the beginning of my trip, I spent two weeks in a small village in Guatemala learning how to speak Spanish. Then I eventually made my way farther south, and the farther I got from Guatemala, the less of the local language I understood. By the time I got to Colombia, I practically had to learn a new language.
Lesson learned: simply translating the language but not adapting the content for the local region can result in missed opportunities.
Ignoring cultural differences
Culture impacts more than just language; it also affects how people perceive colors, shapes, and even fonts. For example, the color red may signify luck in some cultures but danger in others. Typography might carry subliminal messages about your brand's personality. Ignoring these elements can result in a lack of resonance with your target audience, or worse, unintentional offense.
Not leveraging SMEs in the target locale
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in your target regions can be invaluable assets in your localization journey. These experts can provide insights into cultural norms, customer behaviors, and even legal requirements you may not be aware of. If your content is technical in nature, hiring SMEs in target locales is a must, as most general translators are not able to translate technical content, nor carry the surrounding context over to the new language.
Ignoring the little details
Localization is often won or lost in the details. While broad strokes like language and culture are crucial, the nitty-gritty details can't be ignored either:
- Varying language lengths – Some languages are more verbose than others, and this can mess up your UI or layout. In the worst of cases, text can overflow off the screen and people can’t read the full body of text.
- Text direction – Languages like Arabic and Hebrew read right-to-left, which can affect your design and user interface.
- Currency symbols – Getting it wrong can confuse customers and lead to financial implications and even potential lawsuits.
- Date and time – Different regions have different date and time formats; failing to localize these can lead to misunderstandings.
- Images that contain text – Text within images can't be translated as easily as plain text, making updates more challenging and possibly leading to inaccuracies.
- Alt text – If you’re working with web content or anything that needs to adhere to accessibility standards, don’t forget to translate any text needed to describe images or other content to people with disabilities
- Meta data – similar to alt text, this is the data which is hidden behind documents and web pages to describe its contents. It’s critical for SEO and indexing within Document Management Systems (DMS)
Not performing a proper legal review
Legal norms and regulations can vary widely between countries and regions. From data protection laws to advertising standards, not performing a comprehensive legal review can put your business at risk of penalties or even legal action. If you can, consult local legal experts to ensure your localized content is compliant, or at the very least ask in-house counsel.
Not testing your localized content
Quality assurance is the final yet critical step in content localization. Without thorough testing, even small issues can slip through the cracks and impact your brand experience. This can result in loss of credibility, dissatisfaction, and ultimately, missing out on the potential ROI of your localization investment.
Always perform meticulous testing, ideally with local users involved, to ensure the highest quality. Early on, you can source agencies or freelancers in your target markets (using a site like Upwork) to help provide unbiased feedback on your content.
Not having a formalized strategy and budget
Last but not least, skipping the step of formalizing your localization strategy and budget can result in a disjointed and ineffective effort. Without a clear plan and allocated resources, your localization project can become a money pit. A well-defined strategy helps in aligning all stakeholders and provides a roadmap for scalable success.
Content localization best practices
Follow these steps for a bullet-proof content localization strategy that doesn’t just get the job done, but takes your business to new heights:
1. Define your goals and success factors
Before you jump into localization, it's vital to have a clear understanding of what you're aiming to achieve. Are you entering a new market or are you looking to better serve an existing one?
Defining your goals upfront will guide your entire strategy. Equally important is deciding on the metrics to measure success, from the beginning. It could be increased sales, more traffic, or higher user engagement — just make sure everyone involved is on the same page. This will help guide your efforts, and if tradeoffs have to be made, inform what can be dropped versus what can be kept.
2. Identify your target market and audience
Conduct market research to identify potential markets and quantify their business value. Knowing your target audience in these markets can further fine-tune your localization approach to better meet their specific needs and preferences.
3. Identify key languages and regions
Based on your target market, identify the languages and regions that are most critical for your business. This will help you prioritize your localization efforts and allocate resources more effectively.
4. Identify key content pieces
What pieces of content are most crucial for your localization strategy? Is it your core product, marketing materials, documentation, or all of the above? Identifying this upfront will help you allocate resources and set timelines more accurately.
5. Estimate resources
Consider the resources needed for localization and quality assurance. Will you handle this in-house, or will you need to outsource to vendors, or even a combination of both?
Also, be sure to have a plan for the maintenance and updating of localized content, otherwise, you will run into a nightmare content sync scenario. This is where content on your main language website says one thing and other languages say something else because the other languages were never updated. It leads to customer confusion and frustration among your front-line teams, and is 100% preventable.
6. Consider all the information and re-evaluate
Once you've gathered all this data, take a step back and assess with key stakeholders.
What are the costs involved? Is your initial plan still realistic, or does it need to be adjusted? This re-evaluation phase can save you from pitfalls and costly mistakes.
7. Create your localization workflow and project plan
With all the information at hand, create a comprehensive project plan. This should include workflows, timelines, and roles and responsibilities. Having a well-defined workflow ensures that the localization process is streamlined and efficient. Make sure everyone signs off before starting the project.
8. Localize, test, and measure
Once you’ve started localizing, it's crucial to test the localized content to ensure it meets your quality standards and resonates with the local audience. Use the metrics defined in your initial goals to measure success. Regularly review this data to iterate and improve your strategy.
Your content localization strategy will depend on your business, industry, resources, and budgets, so be sure to craft a strategy that is tailored to you and your customers. Ensure you get all of the relevant stakeholders involved early on, and make sure they understand that content localization is an ongoing effort requiring a budget each year, and not a set-it-and-forget-it project.
If you’re looking to simplify the localization process, take a look at your content stack. Are you using a CMS or DMS with localization-friendly features? TinyMCE is a flexible rich text editor that comes with several tools that can help you localize faster, more cost-effectively, and with fewer errors. Example features include:
- A customizable Spell Checker that can check against 23 languages, simultaneously
- An Accessibility Checker that helps translators update hidden accessibility-related properties like alt text
- An AI Assistant that can act as a rudimentary translator, or first proof-reader of translated content
- Support for right-to-left languages
- A user interface available in 66 community-translated, and 38 professionally-translated languages
You can try all of these features and more as part of your free 14-day trial. Good luck with your content localization efforts, and remember it’s a journey with multiple learnings every step of the way!