Marketing as a job function has changed a lot in recent years. More and more dimensions have been added to the average marketing team’s job. Not only do you need to master marketing fundamentals, like branding, marketing communications, and product marketing, but you’re also expected to master demand generation, content marketing, social media marketing, paid digital ads across many platforms, and in-app comms. You need to know how to use the associated marketing technologies, stitch them all together, and like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, wave the baton of the website to ensure it all runs smoothly. If the marketing team stops conducting, at most digital companies, the music (growth) also stops!
Add international responsibilities into the mix, on top of this already complex picture, and it’s enough complexity to drive even the most experienced full-stack marketer mad. Life was already complex. And then someone casually said, “Oh, by the way, we also need this in 10 languages.” Oh great, exactly what the marketer did not want to hear! Add global marketing strategies onto an overflowing plate? This is the point when most marketers will throw up their hands in exasperation.
Why Most Marketers Don’t Love Localization
I’m fortunate to meet many marketers at tech companies, but I’ve met very few marketers who love working in languages they don’t speak. It’s not the languages themselves that are annoying. And it’s not that they have anything against localization, per se. It’s the fact that suddenly, there is too much friction. Marketers need to move fast, especially if they’re at a high-growth company.
But localization simply doesn’t move fast, at least not by the growth marketer’s measure. If speed is your priority, you could actually write the content from scratch in another language much faster than you can localize it. In other words, marketers can easily come to resent localization and wish they didn’t have to think about it. Because it’s not only making their lives more complex — it delays the overall speed at which they can move.
If marketers have to wait until localization is finished before they can launch a campaign, it’s not just a mere annoyance for them. There are traffic and leads out there for them to capture, and they know they are missing out on them with each passing day they have to wait. Marketers need to kick those campaigns off. They depend on the resulting lead flow in order to make an SLA and keep sales teams productive. In such cases, localization becomes a very real blocker that can get in the way of any marketer achieving their targets.
Below are some of the most common questions I hear from marketers at digital companies regarding localization.
“Why is localization so hard?”
Most tools that marketers use don’t make it easy to manage content in multiple languages. For this reason, many marketers have only three choices: 1) copy and paste translations in and out of their systems, 2) pay a vendor to do the same, or 3) automate the transfer of content in and out of systems.
The challenge with 3) is that while plenty of systems for managing translations exist — they’re called translation management systems — most of them were not designed for marketers, and don’t really take into account typical marketing needs. There are some that have CMS connectors, and a few with marketing automation tools. But by and large, most TMS tools are not very accessible for marketers unless those marketers happen to know quite a bit about localization. Unfortunately most marketers simply don’t have the time to learn yet another discipline.
The other major reason marketers find localization difficult is that there is a learning curve with regard to how they have to create content as well, to make it localization-friendly. For example, they can’t just log into Canva, create a graphic, and pop it into an English web page, and then expect it to be localized. The source files, or access to the system the marketer created it in, will be necessary if anyone is going to be able to localize it. Access to systems is yet another challenge that marketers face. If they give vendors access to systems to speed up the process, they might be facing security risks. But if they don’t, more of the workload falls onto their shoulders. Neither scenario is good for the marketer!
“Why Is Localization So Expensive and Slow?”
Consider what you’d pay for copywriting or content creation services in English, and this will give you a sense of why localization services are so expensive. These are human-delivered services, even though most professional translators do use technology to improve quality and speed up delivery time. But at the end of the day, you’re paying for human time. You’re paying for the time a translator spends working on your content in another language, which is the majority of the cost, approximately 60%. Another 20% is for human editing or review. And another 20% is for human project management. That’s a lot of human costs!
If you’re a marketer trying to move fast, generate leads, and overall, quickly support your company’s growth, it can feel like the straw the broke the camel’s back to learn how much localization will consume of your budget. Most marketers at digital companies are accustomed to using technology to solve problems, along with marketplaces. To realize you have to depend so much on humans and what seems like limited technology may make you feel like you stepped into a time machine. Not only because things seem unbelievably SLOW, but because it all seems pretty archaic, human-dependent, and expensive.
“Why is localization quality so bad?”
If you happen to be fortunate enough to speak the language you’re localizing into, chances are you will soon notice that the quality of the localization work you’re getting back is… not that great. And if you don’t speak the language (the more common scenario), your anxiety might be even higher when you start getting complaints from people in other markets who depend on these assets to be of high quality.
Why does this happen? Translators don’t have the context. They have no idea what kind of tone you’re trying to convey. They don’t have access to your style guide and your key terminology in English. They’re not typically part of your company, so they don’t even have a clue as to what your brand voice is like. They most likely don’t know your product (although it’s easier to convey if you’re a B2C brand). They don’t even know your culture and what your company stands for.
If you’re wondering why your localized content in other languages isn’t “on brand,” the main reason is… your brand voice has probably never been defined in another language. Think about the care with which you created your English style guide and brand voice. Now, imagine if you handed off content creation — in English — to someone without those guidelines. What would you expect to get back? Probably not something you’d want to publish.
The same is true for localization. If the translators working on your content don’t know what tone you’re trying to strike and don’t have clear lists of your terminology, what your brand sounds like in another language will be left to the discretion of each new freelancer who picks up a project from your company. In other words, a confusing brand voice with multiple personalities that change depending on who was translating that day.
“Is There Any Technology That Will Help Me Solve This?”
Yes and no. There is technology out there, but it might be out of reach for your budget and team. Marketers today want technology that is plug and play, easy to install, use, and that integrates with all the other systems in their technology stack. Today, most of the marketing systems and the translation systems just don’t talk to each other. There is a major lack of integrations, and many of the marketing tech tools also are not designed for multi-language use cases.
There are of course some translation tools out there that work with, say, website pages and blog posts. But that’s likely to be only a portion of all the content you need localized. What about your offers (in a graphic design program), webinar slides, CTA buttons, and so on? Most of the systems out there don’t handle these file formats very well. So at best, you’ll be able to use some technology to manage your website and perhaps your blog posts, but not your entire customer experience end-to-end in another language.
Marketers could in theory purchase translation management systems, terminology tools, computer-assisted translation tools, enterprise machine translation tools, and more. But who’s going to manage all of that? Marketers don’t have time, and this isn’t their background or interest. You’ll need to have a team of people to do it, and most likely, that’s not an option for your budget.
The topic of whether to work directly with freelancers or with agencies is too deep to get into in this post. In either scenario, they can manage your translation technology for you. But, for most marketers, when you do a cost-benefit analysis, you won’t want to allocate such a huge amount of your budget to investing in technology for translation along with the freelancer, agency, or internal costs — at least not until your international business grows. This leads most marketers to a chicken-and-egg scenario. How can I generate more leads quickly, but without making such a huge up-front investment in building out a localization system with the tech, processes, and people to run it all?
In a perfect (but futuristic) world, machine translation would be at the level of quality that you could plug your web properties and social media channels in your native language into an online interface. Then, the tool would automatically scrape your current content repositories and do a sentiment analysis against your content in your native language. This would enable a machine translation tool to quickly gather data on what types of style, formality, and tone your company prefers, along with all key terminology in your language.
Simply having this auto-generated style guide and glossary “assist” based on current content in your native language would enable any human translator to do a better job with quality, but to take it to the next level, it would someday theoretically also enable a machine to do the same. So, while there is hope for this problem to someday be solved, none of that is possible (yet).
So, what can you do in the meantime, if you’re a marketer who just wants to get started with localization, and not go fully down the path of investing in building out a full localization system?
- Write up some brand voice guidelines
- Create a detailed style guide
- Create a glossary of your most important terminology
- Pay a really great translator or agency for a few hours of work to develop these key assets in your target languages
- Make sure these are used by every translator who works on your projects in the future OR
- Give these to a native content creator for each language and do native content instead, especially if you care a lot about SEO
Obviously, there are more options, and variations. And of course, there are many steps and degrees in between (a) a fully automated type of system we can only dream of today, (b) the partially automated but still largely human-driven (slow, expensive) localization program that most enterprise companies use, (c) and the extremely human-centric one I’ve just described above, which is really one of the only accessible options for most marketers at small-and-medium-sized businesses. Unless you have a huge amount of venture funding you want to blast through!
If you have a large budget, this problem is more easily solved. But is there a solution that’s available to the marketing masses, or even to marketers at the small and medium-sized digital companies? No, not yet. For now, the best you can do is understand that translation takes time, is expensive, and depends on humans. But guess what? So does content marketing. So really, we’re all in this boat together. It just will take the localization boat longer to meet marketers on the other side.
In summary, you can’t blame most marketers for being reluctant to embrace localization — in the short term, anyway. But longer term, it’s one of the best ways you can truly address most of the markets that will unlock more demand and growth for your company. There are ways to build out a localization program that works well for marketers, but these are few and far between out there in the industry today, because they take time and resources to build. For now, the vast majority of marketers will likely still need to go through freelancers and agencies.