How to Create a Localization Strategy to Fuel Global Growth

Your international marketing and sales teams are hungry for more growth. Planning season is coming up. And you’re inevitably going to be asked at some point, “How much would it cost for us to add [language]?” The answer to this question isn’t an easy one. It can take months to prepare. Having a localization strategy, also known as a language investment model, can help you prepare for those discussions, so that you can be a few steps ahead.

Before we get into the details of how to create a localization strategy for investing in new languages, one quick reminder. These decisions should ultimately be determined on the foundation of an international strategy. Ideally, your expansion plans will be country-driven, not language-led, for many reasons. If your gut response to this to laugh and say, “What strategy?”, it’s a sign your company probably isn’t ready to add more languages. You don’t want to invest prematurely in markets that you’re not fully prepared to address.

Assuming you have a list of target countries and top-line revenue targets, you can help your international growth efforts along by coming up with a language investment model. This will help your team determine how much investment the company needs to make in order to help your international business achieve its targets.

Questions to Help You Develop Your Localization Strategy

Coming up with a language investment model is a process, one that you’ll likely need to repeat — or at least update — every year during your company’s annual planning season. Here are 13 questions you can ask yourself in order come up with your localization strategy.

1. What are the major steps in your customer journey?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to have a customer journey onto which you map the most critical steps in your customer experience. You’ll need to identify, at a basic level, what the major phases are for customers to engage with your company, and what happens, at a high level, within each step. Hopefully, someone else has already mapped this out and circulated it at your company, because doing this exercise from scratch can be pretty exhaustive.

2. What are the primary communication processes in the customer journey?

For example, at a B2B company with a freemium go-to-market motion, you’ll probably find some of the following steps:

  • Marketing sends out an email campaign
  • Customer goes to your website
  • Customer signs up for free trial
  • Marketing sends email workflow
  • Customer upgrades to paid plan
  • Services team sends onboarding emails
  • Support team helps solve technical issues
  • Renewal team sends email workflow
  • Customer asks Account Manager billing questions
  • Account management team upgrades customer

… and so on. I’m only including some basic steps here by way of example, but at most companies, this would look a lot more detailed, with sub-steps within each major process.

3. Which technologies facilitate each communication process?

You’ll need to create a table or a spreadsheet that tracks the tool or system associated with each process. You’ll want to put the actual name of the system in your table or spreadsheet, but below I’ve just put in some general tech categories of which tools you might use, although there could be other tools and plenty of overlap depending on which systems you’re using. Below, I’ve listed them in the format of Process / System.

  • Marketing sends out an email campaign / marketing automation tool
  • Customer goes to your website / CMS tool
  • Customer signs up for free trial / CMS plugin
  • Marketing sends email workflow / marketing automation tool
  • Customer upgrades to paid plan / billing system/
  • Services team sends onboarding emails / marketing automation tool
  • Support team helps solve technical issues / support ticketing tool
  • Renewal team sends email workflow / renewal management tool
  • Customer asks Account Manager billing questions / renewal management tool
  • Account management team upgrades customer / billing system

4. How much content is needed for each process to succeed?

You’ll also need to determine what types of content, and how much of each type, is requires for each process to be a success. As an example below, I’ve listed these in the format of Process / System / Content Needs.

  • Marketing sends out an email campaign / marketing automation tool / 23 unique campaigns consisting of 623 email templates, 32 landing pages, 12 forms, and 8 CTA buttons
  • Customer goes to your website / CMS tool / 342 web pages, 673 blog posts
  • Customer signs up for free trial / CMS plugin / 3 active sign-up pages
  • Marketing sends email workflow / marketing automation tool / 42 active workflows containing of 12 email templates, 3 landing pages, 2 forms, and 2 CTA buttons
  • Customer upgrades to paid plan / billing system / 16 billing email notification templates
  • Services team sends onboarding emails / marketing automation tool / 14 emails linking to 32 knowledge base articles and 6 videos
  • Support team helps solve technical issues / support ticketing tool / 18 automated replies
  • Renewal team sends email workflow / renewal management tool / 14 email templates
  • Customer asks Account Manager billing questions / renewal management tool / 21 email templates
  • Account management team upgrades customer / billing system / 32 configurable billing terms, 3 confirmation emails, 4 invoice variations

5. How much would it cost to localize the content required in each process into a new language?

For this step, you’ll need two things:

  • The list of content assets required for each process, which you calculated in the step above
  • An estimate of the number of words in each content type (hopefully derived from past projects for your company)
  • A generic “cost per word” estimate blended across languages (again, ideally using your actual data)

Once you have a count of the pieces of content in each phase, multiply it by the average number of words for each content type (per web page, per email, and so on). This will give you an estimate of the costs of each step within each phase.

6. How much will it cost to offer an identical in-language experience at each phase?

Next you’ll total the amounts from above and group them into phases, to make them easier for others to understand. For example:

Freemium sign-up phase: the cost to localize this phase of the experience into a new language is an estimated $30,000. That includes all email campaigns marketing sends out, the web pages they direct them to, the free trial sign-up experience, and all email workflows up until the point of upgrade.

Paid sign-up and onboarding phase: the cost to localize this phase of the experience into a new language is an estimated $20,000. That includes the upgrade experience into a paid plan and the onboarding emails.

Support phase: the cost to localize the support and training content into a new language is an estimated $40,000. This includes the knowledge base articles and training content used by the support team.

Renewal phase: the cost to localize the renewal content into a new language is an estimated $10,000. This includes the renewal management email workflows, the billing system templates, and the invoice communications.

In total, this means it will cost approximately $100,000 to localize these four critical phases of the customer experience into another language. This is just an example for explanation purposes. Obviously, the less content you have in each phase, the less it will cost. And, not all languages cost the same. The degree of the costs also depends on making sure the files are all in a localizable format that can easily be ingested into a translation management system, too.

You’ll notice that I didn’t include product UI localization in this example. That’s because your product UI needs will vary depending on your business model. If you primarily sell software, you can budget for this pretty easily by determining the total wordcount in your product UI strings and multiplying by your typical cost per word, and adding about 20% in for project management costs.

Usually, companies localize their product before they localize the rest of their CX. So, for simplicity purposes, I’m assuming in this example that your product UI is already localized, and that your goal is scaling, and to offer your entire, end-to-end customer experience in another language. If you haven’t localized the UI into the target language yet, you’ll just need to add that into the cost estimates you put into your final plan.

7. How much will it cost to offer a minimum viable in-language experience at each phase?

Don’t assume that just because you have a certain number of emails, workflows, or web pages in your source language that you necessarily need ALL of them in the target language. Assume the very opposite. At this step, you’ll need to work with your stakeholders to get a better understanding of what’s realistic and necessary in terms of their real-world ability to execute.

For example, you don’t want to localize enough content for 57 email workflows if you only have a single marketer who speaks the language and will need to build them all. Perhaps that in-language marketer would prefer to have just 5 of the most popular workflows.

Here is where you can dramatically decrease your localization investment needs. What % of the content is truly necessary? Usually, the shock value of the initial high-level costs will help jolt people into thinking more carefully about the appropriate investment levels. You can’t just replicate what you do in English, nor should you!

When you’re ramping up in a new market, the experience doesn’t need to be identical. It needs to be equitable. It should offer equal value.

The challenge is, you probably won’t have access to all the data. So, you’ll need to ask stakeholders to give you estimates instead. “How many email workflows account for 80% of the results?” Maybe you can cut down on the required content dramatically.

Ask stakeholders to be choosy, and realistic. Chances are they don’t actually need everything they have in the source language. They might not have the resources to execute on implementing and utilizing that much content. When you’re ramping up in a new market, the experience doesn’t need to be identical. It needs to be equitable. It should offer equal value. Most likely, you can whittle down the budget by a further 20% to 50%.

8. What amounts are appropriate to include in your investment model?

This depends on the level of engagement you have with your stakeholders as well as where the money is coming from. If it will come out of their budgets, you want to make sure they have input and transparency about the details of how you came up with the estimates. Ideally, they informed your proposal at every step.

If the money is coming from some other budget, such as a fund for international expansion, it’s still important that stakeholders understand how the budget was calculated, how it would be allocated (or not) to them, and how much work it would entail for them to execute after the localized content is available.

Most importantly, be sure to caveat that your estimates are… estimates. Things change quickly at most digital companies, and you can’t be sure that the exact content you scoped with is going to stay stagnant. For this reason, it’s often better to present a budgetary range, with a low end and a high end. This way, stakeholders can agree on what amounts make sense together and have some wiggle room to play with.

9. How do the amounts vary, by language?

If you know what the candidate languages are, use the industry average price per word for each language, and calculate the % different to come up with groupings. For example, we all know that a language like Japanese is always going to be 30-40% higher than, say, Brazilian Portuguese. The average cost per word of the language is rooted in the cost of living in the country where it’s sourced.

Once you have the languages in general groupings, you can adjust the ranges upward or downward from there. Remember, you don’t need to apply an exact cost per word at this stage. You’re just getting a budgetary estimate together.

10. Which languages do you recommend?

This is a bit of a trick question, because I actually don’t suggest that you recommend specific languages, unless they stem from a country-led investment model. Customer experiences are built around a locale (combination of country + language), and are incomplete if you only consider language. However, it can be helpful to have a list of the top languages you’ve discussed previously as the company’s priorities for expansion evolve. This would evolve over time, and for many companies, will be based on revenue targets over the coming 3-5 years.

Customer experiences are built around a locale (combination of country + language), and are incomplete if you only consider language.

How I prefer to frame this question is, what are the trigger points that the international business needs to hit in order to invest in that language. For example, do you need to hit a certain number of customers, weekly active users, or hit a certain amount of install base revenue or revenue retention rate? A certain number of freemium sign-ups or e-commerce sales? What criteria will you use? It’s helpful to have a “trigger point” at which you decide to consider investing in a language. It’s even more helpful to have a financial model that tells you at what point it’s necessary in order to keep your growth going in a given market.

11. How should we phase in the investment?

Not everything needs to happen at once, and certainly your Finance team may want to see a plan in which you’d phase out the investment. From a localization perspective, it also makes sense to localize certain items before others. Having a general sense of how much content you’ll need to localize, when, is helpful. For this, you’ll need to again consult with stakeholders to phase out the investment.

For example, if you generate onboarding campaigns that point to help articles or training videos, you’ll need to have those localized before you can localize most of your onboarding workflows. Similarly, you can’t localize your help content until your product is localized. And, if your acquisition campaigns reference key blog articles and website pages, those will all need to be localized previously too.

In addition, you’ll also need to consider what kind of capacity you have to localize within each phase. Consider the volumes you typically send to your vendors or internal resources each quarter. Are they prepared to support those volumes today? How much can they really handle? All vendors will say they have unlimited capacity, but in reality, they don’t. You’ll need to build in some ramp time for any new language too.

12. What are the expected maintenance costs?

Will adding the new language result in any maintenance costs? The answer to this question is almost always, “yes,” because you’ll need to account for changes and growth of the content you’re localizing initially. Hopefully, you can leverage the estimates of what you spend on any other language today in order to calculate the maintenance costs. Don’t forget to account for any increased burden on the project management side, additional hires you might need to make, as well as any engineering costs, QA/testing costs, and new licenses for an increased number of users.

13. How will we measure the business impact of the new language?

Make sure you have a clear understanding of how the business impact of adding any new language will be measured overall. How will the ROI be calculated? What are the metrics that the business will be tracking? How often will they be revisited? Most often, these are financial metrics, such as net new revenue growth, install base growth, and revenue retention. However, your business might have other priorities in mind, such as breaking even on a product investment or a broader new market launch.

What Your Final Localization Strategy Should Include

While this is a lot of work, at the end of the day, you want to boil down your localization strategy into a simple one-pager, so that executives can quickly grasp the high-level impact, and dig into details if they have questions. After you finish this process, what you’ll have is a model for new language investment decisions that indicates:

  • What the investment levels would be for providing an equitable (but not identical) customer experience in another language
  • Options within those investment levels that can be adjusted, depending on budgetary access and business goals
  • How the costs might vary for each major grouping of languages under consideration
  • A clear link back to business growth metrics and ROI, either via “trigger points” to kick off investment or via metrics you’ll track to monitor success / understand ROI later on

I hope these tips will help you build a localization strategy that not only supports your localization efforts, but that truly helps shape the non-English customer experience and makes localization a strategic lever to unlock international growth. Your success with it will obviously depend on collaboration with your stakeholders. It’s a process, but one that can really work wonders for getting ahead of the game to prepare for your company’s planning discussions.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly works remotely from Donegal, Ireland, by way of New England, Ecuador, and rural Illinois where she grew up.

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