Applying Inbound Concepts to Localization

I’ll never forget the day one of my marketing mentors introduced me to the concept of inbound marketing. I was a marketing leader at a B2B SaaS company at the time. I devoured the inbound book and every blog post I could find on the topic. I had no idea back then that I’d end up working for HubSpot, the company that created the methodology. More than five years later, after living and breathing inbound and seeing it in action from within the company that created it, here are some thoughts on what I think it can offer for people working in localization, and specifically in the area of marketing localization.

Traditional vs. Inbound Localization

This graphic shows some of the major differences between traditional localization and inbound localization, which I’ve adapted from a similar comparison between traditional marketing and inbound marketing. I’ll go into more detail on each in the sections that follow.

Customer-Focused, Not Company-Focused

Traditionally, localization teams at software companies are primarily focused on the needs of the company. At best, you’ll hear these teams talk about their “internal customers,” or their stakeholders. What makes a localization team operate with a more “inbound” mentality is that the localization team orients itself around the needs of the customer instead.

Focusing on the customer is a lot easier for the localization team if the entire company uses an operating model that places the customer at the center, such as the flywheel orientation for org structure I’ve written about before. While this is primarily a mindset shift, it’s important to recognize that everything you do — the way you prioritize projects, the way you create processes, and so on — follows mindset. So, if you have a customer-focused mindset, it can shift the way you think about things. A few examples:

  • Project prioritization. If you have a company-focused mindset, perhaps you’ll orient your localization team toward the projects that most benefit the company itself, such as those that benefit your employees as opposed to your customers, bumping the company-focused ones to the top of your pipeline. If you have a customer-focused mindset instead, you’ll put your customer’s needs first, and the company’s needs second.
  • Linguistic resource utilization. Let’s assume you have a differentiated vendor strategy in which some projects that require a higher level of quality or urgency go through certain vendors while others that are less important go through others. Customer-focused localization teams will route the customer-oriented projects to their top vendors, even if the costs are higher or it takes longer, to ensure the best possible customer experience for non-English customers.
  • Workflow strategy. As you build out different workflows, in a customer-focused team, you’ll optimize for quality and speed or any customer-facing content, with cost being a slightly lower piece of the puzzle. If you were company-focused only, you’d optimize your workflows for costs as your primary focus area, and perhaps quality, which benefits the customer more, would play second fiddle.
  • Budgetary allocations. As you work through your budget, in a customer-focused localization team, the vast majority of your budget will go toward content that benefits your existing customers in a meaningful way. In a company-focused one, key customer assets won’t get localized, even if English-speaking customers benefit from them, due to the expense within the overall prioritization in which the company’s needs come first.

Solving Problems, Not Interrupting

One of the things I love most about the inbound marketing concept is that it focuses on helping customers solve problems, versus interrupting them. All of us know what it feels like to receive the unwanted email, to see the annoying pop-up ad, and so on. This concept applies to localization too, in two main ways:

  • Localizing content that educates and helps customers solve problems. Ideally, the vast majority of content supported by an inbound localization program will focus on helping customers solve problems. If the vast majority of marketing comms localized are designed to interrupt people in a spammy way, it’s not inbound marketing localization, but traditional marketing localization.
  • The focus is on helping stakeholders solve problems too. All too often, localization teams get wrapped up in their own industry jargon, history, technology, and processes. The localization industry is actually bigger than some of the tech categories that many companies with localization teams work within. As such, traditional localization teams can come across as “preachy” or mired in their own industry, a bit disconnected from the reality of the companies they are working in.

Interacting versus “Talking at” Others

Inbound localization teams avoid “lecturing” others about the localization industry. They spend far more time listening to the needs of their stakeholders and truly trying to solve their problems. They avoid using “GILT-y” terms that confuse people and instead speak in clear, plain language about what they do and what it means.

Project managers at an inbound localization team do far more than just play project jockey. They build relationships, find solutions, and behave more like a customer success manager than simply an executer of localization projects. They are focused on finding solutions and creating a continued relationship that grows in value over time.

Linguists on an inbound localization team do far more than just linguistic work. They work arm-in-arm with the marketers for the countries and regions and languages they support. They are true partners and viewed as part of the flywheel team that supports the go-to-market strategy and execution within a given region.

Meeting People Where They Are vs. Ignoring Journey Stage

On an inbound localization team, project managers provide options that stakeholders can choose from, as opposed to prescribing solutions. They are aware that not all stakeholders have prior localization knowledge and might be at different points in their journey. So, having a differentiated engagement model, with distinct options for how things get done, is very important.

In addition, with an inbound model, enablement has a high priority, because teams can be fast-moving and fluid. So, enablement options need to exist in multiple formats for consumption, such as slide decks, videos, Wiki posts, pre-recorded Zoom meetings or Loom walk-throughs, and so on. Localization teams that are more “inbound” in their orientation will adapt to the needs of their stakeholders and their preferred communication channels and styles.

Strategic, Not Transactional

Just like inbound marketing aims to take a more holistic and strategic approach compared to traditional marketing, applying an inbound mentality to localization requires a more strategic, “bigger picture” approach as well. This means that an inbound-oriented localization team can’t focus reactively just on executing on projects in a transactional way, but has to focus more on overall strategy to drive true value for customers and for the business.

A more mature inbound localization program is able to answer questions like these:

  • What is the % of localization-influenced revenue (from countries whose languages are supported by localization program) and how is it growing over time?
  • How many points of net new ARR growth uplift do supported language countries contribute to the global total? And what would the net new ARR growth be for English-speaking countries alone?
  • How are our localization costs changing as a percentage of localization-influenced revenue?
  • What is the revenue retention and customer $ retention for supported-language countries, and how does it compare to English-speaking countries?

In addition, an inbound localization program can measure localization measurement classics like average project duration, cost per word, and so on. However, these would be of lower priority than the other metrics listed above, due to the fact that these are more transactionally focused and less strategic in nature.

In summary, creating an inbound localization program requires a new approach, and while some of the changes in focus seem pretty natural, others might seem counterintuitive or even in conflict with the way many companies operate. That’s OK. Every company is different, so the way localization teams operate will vary too. However, if you’re working for a tech company and orienting your business around the customer, I hope some of these things might resonate for you and help you and your colleagues to build a better, stronger, localization system to boost your company’s international growth.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is an award-winning global marketing executive and cross-functional leader in B2B SaaS, with experience at both startups and large public companies. The author of three books, her latest is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly is based in New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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