To Localize or Not to Localize: That Is the Question

You’re trying to help your business grow internationally. Your traffic from other countries is booming. And, you’re attracting customers from countries you would not expect. Then you start to localize for different markets. Suddenly, more and more teams start to ask for localization support. That’s great! It will help your company grow. Until you start getting projects that make you scratch your head and ask whether it’s actually a good idea to localize in the first place.

Three Questions to Ask Instead of “Can we localize this?”

As is usually the case with localization decisions, when the question is, “Can we localize this?” the answer is almost always “yes, but…” followed by the caveats. No one wants to hear about those, of course. People just want things to be instantly adapted to work in all markets. But the reality is that teams often jump straight to the question of can something be localized before stopping to think about whether it should be localized. All too often, whether it can it be localized or not isn’t really the right question to ask. Here are the questions to ask instead.

1. Why do we want to localize?

Start with why. It’s a good operating principle in general, but especially in localization. When localization is on the table, the team has to first seek to understand what the real purpose is behind the initiative, before immediately jumping down the path of localization.

While it might surprise many people, even localization advocates sometimes have to push back against localization requests when they don’t make solid business sense. While we all love it when people request new localization efforts, it’s also important to understand the reasons why people are localizing, before they immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s truly necessary. Why so?

  • Growth is good, but not at all costs. I’m a fan of international growth, and it’s every localization leader’s job to support it. But never when it puts long-term scalability and efficiency at risk. Often, one of the most important questions a localization leader can ask is not simply “Can we localize this?” but “Can this initiative scale locally and globally?” Sometimes, that means asking questions about the project to find out whether it has been fully vetted, and whether local resources are already prepared to support it.
  • Local teams need to be part of the decision-making process. There are times when global teams might request localization with a particular growth goal in mind, but it’s critical for them to consult with local markets first, before they move forward. In this regard, localization teams play a critical “bridge” between functional teams in the HQ country and local teams within international offices. Often, one of the most valuable things a localization team can do is connect global teams to local counterparts, to help advance the company’s overall globalization.
  • Creativity and flexibility matter hugely for local markets. At all high-growth companies when teams are moving fast, growth is on fire, and everyone moves with positive intentions, it’s great to see teams try to solve for local markets. But, sometimes it’s important to take a step back and evaluate, “Is this really what the local market requires?” Often, a bit of creative thinking will result in a better playbook that might not require localization at all, or might not demand as much hassle or expense.

Common Red Flag Answers to the “Why” Question

When asking the question, “Why are we localizing?” here are some reasons other teams might provide that are good indicators of a need to explore further:

  1. “This is what we’re doing for the US market.” This is a common reason teams might give you, but this is often a red flag that a team wants to “copy and paste” from the US into another market. That’s the opposite of localization, and chances are they just intend to translate something, not actually localize it properly.
  2. “We want to roll this out globally.” This is a variation on the first answer above, but with nobler intentions. In this case, the idea was to treat all markets equally, which is a nice goal on some levels, but markets are different and local needs are not all the same.
  3. “This is just a pilot.” Mayday! If a program has not even been piloted in any market yet, it’s a sign that it probably isn’t ready for localization. If the idea is to pilot it with just one local team before rolling it out in the domestic market, that’s another story, and a sign of more advanced globalization. But, if the idea is to pilot something in all languages at once, it can often be a sign of a poorly designed strategy. Localization isn’t free, and it’s often better to pilot in just one market, work out the bugs, then broaden the scope from there.
  4. “We don’t know.” This is another huge red flag. If the team cannot even explain why they are reaching out to request localization support, they probably don’t know if local teams can support the initiative either. They also likely don’t understand what the local metrics and KPIs will be to measure success. A good answer would be “because the local markets have indicated this will help them hit their target metrics.”

2. When Do We Want to Launch in Each Market?

The temptation for many teams is to “simultaneously ship” (what we in localization refer to as sim-ship) in all languages at once. For some situations, it’s important to do this. Often, you want things to go out in every language at the same time, but not always. You need flexibility to adapt to local needs. For some markets, it can be better to stage things and launch at the best time for each local market instead.

For example, let’s say you’re doing a major product launch that your product marketing team wants to happen globally in all markets during a certain month. But perhaps that’s a month in which your sales teams are running a special discount program in a given local market. Or, maybe that will coincide with a period in which almost everyone takes a week off (such as Golden Week in Japan). It might very well be a good idea to push back on doing everything with identical timing, and instead, phase out the launch according to what the local teams suggest.

Note that you launch “in each market” and not “in languages.” This is because you might very well promote something in the same language, in two different markets, with different timing. For example, perhaps you launch in Australia in English first, due to time zone and to use it as a test market that often behaves similarly to the US, but as a smaller market, it’s less risky than testing a campaign in the US market first. Make sure you don’t anchor your thinking in language exclusively. A “locale,” which is language *and* location, is what localization is really all about.

3. How Much Do We Really Need to Localize?

Most people on global teams don’t really understand what localization entails. It’s often lost on these teams that localization takes time. People are often surprised that creating the same content in 10 other languages can take weeks. This is ironic when you consider it took months to create it in just one language to begin with. Often, teams expect localization to be as easy as popping content into Google Translate. If only! Adapting content for each audience and taking care of all the technical details is no simple matter. Translation is just one step in a multi-faceted process.

Often, people are surprised when you suggest that it might be possible to accomplish the same goal without localizing everything that you have developed in English. The goal is never to replicate the exact same experience as someone has in English. The goal is to provide a locally appropriate experience instead. Frequently, markets do not actually need the same things.

Why Localization Teams Sometimes Argue Against Localization

Here’s an example of a situation in which a localization team might actually make the case that you shouldn’t localize, and would be better off using native-language content instead.

Your marketing team is about to send out an email to customers and asks you to localize it for the Korean market. Deadline: next week. You check the email, and it’s only 300 words. However, it contains a video from the CEO, and ten links to web pages on your corporate web site in English. Each of those web pages in turn links to many other pages.

There are several possible options here, such as:

  • Meet the deadline and stay on budget, but sacrifice the customer experience. Translate email body into Korean. Quickly do Korean captions on the video to optimize for speed and cost. But you won’t have time to localize all the web pages, so you leave those in English.
  • Provide a decent customer experience but inflate costs and delay the email. Make time to do all of the above, but also localize all the dependent web pages as well as any that are linked to from those pages. This creates a cost of 10X what the team has available to spend on this. It’s also going to take way too long for this team, because the CTA from the email is meant to drive metrics that need to hit within the current month and quarter.
  • Spend way over budget and optimize for CX but fail to hit metrics. Instead of captioning, get professional Korean voice-over. Costs will be exorbitant for just one email, and there’s no way it will hit within the deadline to impact company metrics, but at least the customer experience will be awesome.

Which would you choose? None of these options are great. You’ll be letting someone down regardless.

Unless you think creatively.

In this situation, a world-class localization team will suggest something outside the box, such as:

  • Could a Korean team member write an email natively that summarizes the most important points instead, and includes a photo of the CEO instead of the video?
  • Would we consider getting a photo of the CEO holding a sign in Korean that will make customers smile and relates to the topic, and put this out on our social channels with a more concise message?
  • Instead of a video, could our local MD hold a live Q&A session virtually, just for customers in this market on this topic, in Korean?

Or, perhaps this team would even say, “Let’s consult with our local Korean marketing team. We only have X customers in this market. Maybe a video is overkill. Could we check to see if they would add a note to the next customer newsletter update that goes out to Korean customers to accomplish the same goal?”

There are so many options, and what the localization team will suggest depends on how many marketing resources are available to consult with, along with other local team members and their availability. But in general, localization teams working at buy-side organizations can’t just be “order-takers.” They have to think more critically and creatively, to provide options and solutions.

Striking the Right Balance

Of course, there are times when things just need to get done quickly, and teams requesting localization won’t want to take the time to think strategically about what they are doing. Localization must operate like an efficient machine with a production pipeline that delivers at high velocity and with ever-increasing throughput, of course.

But while expected to build and operate “the machine” that gets content localized, localization teams often think strategically about local markets too. So, they are often the “bearers of bad news” that localization isn’t quite as simple or easy as most people want it to be. And sometimes, the solutions a localization team can propose are, ironically, much easier and faster than localizing might be.

But in order for teams to listen to you when you deliver this new and tell them that actually, maybe they don’t want localization after all, you have to first focus on building trust with them and really understand their goals and how they are being measured. Only then can you help them see that you’re a partner who can help them find better ways to meet their objectives, if they’re open to exploring alternatives.

It’s extremely important for localization teams to align with stakeholders to avoid coming off as too in the weeds, or worst of all, as preachy. Most people don’t want to hear about the technical reasons or details of why something won’t be as easy or quick or inexpensive as they had envisioned. They just want it to be easy and quick and inexpensive. And if you’re not making that happen for them, it can be easy for them to misunderstand your intentions, or worse yet, blame you. So, listen to their needs, give them options, and share the caveats.

But whatever you do, don’t forget that “Can we localize this?” is rarely the right question to ask. But it can open the door to a more productive conversation about why, when, and how much to localize. Only then can you determine, together with stakeholdes, if you should localize, or not, which is the real question.

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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