Localized vs. Native Language Marketing Content

If you’re expanding into new markets and using content marketing as a strategy to attract more visitors to your website, one of the very first questions you’ll probably ask is this: “Should we localize marketing content, or should we create it natively in other languages?”

The answer really depends on your overall international expansion strategy. Here is a series of questions you can ask to figure out the best answer for your company.

1. Why Do We Want to Add a Language?

It’s surprising how often companies meander into other languages without really thinking it through, even though it’s only a nice-to-have and not actually a must-have in order to accomplish their goals. One simple reason? Most people think localization will be easier than it really is. As consumers, many of us have exposure to free online tools like Google Translate. These can give the impression that translating web-based content is quick, easy, and free.

But as a marketing professional, it’s important to remember that people often underestimate what your job entails too. Spin up a blog? Build a website? Send out some emails? Schedule some posts on social? Easy! Anyone can do it, right? Well not exactly. There is a lot more art and science to actually leveraging a website and a blog in order to garner traffic for your business, convert that into lead flow, and do so in a repeatable and scalable way that helps generate revenue for your company.

The same misconception exists with localization. Many people think you can just push a button and spin up a few localized versions of a website. And while that is definitely possible, just having a website in another language is only the first baby step, not the end goal. The end goal is to deliver a delightful experience to customers that will help you grow in those other markets and languages. That is a far more complex undertaking.

2. How Strong Is Our Content Marketing Muscle in English?

Take a realistic look at your existing content marketing operations. Are you just getting started? If so, be forewarned that scaling content marketing in non-native languages is a very advanced skill for any marketing team. As such, it requires a strong foundational content marketing muscle to already be in place. Otherwise, you’ll be doing the equivalent of bicep curls with a 50-pound weight, before you have even mastered doing it with 10. It will feel very painful and heavy. Don’t do that to yourself or your team! This muscle takes time to build up. Make sure you have a strong content marketing muscle built before you venture into multilingual content marketing.

Whether or not you’re able to do multilingual marketing in a scalable way gets a little more complex depending on the type of content marketing you want to do. If you’re planning to use a specific strategy for demand generation, such as inbound marketing, then you’ll need to make sure you’ve nailed that motion in English before you start adding languages. Likewise, if your strategy mostly consists of creating video content, you’ll need to build a robust and scalable process for that in your core language first, before you begin to go into other languages. Then, you can replicate and leverage the process (and hopefully infrastructure) you’ve built.

Ask yourself, can we grow our top-line target metrics in a non-linear way, without requiring us to grow our investments at the same levels? In other words, if you’re doing video content, can you grow audience without similar investments in production costs? If there is a direct and linear correlation between your costs and your output, chances are you’re not yet automating much and haven’t found a way to build something truly robust and scalable just yet, let alone one that can unlock non-linear growth in your non-English markets. You can still pursue other languages, sure, but there will be risks to doing so that you might only uncover later on.

3. What Are Our Long-Term Goals for This Market?

Once you spin up any content marketing initiative in another language, it becomes hard to back away from it. It’s hard to ignore traffic and lead flow that you worked hard to generate! So, before you add a language, are you truly confident that the markets that speak that language are ones that your company will be committing to for the long haul?

You might be thinking, what’s the big deal? Who cares if we add a language now and decide to back away a few years later? It’s fairly simple and can be low-risk to add a language to your website. It’s also relatively inexpensive. It’s very tempting indeed. But if you’re doing much with marketing automation, you’ll need to think through many more questions, such as:

  • Does our marketing automation and CMS technology actually support multi-language variants of pages, blog posts, and forms?
  • If not, how will we manage all of those variants and make sure every time we make updates, we make them in all languages simultaneously?
  • Will we localize all of the CTAs on our website? Or, will we suppress them from view? If so, what’s the point if no one can contact us?
  • If someone fills out a form in another language, will the automated reply be localized? If not, who will respond to it?

As you can see, you’ll need to think through not only “adding a language” but maintaining all of your marketing operations, and subsequent sales processes and even customer service and support processes in that language from that point onward.

Knowing up-front that your company is committed to a market means more than just adding a language. It requires understanding your financial targets for that market, what budget will be dedicated to funding those efforts, and how that will stream into every department that needs to support those languages.

4. Do We Need to Add a New Language to Achieve Our Goal?

Once you realize how much effort adding a new language will entail, you can ask yourself if you really need to add the new language from a content marketing perspective in order to achieve your goal in that market. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to offer the language in other ways.

For example, perhaps you can use a paid advertising strategy in the new language instead. Maybe you have a microsite with a touchless version of your product that requires minimal human interaction. That might be an opportunity to localize just the microsite and product UI, without localizing massive amounts of web pages, emails, landing pages, graphics, offers, and other content. However, you’ll still need to ask yourself how you’ll drive traffic to that microsite in other languages. Perhaps you’ll do so via paid ads. If so, you’ll still need to create ads in the other language, but you can limit the scope of effort in other languages significantly by using strategies like this.

Similarly, perhaps you have a reselling arrangement where you can provide just your product or some core packaging or product pages in another language, but your reselling partners take care of generating demand and doing most of the marketing. If you can negotiate this type of relationship, it might be far more efficient and cost-effective than trying to clone your marketing, sales, and customer success operations in order to reach a new market.

5. How Else Could We Achieve the Same Goal?

When you look at what your goal is, it might be smarter to funnel resources into a smaller number of markets and languages than to spread them too thinly. Otherwise you miss out on the important network effects within a given market. This is particularly important when it comes to brand awareness. Go too small in many markets, and you’re missing out on the chance to make a bigger impact in a bigger market.

Often, instead of adding a new language to your content marketing efforts, it can be more advantageous to simply: 1) invest the same resources in a market you’re already in, or if you’re tapped out of market share 2) invest those resources in what I call an “aligned market.” Aligned markets are ones that have strong economic, cultural and often linguistic ties to each other. Examples of aligned markets might include the US and Canada, Germany and Austria, Ireland and the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland.

Another idea? Take the same budget and use it to localize something other than content marketing assets. You don’t always need to employ a content marketing strategy, and in fact that is not always the fastest past to success in each market around the world. You could localize your product (if software) or your e-commerce site for example. That does not necessarily mean content marketing also needs to be localized. You don’t need to (nor should you) employ cookie cutter strategies to diverse markets.

6. How Much Budget Is Available for This Market?

If you’re getting serious about content marketing in other languages, it’s important to map out what budget you intend to spend on marketing overall for each market you are targeting. Ideally, you should map out the marketing budget per market / per language, instead of just having a generic “international” budget. Why? Because a broader international marketing budget will get carved up by region anyway, usually mapping to your sales goals, or the sales teams and SLAs your marketing team supports. Draw a clear line in the sand early, at the time you decide to target a given market, to decide which budget will go toward each market.

Chances are, you’ll have a percentage of your marketing budget that goes toward “global” or centralized efforts, such as building your website, running marketing ops, and so on. But there should also be dedicated budgets to support the overall marketing efforts for each market you are targeting, especially where demand gen is concerned.

7. What Percentage Should We Invest in Content Marketing?

Once you have a marketing budget allocated for a given market or language, don’t spend it all in one place. You need to make investments not just in demand generation, but in other areas too, such as product marketing and brand awareness. Brand awareness is a common area that growing companies often forget about or gloss over.

Because it can be hard to measure, brand awareness often gets overlooked. But it’s incredibly important for markets that speak other languages. English might give your brand some halo effect, or spill-over, into other English-speaking markets. However, your brand visibility will be limited beyond the confines of language, so you’ll need to essentially start from scratch in this area in most new markets that don’t speak English.

If you invest too much in content marketing alone, without making corresponding investments in brand awareness, your recipe might be perceived by the potential customer as all cake and no frosting. Potential buyers might come to your company for the content, but the brand is what makes it desirable. “Brand awareness” can mean many things and even marketers often debate about what it should cover. But one thing is for sure — you need to have a solid brand identity and methods to communicate that out to your target markets, no matter how subtle or up-front you want to be about it. In most markets, content marketing alone isn’t sufficient to really help a company scale.

8. How Much Traffic Do We Get for Other Markets from Our English Funnel?

Assuming you already have a content marketing funnel in your company’s native language, it’s very common that within that funnel, you’re attracting people from various countries outside your home market. You can look at some of that inbound lead flow for hidden gems. Do the leads from Australia close at a higher rate, even though you aren’t targeting them yet? Is Brazil making up 5% of your funnel, even though you don’t offer Portuguese yet? What are the lessons your traffic data and lead flow can offer about where there is a hunger for your product or services?

By the same token, don’t overreact to the data. It’s common that a given country will show up in spades in your data to surprise you. That does not necessarily mean it’s a good market for you to target. It might be that these visitors are showing up to your website quite simply due to a large population. For example, American companies are often surprised to see a large amount of lead flow and traffic from India, forgetting that India has about 4 times as many people as the USA does. You might not be ready to support an emerging market just yet, even if there appears to be opportunity there. Don’t forget the cost of addressing that opportunity for the entire business.

9. What Kind of Content Do We Already Create?

To figure out whether you should do native or localized content, you’ll also need to ask what kind of content you create today. The reason? The type of content you create might not be important in your target market. Perhaps blogging has been a good strategy in some markets, but isn’t very common in your target market or language. Find out what type of content actually works well for content marketing efforts in your target market. Then ask yourself realistically if there is overlap with the kind you already produce. If there is a big gap, you might need to strengthen other muscles before you can dive into certain types of content.

10. How Nuanced Is Our Style and Subject Matter?

Are the topics you cover fairly commonly known ones? Or, are you breaking new ground, introducing totally new concepts, and introducing new terminology to the world? If your subject matter is highly nuanced or niche in nature, you will likely need to rely on internal resources or partners, people who are very close to your brand, in order to have any hope of replicating this nuance and specialized knowledge in other languages.

The more generic and commonly accessible your subject matter in nature, the easier it becomes to outsource both localization and native content production. If your company is a market leader or market builder, what you sell might be unique. This isn’t always challenging to convey in other languages, but it can be. Physical products generally have less barriers in this regard. Software products however can be a bit trickier, unless they are part of a well-established category.

It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as an untranslatable word or idea. Some things are just more difficult to carry from one language into another due to a lack of exact equivalents.

11. Which Topics Have Local Appeal?

Before you can really decide whether localized or native content is best for you, you’ll need to do an audit of your content for each market you plan to target to see what content could actually be leveraged for another market and localized, versus what content you would need to create natively from scratch. This is easier than it might sound. Make a list of all content assets that matter, then ask a bilingual marketer, agency, or consultant familiar with your target market to rate them in terms of how relevant they seem for your target market. Ideally, this is a task performed by an in-house marketer who is deeply familiar with your company. If not, you can outsource it.

If you find that not much of your content in English covers topics that would resonate with your target market and language, localization won’t be a very important part of your strategy. You’ll need to rely more on native content creation in each language in such cases.

12. How Important Is Keyword Research at Our Company?

A huge part of defining your content strategy depends on your SEO goals and whether or not your current strategy is guided by keyword research. In some companies, this is the primary driver of the content marketing engine. In others, it plays a far lesser role.

If keyword research is a major part of your strategy and your operations today in English, you’ll need to determine how you can replicate this muscle in other languages. Then, whether or not you localize will depend on how you intend to target specific keywords with your content in other languages. Usually, if you are serious about SEO, you’ll need to create content natively in order to achieve your desired ranking goals. Localization typically isn’t sufficient on its own, and each piece of content would need to be analyzed separately, in each language, for search engine optimization.

If you’re using a “sheer volume” play and have plenty of resources to localize a lot of content, you might find success in hitting some key metrics with localization alone early on, but be careful with this path. Having a large amount of localized content might bring traffic, but if you haven’t defined your overall strategy for each country and market, you might risk “cloning” the same marketing playbook that worked elsewhere, but that won’t work everywhere.

13. Are Other Key Assets Already Available in the Target Language?

If you have decided that you definitely want to localize content marketing assets or produce them natively, take a moment to consider what other key assets are critical for your company to do business in another language. For example, can someone sign up to become a customer, including terms of service and legal agreements, in the language you are planning to market in? Is support documentation available in those languages?

If not, make sure you’re not jumping the gun by doing content marketing in that language. It’s one thing to offer a product in another language, perhaps with a sales encounter in English, but when you market more broadly using content marketing, you are signaling to the world that you offer the language in a bigger way. It’s possible to do this in a way that won’t create false expectations for would-be customers, but you need to think through every single touchpoint.

14. Do We Have a Style Guide and Glossary in the Target Language?

If not, you’ll want to at least have these basics in place before you begin a content marketing program in another language. Otherwise, you won’t be able to scale your program very far. If you have decided to get started with content marketing in another language, you’ll need to create these first. Only then can you train others and outsource at scale. You can pay an agency to do so, but you’ll need to guide them through the process.

15. Do we have a marketer who speaks the language natively?

If the answer is yes, you can pursue either native or localized content. However, if the answer is no, you’ll likely be limited to just pursuing localized content alone, with a very high degree of dependency on third parties. You won’t be able to properly brief third party writers in other languages very well if you don’t even have anyone who speaks that language. And if you do go with a translation agency, you also won’t be able to judge the quality of their work very easily without a native language marketer who truly understands the tone you wish to strike with your brand voice.

In the End, Most Marketers Need a Hybrid Approach

If you want to scale content marketing in other languages, you’ll most likely land on a hybrid approach. Most marketing teams, even really strong ones, struggle to scale content marketing in other languages, whether it be through localization or native content. The best global marketers figure out when to employ each option, which can vary from one market to another. They can then stack them on top of each other to really fuel their company’s growth using the best of both worlds.

It’s easy to add languages, initially. And it’s also possible to add languages in just certain areas of your business (such as a website, a product UI, or a knowledge base for example). But making the decision to add a new language isn’t just about adding a new language. It’s about delivering a customer experience in that language. You can’t separate the two.

In summary, don’t rush too quickly into doing content marketing in lots of languages. Instead, ask yourself: What type of customer experience do we want to deliver in this language? What parts of our current CX will be different, and which parts can remain the same? Which parts require localization, and which parts might benefit from a native approach? Only then can you figure out the sweet spot for your native/localized content mix. There isn’t a magic formula here; it will be unique to your business and your target customer. It will change over time as your business evolves, and will map to the phase of growth your company is currently in.

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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