Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Just Localize Everything

With better and better machine translation engines making more content accessible to the world, should companies go ahead and localize all of their content into other languages? Here are five reasons why the answer is “no.”

1. Localizing everything means you think all markets need the same thing.

They don’t. Even if they did, they don’t likely need it at the same time. Often, those who are new to localization assume that you should localize everything in order to provide an equal experience to all. This usually comes with good intentions, but is unfortunately misguided. Sure, you want to provide customers with an experience that is as good as the experience your customers have in your home market. But merely giving the same things to customers outside your home market is unfortunately no guarantee that they’ll have a good experience.

Not all content, apps, websites, and other assets are created equal. Some of the items that matter very little in your home market could be hugely important in another. Conversely, some of your top-performing assets in your home market might fall flat in another country. There are many reasons why, but at the core, it starts with your home market’s language and culture. Your employees build every web page, design each tool, and craft every word with a built-in, unconscious bias toward the market and the customers they know best. The ones in their home market. It’s only natural!

But far too many companies fail to see their own local bias. Unfortunately, you can’t just take what was created for one market and assume it will work in another. If you fail to consider the very different needs of the new target audience, you’re treading down a path that will cost your company unnecessary amounts of time and money in the long term, and prevent you from getting it right.

Let’s reframe this a bit. What if you decided to target a different type of buyer, in another industry, or title group, or company size? Would you just use all the same content and the same strategies without making any changes? After all, they can understand it in the same language, right? Or, instead, would you create a new persona, seek to really understand their needs, and perhaps consider a different strategy from the one you used for the previous target market? Chances are, your changes would go far beyond just linguistic ones. No marketer worth their salt would throw the same content at a totally new market segment and assume that it would work the same way. You wouldn’t take for granted that just because that content is in a language they understand that it will speak to two totally different segments in the same way, right?

This inherent and natural bias toward your company’s home market is invisible to most of your content creators, but it’s a bias that often sinks deeply and thoroughly into the brand you build. When you attempt to merely localize something that was built for another market, there are degrees of adaptation that are possible, but there are also times when things simply should not be localized because they simply won’t work well, or resonate the same way, in new markets.

2. Localizing everything necessitates more human involvement, even if you fully automate translation.

Let’s say you have a marketing team that wants to localize every blog post, email campaign, web page, and downloadable offer you make available on your website into another language. While it sounds great on the surface, you might be forgetting that localization requires more than just translation. You can outsource the translation work or even get automated translations back if you dare to trust your brand with machines. You can work through a localization team to get the work done, easily.

But ask yourself… who will implement the content? Who will publish it in each language? Who will manage the multiple language versions and come up with the naming conventions? Who will replace the hyperlinks? Who will maintain the content and update it each time we make a change in the source language? Who will do the keyword research in each language? Who will set up the email campaigns? Who will monitor the traffic? Who will replace the images? Who will define the brand voice in each language? And if you think beyond marketing… who will follow up with the customers who speak those languages? Who will respond to their invoicing and billing questions in their language? Who will answer their customer service questions?

Translation is critical to get right, but it really isn’t even half the battle of localization. You might think, “No problem, I’ll use free automated translation tools to take care of the translation” (which is not ideal for most marketing content). But even if you solve the translation issue and get the right level of quality out of the gate, you still have to think through, and solve, all of the pieces above. The more content you localize, the more human involvement there will be. Which is why localizing everything probably isn’t worth your time and money, unless what you have is very little content to begin with. That is sometimes the case with low-footprint websites, lightweight mobile apps, and so on. But it’s just not the reality for most companies.

3. Localizing everything can distract you from creating a more effective local strategy.

Sometimes, if you try to localize too much at once, the amount of effort and time it takes can become a major distraction for your company. What if you instead explore a different model that requires you to take on less localization work? What if you worked with a reseller or white label your product in another country with a locally popular brand, instead of just trying to localize it?

Often, it’s more effective to build a local, country-specific strategy than it is to try to “copy and paste” a strategy that worked for your home market into a totally new market. Importantly, this is why localization teams need to be viewed as strategic partners internally, and not just “order-takers” who throw translations back over the proverbial wall.

4. Localizing everything can Actually harm your brand.

If you try to indiscriminately localize anything and everything you’ve created for your home market, chances are you’re not being strategic, not very mindful of quality, or both. In many cases, if you try to use machine translation or sub-par translation vendors, you’ll get poor quality and inconsistency. The result? A very negative first impression of your brand in another language within a new market that’s important to your company.

Doing irreparable harm to a company’s brand in a market they happen to be the new kid in is the number one concern I have for companies that rush in and localize into languages they don’t speak internally. Often, they are entrusting their brand voice to a third party who doesn’t really understand the attributes they seek to get across. Then, if they have no one internally who can verify it either, it can be a double-edged sword. It’s hard to change first impressions, so that first point of entry really matters.

5. Localizing everything won’t solve your customers’ most pressing problems.

Instead of assuming your customers want everything localized, ask them what they truly need. Often, what they need isn’t simply “more localization,” but better features, alternate services, different products, or something else. In fact, if you merely localize everything without addressing the core problems, you’re essentially multiplying the problem and extending it into many other countries, and across many other languages.

Bottom line, there is a good reason why the most successful companies don’t localize everything. It’s not necessary, can do more harm than good, and can be a distraction.

All of this said, I’m a major advocate of localizing the things that are of high value and importance. This is where companies usually drop the ball. They assume everything is of high value and importance for every market, when that’s not the case. Truth be told, most companies don’t localize enough of the right things for their customers because they get distracted by doing too many things. There are often major gaps between what customers in new markets really need, and what companies are capable of localizing at any given juncture. For example, you probably need to localize your product or service, first and foremost. You likely do need to localize your website, especially if you operate with a self-service model. But what you don’t need to do is localize everything with complete disregard for the very real differences from country to country, market to market.

Instead, take a step back, evaluate what matters most for each market’s local needs, and lean into localizing as much as you can of those pieces that will deliver the highest possible value to your customers and your company. A more strategic approach, one that does not entail localizing everything, is the fastest path to success with localization.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Found in Translation" (Penguin). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

One comment

  • Great post and just what I keep telling clients: You need to pay me to tell you what not to translate. Some real life examples – I just got paid two full day rates to translate a privacy policy from German to English. I asked the client: “Do you really need this in English? Double check please.” They said: “Well, it’s a compliance thing, so could be, let’s just do it to be safe.” Later turns out the provider where they got the source text offers translations with their paid subscription – which costs maybe 5% of what I charged and can be reused across the organization.
    Or an e-commerce company who’s just throwing all their marketing copy over the wall into Germany, paying a fortune for awkward variations on “this product is really nice”, but has no proper technical info (what buyers really read) or SEO strategy for their product names (what Google really reads).
    Then again, despite all the PCA talk, so much corporate content borders on postmodernist writing; a lot of it seems like vanity projects. Us l10n folks need to defend our organization’s budget, but that’ll only work if we act like strategic partners instead of service providers.

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