For marketing leaders and CMOs, deciding on the best approach to take when it comes to global digital marketing can be a daunting task. A crucial decision you’ll need to make is whether to focus on language or country. On this front, you’ll likely ask yourself things on this front related to a number of topics, like:
- Demand generation. How do we decide which approaches to demand generation will be country-led vs. language-led, or should we do both?
- Product-led growth. What are the best ways to identify the user’s preferred language and country for marketing purposes, and should it be the same as their in-app preferences?
- Sales enablement. How do I choose which languages and countries to support with relevant case studies to build trust with prospects, and to support the sales team in closing more deals?
- Content marketing. At what point should we begin doing content marketing in other languages, and when we do, should we focus on just one country, or all countries that speak the language?
- Performance marketing. Do we begin targeting by country, language, or both, and if we add language into the mix, should we localize paid ads?
- Website structure. Should we stick with a global top-level domain (TLD), do we also need country code TLDs, or should we use country subdomains or subfolders/subdirectories instead?
- Social media. Which social media properties should we invest in for each region, and how do we determine what warrants a local or in-language social media channel vs. a global one?
- Product marketing. Which product marketing campaigns should we localize, how much should we adapt them, and for which countries and languages?
All of these questions might lead you to shake your head, or perhaps even throw your arms up and walk away. Marketing has already evolved to become increasingly complex in the past decade, with an increasing proliferation of channels, ongoing search algorithm changes, new technologies (including the current wave of new AI tools), and increased competition in many saturated channels. Add in language and country and culture, and it can make any marketer feel like their head is ready to explode.
So let’s start with the basics. A language-led strategy is one that targets specific languages, while a country-led strategy focuses on specific regions or countries. In this blog post, I’ll discuss why businesses at different growth stages should take different approaches when it comes to language or country-led strategies. I’ll also explain why you shouldn’t be daunted by this complexity, and instead, need to view it as a normal and gradual process that for most businesses, will simply build up over time, and will take many years (even decades), with constant iteration and evolution, to achieve global marketing (and business!) success.
Business Size and Stage Will Dictate Which Approach Works Best
Choosing between a language-led or country-led strategy for digital marketing can depend on the stage of growth your business is at, and where it’s headed next. Here’s a basic breakdown of which model is appropriate for each stage of growth.
Lean into Language If You’re at a Startup
Most startups have limited marketing resources, and should initially focus on a language-led approach. This approach will allow them to develop relevant content that appeals to their target audience and improve engagement rates. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t think a little bigger from the start. My general advice is that when you’re just starting out, you consider country as well as language in your up-front planning, even if you’ll only really be using language for your short-term execution.
Let’s take an example of a classic and common need that every marketing team runs into as their business begins to grow in other locations and needs arise in new languages.
Startup Example: Your sales reps in Latin America and Spain both need case studies, and have been translating some of them from English to Spanish themselves. Most of the customer case studies you have are with brands that are not known in these locations, and you only have enough budget to localize three of them. If you were using a country-led approach, you would develop net new case studies for brands known in, or based in, three specific countries, such as Mexico, Colombia, and Spain. But your budget is too small for that and you’re using a language-driven approach, so you opt to localize case studies with the best-known global logos instead, for the short term, so that all sales reps selling into Spanish-speaking countries can leverage those same case studies for now.
Small to Medium-Sized Businesses Need a Bit of Both
In general, small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) should consider using a hybrid approach that combines both language and country-led strategies, as early in the life of their business as their budget allows. This approach will allow them to target specific regions where there is a high demand for their products or services and improve ROI while also providing content in the relevant languages. Let’s look at how, if the business we described above grew from startup into a larger SMB, the marketing team’s approach to case studies should evolve.
SMB Example: Your company is bigger and your presence in various regions is growing. Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking market for your LatAm sales team. You devote a small budget to developing two case studies with Mexican clients. One is a large, well-known brand in Mexico. The other is a multi-national with offices and brand awareness in Mexico as well as three other Latin American countries and Spain. This will help add to your sales team’s success in those countries, while the existing Spanish case studies will serve the reps when dealing with other Spanish-speaking customers from various other countries.
Go Country-First If You’re at a Large Corporation
Large corporations should use a country-led approach to target specific regions or countries where their products or services are in high demand. This approach can help establish brand recognition in the targeted regions and can be more cost-effective for large companies with larger marketing budgets. The challenge for many companies is that, at this stage, if they’ve built everything around a “language-only” model, it can be very hard to then add in the country aspect later. Let’s look at the case study example.
Large Corporation Example: The Marketing team now has case studies from various countries and languages, but the case study library wasn’t built to enable local sales reps to easily find and use these assets. There is no “filter” or “tagging” option by country or language, so reps use the search bar to try to find the case study in their language, but cannot easily find ones for their prospect’s target country. As a result, local sales reps have downloaded the various case studies onto their laptops, but are often using outdated case studies, some of which the company no longer even has permission to use anymore. The marketing team doesn’t have web development resources to fix this at the moment. Note: this is precisely why it’s important to “think global” from Day One! If you haven’t built an infrastructure that is global-friendly from the start, this is the classic problem you’ll find over and over later on, meaning waaaay more work (and cost) for your entire company later on, to the point that it often won’t get funding.
Global Enterprises Should Leverage Both Country and Language Heavily
Global enterprises should use a hybrid approach for digital marketing that combines both language and country-led strategies to appeal to a global audience. By doing so, they can ensure that their content is culturally relevant and resonates with their audience while also targeting regions where there is a high demand for their products or services. Importantly, by the time a company gets to this phase, if they don’t already have this sort of mindset in place, and if they haven’t taken the necessary steps to evolve, they’ll begin to stumble in local markets and see their growth slow down, usually due to a lack of emphasis on globalization earlier on in the life of the business. When they do get it right, however, it’s a beautiful thing to witness!
Global Enterprise Example: Sales reps now have plenty of case studies for all of the company’s focus countries and languages. They can easily filter or apply tags not only for industry, segment, and use case, but importantly, can find the localized versions of case studies with global applications, and can also find natively produced case studies that cater to just one country or region. All case studies are accessible to all reps around the world in a global system so they can be updated and maintained, and prospect views of these can be tracked to assist with lead scoring / attribution modeling, and help inform the overall functioning of revenue operations at large.
In summary, the approach your business should take towards digital marketing will depend on your growth stage and marketing goals, but it will also need to evolve significantly over time. Whether it is a language-led, country-led, or hybrid model, each approach has its own pros and cons. It’s essential to understand these and choose the approach that best aligns with your business goals and resources. By doing so, you can improve your digital marketing efforts, reach your target audience effectively, and help your business grow globally.
You might be asking yourself, “Can we begin, even as a start-up, with a fully hybrid model from Day One?” You can, if you’re keeping things super limited to just a few countries and languages. But most marketers at businesses with a strong online footprint and any sort of content marketing motion will find, even with the launch of just one language, that they suddenly have decent traffic from many countries they are not even intentionally targeting. (That’s what I see with this blog for example, which is just a side project of mine, and is only in English.)
Pros and Cons of Language-Led, Country-Led, and Hybrid Approaches
Now that you understand the basic advice about which approach to use at each stage of your company’s growth (and keeping in mind that there is no perfect “recipe” that will fit every company’s needs), let’s look at the Pros and Cons of each model too.
Pros and Cons of Language-Led Models
- Larger initial reach. A language-led approach allows businesses to target all of the countries and regions where a language might be spoken, which can help boost top-of-funnel metrics like website traffic.
- Easier and faster to implement. The language-led approach is easier to implement as it generally requires mostly language-related changes to marketing materials.
- Less expensive. Usually, doing anything that is more targeted to a given country or region will require more customization. For that reason, language-led approaches tend to be less costly at first.
- Early SEO benefits. While hybrid approaches are usually best for SEO, a language-led approach can improve SEO rankings as part of a solid overall strategy, without as much investment as country-led and hybrid approaches require.
- Improved customer experience. Providing relevant content in a customer’s native language improves the customer experience, so even if you cannot customize further with country, usually providing some content in another language is preferable to zero, so long as it’s high quality and truly useful to your customers.
- Limited effectiveness. A language-led approach can limit the reach of marketing efforts as it only targets specific language groups, not the most important countries for your business within those groups.
- Increased costs. While a language-led approach is less costly than a country-led approach in most cases, even if you’re only “translating” marketing materials, ensuring high quality will be costly. Companies often underestimate how expensive and time-consuning it is to localize marketing content, and are shocked when they learn it can cost nearly as much as it cost to create it in the source language.
- Cultural barriers. A language-led approach does not always consider cultural differences, and if you’re not considering variations that exist from country to country, within a language, it could leave your business at risk of misunderstandings and miscommunication.
- Increased complexity. While a language-led approach is simpler than a country-led or hybrid one, it will still add complexity to your marketing efforts, especially if you decide to conduct your marketing in multiple languages.
- Difficulties pivoting to country later on. A language-led approach can make it difficult to localize marketing efforts for specific regions later on.
Pros and Cons of Country-Led Models
- Better targeting. A country-led approach allows businesses to better target a specific audience to achieve more concentrated impact, making a “bigger splash” in a “smaller pond.”
- Cultural relevance. A country-led approach can consider cultural differences, which can improve the relevance of marketing efforts.
- Increased trust. A country-led approach can increase trust among consumers as they see the business is familiar with the unique needs of their country, and in their local variant of the language.
- Improved localization. A country-led approach can make it easier to localize marketing efforts for specific regions. For example, if your product has limitations or doesn’t work the same way in every part of the world, a country-led approach can help you signal this in your product marketing materials.
- Better ROI. A country-led approach usually leads to much better ROI, especially when aligned with a clear country strategy, as it targets regions where there is a higher demand for the business’s products or services.
- Increased costs. Adapting marketing materials to specific regions can be costly, because they usually require more research, time, and staff.
- Limited language scope. A country-led approach limits marketing efforts to specific languages spoken in a region, so if you prioritize based on countries, you might address fewer languages as a result.
- Cultural misunderstandings. There can be incredible diversity within a country too, so a country-led approach can still result in cultural misunderstandings if not correctly researched and executed.
- Difficulty in implementation. A country-led approach can be difficult to implement for businesses targeting multiple countries.
- Reduced global appeal. A country-led approach may reduce global appeal as it focuses on specific countries only.
Pros and Cons of a Hybrid Model
- Improved reach and targeting. A hybrid model allows your business to reach a wider audience while still enabling you refined targeting, as it combines language-led and country-led approaches.
- Cultural relevance. A hybrid model is often the best-suited for catching and solving for cultural differences, improving the relevance of your marketing efforts.
- Improved localization. A hybrid model usually makes it easier to localize marketing efforts for specific regions, since the target audience is more specific and well-defined.
- More flexibility. A hybrid model is generally much more flexible and adaptable than a single-focused approach (language or country alone).
- Better ROI. A hybrid model usually offers the best ROI by targeting regions with higher demand and cultural relevance, while reaching audiences in their native languages.
- Increased complexity. Using a hybrid approach means managing multiple campaigns that target different regions and languages, which can make it far more complex and time-consuming to manage. Particularly for marketing content, it can require extensive collaboration with both internal stakeholders and external vendors.
- Higher costs. A hybrid approach can be significantly more expensive than a country- or language-led approach, as businesses need to invest in resources to create content in different languages and create multiple campaigns targeting different regions. This often requires multiple teams working carefully in tandem with each other, such as a Marketing team and a separate Localization team.
- Difficulty measuring ROI. Measuring ROI for a hybrid approach can be challenging. Even when you can attribute which campaigns are generating revenue in which regions or languages, the investment in human costs is often hard to quantify. This can lead companies to under-invest in those regions, or make abrupt budget cuts that hurt their long-term performance, without even realizing they are doing so.
- Risk of brand dilution. A hybrid approach can dilute the brand message if the content created for different regions and languages is not consistent. It’s essential to maintain brand consistency across all campaigns to ensure that the brand message is not lost. That said, local campaigns also need the ability to tap into creativity to ensure they truly resonate locally too.
- Time-consuming. Managing multiple campaigns targeting different regions and languages can be time-consuming and can slow down launch processes, which may not be feasible for businesses that need to push out campaigns and updates at rapid speed.
In summary, every one of these models has its pros and cons. In general, if you jump into a hybrid model too early in the life of your business, you may not be able to absorb the complexity. But if you lean on a language-led model for too long, your business will start to stagnate at some point as you scale. For that reason, make sure you align your marketing efforts with your overall international growth strategy, and importantly, with your company’s plans for investing in each geo in the short and long term. When these things are all fully aligned, that gives you a great chance at success, no matter which stage of growth you’re at, and no matter which marketing approach outlined here you happen to use.