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Why localisation goes wrong (Part 2)

The success of localisation depends a lot on how it starts, and that is usually before any localisation specialist joins the company. It is not uncommon that localisation stakeholders don't share the same understanding of what localisation means in the context of their company. This is the first problem with localisation.

But even when the stakeholders are aligned on what localisation is and does, they are unlikely to have a good understanding of what needs to happen so that this new initiative, strategy, process – whatever localisation means for the company – can deliver what is expected of it.

And this is...

Localisation problem #2: The sponsors and the first drivers of localisation don't have enough clarity about how localisation would achieve the results they expect.

Let's look at a real-life example. Here is how one company decided to invest in localisation in order to support its international expansion.

The product team put together a document saying:

"As we continue to expand internationally at a rapid rate, we need to ensure that our core product touchpoints and flows are equipped to reach and serve the needs of international users".

So they proposed to invest in localisation.

The team pointed out that localisation was "primarily thought of as 'the capability to translate copy'". However, they claimed that localisation efforts would "do more than simply translating core product flows". They said that localisation would also help ensure that the brand "preserves a consistent tone" and "create a stronger connection with international users".

The product team stated that "localisation and translation" would support international expansion by:

  • unlocking the company's ability to enter new international markets

  • increasing TAM in non-English speaking countries

  • enhancing the value of the company's offering for international users (by supporting efforts to educate and increase conversion of prospective users, and to retain users)

  • weakening competitors who already had a presence in international markets (by eliminating one of the main selling points they had over the company, i.e. its product not being available in local languages).

The investment decision was made.

While the first translations were in the making, the expansion team was recruiting people to support new international market launches. As part of the onboarding process, the new hires would hear that localisation wasn't just about language and translation.

According to the expansion team, localisation was supposed to take into consideration:

  • cultural differences (everything from date formats to national holidays)

  • different communication channels best suited for marketing purposes in each market

  • any differences within the industry across markets impacting the way customers would engage with the brand and its products.

The localisation team – people officially in charge of localisation – was hired only after a few international market launches. The team's main responsibility was to manage translation, which also included fixing the issues with existing processes and translations.

In the meantime, localisation as defined by the expansion team was done by everyone but the localisation team. The entire company was learning about localisation from its own mistakes, some of which literally cost it millions of dollars.

The localisation team had the expertise needed to prevent those mistakes from happening. But the team members felt that they lacked both the physical capacity to do anything in addition to translation management and the mental capacity to fight for being included in relevant conversations.

Whether the team did anything to support that broader vision of localisation is a story for another day. Let's first check whether "localisation and translation" were delivering on the expectations outlined by the product team.

1. Unlock the company's ability to enter new international markets

Great, we have translated our core product flows. Our product is now available in a bunch of new countries and languages. It sounds like we have unlocked our ability to enter new international markets. Let's consider it a success. (Because our ability to operate and grow in the markets we have just entered is outside the scope of this initiative.)

2. Increase TAM in non-English speaking countries

TAM, or total addressable (or available) market, is the overall revenue opportunity for a product or service assuming a 100% market share. It is an estimate of the market size that could theoretically be served with our product.

Would these hypothetical market size and revenue (that we could never practically achieve anyway) be any different if we didn't actually invest in localisation but just assumed that we eventually would? Either way, who cares about these numbers if they are just assumptions?

Investors do. They would use them to estimate our product's revenue generation potential to determine how good of an investment we are as a company. Does it matter how good our "localisation and translation" are? Not really. So we can tick this box just by saying we are doing them.

3. Enhance the value of the company's offering for international users

Let's assume that our localisation team, as initially expected from "localisation and translation", has been "supporting efforts to educate and increase conversion of prospective users, and to retain users". After all, the team has been doing translations for product and marketing.

Now, how do you know whether the value of the company's offering has been enhanced, and whether it has been enhanced by "localisation and translation"? You don't. And this is the third localisation problem.

4. Weaken competitors who already had a presence in international markets

Our product is now available in local languages in all these new international markets which we entered thanks to "localisation and translation". Our competitors who already had a presence in these markets no longer have "one of the main selling points" they had over us. Are they now weaker than they used to be?

Not really. Not at all. Because now we are "at war" with our competitors, at home and abroad. They haven't been just sitting there waiting for us to enter their domestic markets. They joined forces to increase their competitiveness against us.

Could "localisation and translation" have done anything to actually weaken our competitors? Yes, they could have, if "localisation" was defined differently.

Moral of the story.

If localisation is seen as translation, it can only do what translation does – transferring information from one language into another.

If localisation is expected to provide a business with some form of strategic advantage, it has to be logically connected with the business's strategy.

You can't build that connection by choosing a translation management software, integrating it with your content systems, finding translators, and sending them stuff to translate.

Operations meant to support the entire business, which is transforming in preparation to enter and compete in new markets, need to have their own strategy.

The starting point for investing in localisation should be a vision for localisation operation.

It is a clear statement of how localisation will contribute value for the business. It is not a statement of what localisation wants to achieve (those are its objectives), but rather an idea of what contribution it should make and what it must become.

Need help with defining how localisation can achieve the results you expect? Let's connect.

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