3 of the most common localisation issues — and how to overcome them

The latest CIM London Professional Marketer event, ‘Are you talking to me?’, provided a great introduction to the challenges and opportunities around localising your content for international markets.

Featuring talks by Gytha Lodge from Alpha, a globalisation, localisation and translation company, and Susannah Poulton from the Department for International Trade, the session was particularly interesting as a linguist. Here are some of the takeaways from the lively discussion.

1) Cultural sensitivity

Both Gytha and Susannah highlighted cultural sensitivity as a key issue when localising your website or other content for an international market with which you are not familiar.

Two examples provided by Gytha demonstrate how easy it can be to get it wrong. The first was around the re-use of photography. Whilst in Europe a photo showing a girl’s exposed shoulder, for example, is commonplace in advertising campaigns, in many Middle Eastern countries, this would be unacceptable due to the exposed skin. Similarly, a black border around a photo would seem innocuous in the UK, but in China would signify that the person pictured had died.

Susannah also brought up an interesting example to demonstrate the significance of cultural understanding when it comes to localisation. When shown a photograph similar to the one below, a group of Westerners simply described it as a tiger, whilst a group of Asians described it as a tiger in a forest. The psychologists’ explanation? That the difference in interpretation reflects a focus on the individual in Western society as opposed to a focus on the family and community in Asian society.

So how can marketers overcome issues around cultural sensitivity? Gytha advises working with an experienced, multi-lingual company, and ensuring that your localisation partners are both bilingual and bicultural.

Susannah introduced us to a really useful tool created by Geert Hofstede that can help in understanding the cultural dimensions of a country, particularly in comparison with another country. For instance, a low score on the ‘uncertainty avoidance’ dimension indicates that, as a whole, that country’s people are more open to change and less worried about precise details.

2) Getting the right tone for your target market

Another key issue discussed was around getting the tone of your marketing materials right in international markets. The tone used should match both the market and your specific audience. In order to achieve this, Gytha advised working with creative translators, as well as allowing plenty of time during which to complete a project. Allowing enough time, as well as getting buy-in from key stakeholders as early as possible in the localisation process, will make it less likely that you’ll miss deadlines.

In this context, Susannah also highlighted the importance of taking a test and learn approach. When initially attempting to translate ‘low cost flights’ into Italian, for example, she and her colleagues struggled to find the correct term, expecting the entire phrase to be translated. However the actual correct term is ‘voli low cost’, demonstrating the importance of experimenting in order to identify the right terms and get the right tone. Susannah also stressed the importance of working with translators who live — or have only very recently left — your target country, particularly for languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese which are changing so rapidly.

When experimenting with language and tone, marketers should also keep in mind the overall brand tone and value proposition, as consistency is key.

3) Optimising your site for international audiences

Even when your website content has been fully translated and localised, there are still some important steps to consider. Gytha spoke about the significance of getting international SEO right. Keywords can differ greatly even between countries with the same language, such as the UK and US.

So it is important to work with a local partner to fully understand the most common search terms among your target audience. And don’t forget domain names and URLs, as well as meta descriptions, all of which should ideally be in the local language, particularly given than Google prioritises localised content.

Ensure your localisation process incorporates an in-depth QA process, whether this is done in-house or by your localisation partner. And make sure it takes in all devices and languages, so any issues can be spotted before they affect the end user.