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To Localize or Not to Localize...
Posted by Nataly Kelly, Benjamin B. Sargent on May 5, 2009  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Translation and Localization, Web Globalization, Best Practices
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... that is the question. Recently, we've noticed two reports of companies claiming that "it just isn't worth it" to have websites in other languages. Last week, the New York Times profiled several web-based businesses that elected to decrease or eliminate their web presence in some parts of the world, in spite of popularity in the local markets. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Home Depot is shutting down its Spanish-language site. This begs the question, "Is it ever a bad idea to localize?"

Yes, there are situations in which we recommend against localizing a website, especially when the company is not committed to making the effort a success, or is not prepared to handle the consequences. In most cases, localization in and of itself is not the problem; rather, it's the failure to plan or the inability to invest appropriate resources that can be a company's downfall. But at other companies, the business case simply does not justify localization, which is why strategy is an essential precursor to any initiative.

In their article, Brad Stone and Miguel Helft of the New York Times pointed out that online video providers Joost and Veoh are pulling out of some countries. The authors cite the cost of bandwidth and infrastructure to match growing popularity in markets where the companies have insufficient sales operations to drive revenue. Meanwhile, apparently other firms run bigger or better sales organizations, or have deeper pockets, since competitors like YouTube are not dropping markets. Instead, they pursue creative strategies to decrease costs while maintaining a strong presence in the market; for instance, by adjusting quality (average download speeds) during peak hours in those markets.

In Home Depot's case, Ann Zimmerman of the Wall Street Journal reports that the company shut down its site a mere four months after launching it, after seeing disappointing results in sales figures and web traffic. Apparently, half the site's visitors were from other countries -- a "problem" that many companies would love to have, but an outcome that was not in line with the retail giant's objectives. Again, the cost of bandwidth and servers is not supported by the business model. Someone needs to inform this company of the utility of geo-location software in directing traffic: Non-U.S. traffic could resolve to a simple landing page without graphics, rich media content, or database access.

But these highly publicized cases where the website owners don't want traffic are unusual. Far more often, we see companies that launch multilingual sites without sufficient planning, who fail to adequately promote the site, and then don't see the results they were looking for.

When companies move ahead with multilingual content, they must make a commitment to publicizing it. It just doesn't work to assume that a target audience who has been linguistically underserved in the past will miraculously show up at your site in the months following the launch of your new content. Either they already have your site bookmarked to the English page and may not even notice your new content, or they visited before and won't think to come back because, in their minds, you don't have content for them. Either way, you need to publicize your new content and drive your target audience to the new site. Just as with your source language website, expect the traffic to build over time.

In most industries and among most communities, four months is simply not enough time for a web audience to bear fruit. In the case of a retail e-commerce site, a balanced, integrated marketing plan must be rolled out with the new website. In the case of localization for domestic markets, integrated campaigns involve tapping into ethnic media outlets; for instance, Univision (with both television and radio properties).

The trend in companies that dip their toes into the localization pool only to realize they don't like the temperature reaffirms one thing for us at Common Sense Advisory. Localization is still an afterthought at many businesses. Only when companies move to a point in which they use the "L-word" more frequently in strategic planning initiatives will they begin to reap the benefits, as opposed to a, "let's-just-try-it-and-see-what-happens" venture. Companies like Disney, Google, Royal Caribbean, and others invest in strategy and planning, methodically building their localization efforts. That is why we see them steadily adding languages to their global websites -- and expanding their businesses as a result of it.


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Keywords: B2B and B2C global marketing, Ethnic / domestic multicultural markets, Geolocation, Global branding, Global websites, Localization, Online customer experience, Sales and marketing, Transcreation, Translation

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