Language Strategy: A company’s language strategy specifically defines what content systematically gets translated into which languages. A language strategy is not static. It always reflects a company’s shifting international goals and priorities. After a company enters international markets, there’s a simple question very few companies can confidently answer: “Who owns our language strategy?”.  Asked a different way, “Why do we translate into some languages and not others, and who decides this?”. When you consider the fact that companies manage and produce a variety of materials for a variety of users, the ability to answer these questions become even more important and complex. A company’s language strategy is part of its global business growth strategy. The language strategy is defined when the company decides to go global. The time and thinking that (hopefully) went into the initial language strategy seldom returns.  Because “What’s our language strategy?” isn’t systematically or repeatedly asked, the first inception of what content gets translated into which languages often remains unchanged. There are a number of inflection points in a company’s business that can necessitate language strategy changes. New product introductions might require different language combinations. If a company engages in mergers and acquisitions, language support for the acquired products might need to be totally rethought. Finally, and of course, changes in a company’s regional focus or data-informed potential opportunities can also drive changes to language strategy.
Why it Matters
A few detailed examples illustrate why a well-developed, thoughtfully managed language strategy matters:
  1. Some content in a certain language might become more important than originally thought: For example, a great deal of sales content for a single product might now need to be in Portuguese. The cost of not identifying this need as early as possible includes additional time spent by support personnel answering customers’ questions. Because important content is not in Portuguese, frustrated customers have less ability to maximize the use of the product. This leads to a decrease in future sales.
  2. A language might become relatively less important to a business: When companies fall into the trap of translating unused content, the return on investment in localization is greatly diminished. Personnel time, budget, bug fixes, and energy are also wasted on languages that have become relatively less important.
  3. A one-off sales opportunity yields a permanent change: To close a big deal, the sales team insists they need content in Thai. From then on and regardless of need, all content is translated into Thai. The inefficiencies mentioned in the previous example apply. Additionally, the localization team/vendor might have limited to no experience with your company’s content in Thai for this important opportunity. Surprise, one-off requests generally impact the quality of the deliverable.
  4. Mandating language support for regions in which product offerings or content are not viable: A company’s UI and sales platform in Norway works differently than in any other country. Regardless, the product, support, and training materials are all translated into Norwegian from the source content used for the rest of the world.
  5. There’s nowhere to go when big changes are needed: We end the examples with a true story…where the presence of a task force who owned the language strategy would have led to millions in savings and unknown amounts in additional sales. A member of a localization team at one of the largest companies in the world screamed for budget to expand training content into Simplified Chinese. The request was denied by the uber training manager, and nothing could sway this individual. One year later, an emergency budget was passed. An unrealistic deadline was given to localize all training into Simplified Chinese. An abridged version of the inefficiencies this created includes:
    • Untrained call center agents in the company’s fastest-growing market
    • Extremely low customer satisfaction scores in China
    • Linguistic quality issues (accompanied by full-volume complaints) that took years to unravel
    • Negative effects incurred in other markets due to localization’s/other teams’ decreased bandwidth as they addressed this self-imposed emergency
Usually too shallow, language strategy management generally appears in one of the following two ways. In many organizations, marketing, sales or product management will drive the language decisions.  In the other case, the localization/globalization team works horizontally to broker a reasonable language strategy. In both of these scenarios, discipline, data, cross-functional subject-matter expertise, and long-term business drivers either fall short or are completely absent.
The Right Direction to Ensure a Dynamic Language Strategy
We refer to the function that manages global readiness components the Global Growth Initiative (GGI).  This cross-functional initiative manages a wide scope of global readiness features that includes language strategy. The tips below focus solely on language strategy. We call out the specific characteristics, drivers, and thinking the GGI must possess to successfully manage this critical area of your business.
  • Cross-functional: Representation includes Marketing, Product, Sales, Legal and Localization (Finance, Procurement, and Support are other important participants)
  • Transparent: Always willing and able to answer “Why do we translate this content into these languages?”
  • Accessible: The entire company understands where to go with their language strategy questions and suggestions
  • Purpose-driven: All decisions and guidance reflect the company’s specific international goals.
  • The GGI is data-informed. It includes a suite of metrics such as:
    • Current sales/user volumes by language
    • The percentage growth/decrease of users by language
    • Content lifecycle feedback loops: Define rules around content priority; collect data from content owners around increasingly and decreasingly used content
    • The language strategies of your company’s competitors
  • The GGI understands that all content and languages are not created equal
  • The GGI provides direction on the priorities for languages and content
  • The GGI is the approved corporate governance source for language strategy. As such, the GGI provides a forum to understand and provide guidance on the following types of questions.
    • What data or anecdotes might the support team offer in terms of the number of requests made in unsupported languages?
    • What materials in a new language is the sales team dying to have that they think would increase revenue?
    • What perceived trends and collected information are spurring discussions around changes to the language strategy?
    • What is the quality level required by language for certain content? When and where can we implement automated translation solutions?
  • When a change to the Language Strategy is required, it will be supported with as much data and creative thinking as possible
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