Translating International Social Media

Many leading brands that are eager to get closer to customers have come to embrace Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other similar platforms as their primary vehicles for customer engagement and lead generation. In many cases, domestic social media efforts have paid off in measurable, impressive returns on investment (ROI).

However, social media strategy becomes significantly more complicated when companies expand it to include multiple international markets. For all of its allure, social media is not a panacea for globalization needs. It can be a useful tool, but website owners who include social media as one aspect of a more complete, integrated campaign often see better results abroad than those who put all their localization efforts into tweets and Facebook updates.

Below are five facts that all Web businesses should know about international social media:

1. Social media is not effective in every market

There are some industries in which social media lives up to its promise for better business. In these markets, customers respond in droves to carefully crafted tweets, and they like and share Facebook posts, leading directly to increased conversion rates. In other spaces, however, the impact of social media is nominal. In such cases, website owners must carefully consider the value of translating social media content for international audiences.

For internationally focused companies, social media activities can be time- and resource-intensive, since multilingual social media cannot be managed by machines alone. One hundred and forty characters in English, for example, do not neatly translate into Russian or German tweets. Human experts are required to oversee that process, as well as other social media tasks, such as responding to wall posts on Facebook or answering messages on a blog.

Before retailers invest in these activities, they should consider its potential value and examine the predominant sources of their website traffic in various regions. They should look at the way they define conversion and find out what their conversion rates are. They must look at the effect of social media on their home market and seek out evidence that might predict its impact abroad. Finally, businesses on the Web should determine whether they have the resources in place to manage localized social media on a global scale.

2. It can be easy and difficult at the same time

It seems so simple: Write a short blog post, send a pithy tweet, craft an irresistible Facebook missive, create a video for YouTube. These activities seem straightforward enough, and valuable, too, since the company retains control over a message that could go viral. Globalization, however, complicates matters.

Effective localization for international prospects requires more than plugging words into a machine that returns literal translations. This is certainly true for global websites, but the importance of connotation intensifies as communication gets more compact.

Twitter's strict length parameters, for example, make every character choice a critical one. Translating for this kind of platform requires not only timesaving software solutions but seasoned human translators, as well. These experts are needed to choose the right words, as well as understand the cultural implications and potential reactions of the target markets.

Additionally, creating short, frequent content requires ongoing local support, since the expectation of social media is not a one-sided broadcast but an interactive conversation. For business owners that want a one-time investment in international marketing that requires little follow-up effort, social media is not the best option.

3. If you want to go social abroad, hire locally

There is, of course, a reason for all of the hype around social media. When it is done well and prospects embrace it, social media marketing can pay off. This is not only true locally but also with international campaigns.

Online businesses that succeed in international social media marketing do so because they factor translation, international messaging, cultural norms, local news and localized search engine parameters into their strategies. They recognize that social media itself is not a marketing campaign; rather, they view it as an element of an integrated approach. When websites look at the way all available media and mediums can function together to reach a goal, they capture a greater return on their efforts.

Those who succeed also recognize that social media outreach makes numerous demands, including the following:

- Writing fresh, relevant content on a frequent basis
- Monitoring other blogs, tweets and posts in the market, and commenting regularly
- Calling on a local voice to manage these tasks to ensure that language nuances and cultural practices ring true
- Investing in a local marketing professional who can devote time to content creation and social media management

4. Social media marketing works best when it is part of a complete campaign

When it comes to international outreach and localization, the real return on investment comes from a well-integrated campaign that potentially includes social media as one element. Other common elements include targeted pay-per-click ads tied to a comprehensive international search engine marketing (ISEM) campaign, culturally relevant landing pages for fast conversions, multilingual rich media, adapted banner ads and marketing, out-of-home advertising, experiential marketing with people on the ground, philanthropic community involvement and events like launch parties and networking functions. Unfortunately, too many companies see that their website traffic is low and respond hastily with carelessly translated ads or machine translation that replicates their domestic blogs and churns them out in international markets. Both of these activities fail to achieve their overall marketing goals - building business globally, generating new leads and spreading awareness about products and services.

5. ISEM is the best foundation for effective global marketing

Before companies take on social media, they need to build a foundation to support their outreach to international markets. That foundation is not as flashy as Facebook, but it can be far more effective. Furthermore, ISEM enables every effort that comes after it, increasing penetration in new markets.

ISEM starts with the careful creation of keywords. Literal translation does not work for keyword creation, as slang and local vernacular play a significant role in regional search practices. The next step involves research into local search engine preferences.

In most of the world, the results will all point to one engine: Google. However, in some countries such as China, a local search engine will dominate. In these cases, businesses must learn the algorithms of the local favorite and create the keywords, ad placements, website content and tags most likely to boost rankings.

Putting them all together

It's unlikely that any business can drive international prospects to its landing pages without an integrated marketing campaign. Social media alone cannot build business abroad.

For example, a retailer who leads prospects to a landing page that is irrelevant to the ad they viewed sees the impact in lower conversion rates. If a website fails to use high-quality translation, its search engine results - as well as conversion rates - will fall. These problems are solved first by ISEM, and then by an integrated group of marketing efforts. While there is a lot of international excitement around social media, the business reality is that these mediums require resources and effort; they are not quick fixes or replacements for a missing strategy.

However, when international social media outreach is incorporated into a larger, more complete marketing campaign, it can be an effective method for reaching new prospects around the world.

About the Author: Liz Elting is the co-founder and co-CEO of TransPerfect, a family of companies providing global business services in over 100 languages.