Tips for developing content for an international audience

Marketers today have a truly global reach, but making meaningful connections with separate consumer markets around the world can be tough. Should you take a one-size fits all approach, or customize your messaging to speak to every market that you serve?

Both routes come with challenges: one keeps things simple, but may be a blunt approach; while the other comes at a high cost of setup, management and execution.

Find a common language

The first solution is to take a cross-cultural approach, writing plainly and avoiding complex imagery and metaphors that may be confusing to non-native speakers. Opt for defaults that are going to be accessible to the largest possible segment of your market – for example, opting for American standards if pitching to a global Anglophonic market.

Even with a common language there can be barriers, of course. Just look at the definition of the word ‘turtle’ or ‘football’, both of which vary widely within the Anglophonic world (Americans use the word turtle to refer to all chelonians, while in the UK it only refers to sea-dwelling species). These examples underline the subtle differences that exist in usage – before even considering spelling and grammar.

Indeed, adapting your messaging for a universal audience may be harder than you might imagine – and it’s all too easy for cultural references to creep into content. Allusions to everything from religion and sports to holidays and superstitions can be strongly indicative of the writer’s origin. If you get it wrong when pitching to a foreign audience, then the results can be deeply jarring.

It’s also worth remembering that the northern and southern hemispheres have opposite seasons – so references to a scorching summer won’t make much sense if they’re directed to Australians in the middle of their winter.

Draw on local knowledge

As you scale, however, it’s likely that it will eventually become preferable to localize content for your largest markets. A localization team can bring local knowledge to bear and, perhaps most importantly, can provide an expert knowledge of local laws regarding advertising and sales tactics – an investment that could repay itself many times over. If budgets won’t stretch to recruiting a full localization team, consider at least bringing on freelancers to proof your messaging and flag issues.

Keep translation in mind when creating calls to action (CTAs) and ensure that the data for separate sets of copy is siloed, to provide distinct, actionable learnings. However, keep in mind the fact that in many cases it will be more effective to loosely translate text rather than transcribing it literally. For this, you will need to have trust in your localization team, so hire the best and ensure that you are able to communicate a common vision. If you instead tie their hands, they’re likely to be much less effective.

Search keywords are a case where you absolutely shouldn’t assume that performance and results can be taken from one country and mapped onto another. Whether acquiring pay per click AdWords traffic or optimizing for search engines, each territory is guaranteed to come with an entirely different SEO landscape. In fact, you may even be looking at different search engines – while Google holds around 90% of search queries in Western Europe, Bing pops up to take some 22% in the America. Meanwhile, Baidu directs 54% of searches in China.

Measurements and scale

Other factors to consider in localization are units of measurement, date formats and, of course, currency. Individual territories come with idiosyncrasies that range from the US date format, to the unique British use of stone as an imperial measure, to India’s use of the terms crore and lakh in currency (to denote 10m and 100,000 rupees, respectively).

If you list goods or services alongside content, to account for local measures and currency, you might choose to manage the placements dynamically based on the user’s location, or you could create dedicated sites for your largest markets. Thereby creating a full, localized experience. Whether or not you have localized sites, you may also want localized social media pages, particularly where you are working in different languages.

Pictures with a thousand words

When localizing content for multiple markets, and particularly when working in multiple languages, it’s best to avoid using images with text. If you do then you’ll need to create and manage multiple versions of every image. Even if your graphics team is geared to collaborate with your localization teams, so that text overlays can be easily swapped in and out, it will nevertheless be a complex process and likely an avoidable headache.

And while mobile-friendly designs have been made effectively obligatory by Google today, international reach is a further reason to ensure cross-device functionality. In China, more than 95% of internet users use mobile devices to go online and it has been forecast that by 2020 there will be 6.1bn smartphone users, many of whom will never have used desktop – and if your site doesn’t work for browsers in these markets, then they won’t use it.
While there are substantial challenges to creating content for a universal audience, there is also an enormous opportunity in hand. Keeping a global audience in mind will give you a far greater reach – and will likely grant your work far greater longevity. Indeed, if you provide online services or ship products for delivery, there’s practically no limit to the market that you may be able to tap into.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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