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Localising content is not a licence to be lazy

Johannesburg, August 11, 2015. 

By Natalie Pool, Head of Content at NATIVE VML

Natalie-Pool Working with global brands often means localising content for the South African market. But what does that really mean? I recently had dinner with a friend who works in an ad agency in London.  His department focuses on localising ad material from major global brands for specific markets. He spoke about adding subtitles to YouTube videos and replacing the product images in campaign artwork and TVCs because Germany doesn’t sell that ice-cream variant, for example.

It got me thinking: is it really that easy to replicate amazing content and find the same success in other territories?

Not always, according to my friend who admitted that some ‘viral’ videos fall flat in places where recipients don’t get the dry British sense of humour, for example.

This may seem obvious to most  but when confronted with a global campaign and a brief to localise the content for the South African market, the first reaction is to change the product packaging and replace ‘z’ with ‘s’.

While  some clients may be happy with the subtle change localising content – digital or otherwise – is in most cases generally so much more than simply changing ‘lad’ to ‘bru’ and hoping audiences eat up your content with a spoon.

As much as it’s important to be aligned with whatever your brand is doing globally, it’s never been more essential to create for your target market. South Africans have unique quirks and challenges and respond best to content that speaks to them.

Whether it’s clever content in reaction to load shedding, exam stress, our hope that Bafana will get their groove back, that taxi drivers will find their indicators or how the petrol price is linked to personal happiness, we need to go back to basics and find out what makes our communities tick.

A brief to localise content is not a licence to be lazy. Instead it should be an opportunity to push the boundaries and see how we can make an international concept our own. Those who do this best can enjoy higher engagement and conversion rates.

Think global, act local

It goes beyond translating copy and replacing an image of a smiling white family, with a smiling black family. From SEO to UX, local vernacular and the user journey should be taken into account.  From colours, symbols, language and tone, to the time people are online, the devices they use and how they like to shop online, it’s important to think global but act local.

Johnnie Walker’s iconic Keep Walking campaign is a perfect example of where a brand has done just that.  Understanding that a one size fits all approach only really works if you’re selling scarves, the agency BBH used over 100 different quotes relevant to each country to communicate the same message. For example, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ was used in China. According to, tailor-making the same theme across different territories for 13 years upped sales Johnnie Walker’s sales by 94%.

And while McDonald’s catching ‘I’m lovin it’ jingle is recognised the world over, the accompanying visuals vary across continents. Switzerland shows soft colours and laid back visuals while India is brighter, bolder and more interactive.

Talk the talk

Internet World Stats continues to show that English is losing its top dog status as Won’t Read the most dominant language on the web, with Arabic, Chinese and Russian taking over.  And Common Sense Advisory’s research report Can’t Read, claims that 85% respondents were reluctant to make online purchases without information in their mother tongue.

More recently, BBC’s Digital Development Editor, Dmitry Shishkin revealed their strategy to create content for the African market at the IAB Summit 2015.   Not only has the BBC created a Mobile First Journalism course, but they also held a Kenyan Hackathon in February 2015, awarding local team, Go Sheng for their app offering “innovative use of local language translation technology”.  The BBC has a few African websites in different languages and creates content specifically for each market. The news network has also placed a major focus on visual storytelling, which makes it easy to tell the same story in different languages. When news of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok broke, a cartoon was created, telling the story of the three girls who escaped. Not only could users read the transcript but they could also watch the animated video, which has audio in both English and Hausa.

Verifying this with Dmitry via Twitter,  he only added more weight to the cause: “As we are running an operation of 28 languages, localisation is our bread and butter!”

Test, test and test again

Not sure if localisation is for you? Test it!  A/B testing with different headlines, tweets, images, and colours is a great way to find out just how much you need to localise your content to make it relevant for your audience.  It can be as simple as having two versions of the same blog post with a different headline to see which performs better. You can tweet links to content using international copy and local copy to find out which tweet your followers respond to. Or you may just want to play around with different colours and icons in Facebook designs – posting two different versions of the same content a week apart to see just how much you need to mix things up to get engagement.

One of the best ways to practise A/B testing is with newsletters. Divide your contact list into two groups and send them the same content but with subtle differences – from the subject line and calls to action to colours, images and use of vernacular.  At the end of the day, you need to give users what they want – not what you think they want.

The internet may have made the world smaller but it’s also highlighted the different ways cultures consume content.  Having localisation as part of your content strategy can only benefit brands looking to form real relationships with their consumers.