street scene in Tokyo with many neon signs
PHOTO: Erik Eastman

Managing a brand’s digital integrity on a global scale is becoming an imperative rather than an option.

Content localization is critical to success in a worldwide marketplace, where everything from language to the emotional connotation of colors can vary widely. Marketing history is rife with examples of campaigns that fell flat when they crossed international borders.

And yet technology makes it all too easy for a multinational company’s local teams to take content creation, and even website design, into their own hands — sometimes in ways that aren’t aligned with the organization’s overall branding and messaging.

The key, therefore, is to develop a framework in which employees can optimize content for local markets without undoing all of the work you’ve put into building a brand (not to mention running afoul of regulatory requirements and potentially incurring huge fines  — all while losing customers). This topic doesn't often come to the forefront of C-suite discussions, but it should be. It’s a big task — and an important one.

In my experience with Global 1000 companies, there are three key components of a successful global content framework: deciding how much digital integrity your business needs, defining both global imperatives and opportunities for localization, and determining ownership structure. All three should originate in the C-suite. Let’s take a look at each of those.

Deciding How Much Digital Integrity Your Business Needs

Developing digital content for individual markets can range from simply translating content created for the home market to customizing every detail to reflect and accommodate local laws, preferences and cultures. That’s a very broad spectrum, and the right position will vary according to the goal of the organization’s local marketing effort, which could include enhanced global brand recognition or growth in that individual market.

Goal: Global brand recognition. A company that wants global brand recognition — Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, etc. — may choose to keep tight control over brand identity while remaining sensitive to local preferences. Those types of efforts might include the following elements:

  • Logos, trademarks, slogans and taglines, mission statements, customer personae, etc., would be determined on a global level and would have to be used on all official digital properties, regardless of geographic location. In addition, all content would have to reflect the organization’s values and support any current campaign messaging.
  • Language, copywriting practices, images, models, etc., would be decentralized, allowing each market to optimize content for the local customer base.

Goal: Individual market growth. Organizations that care more about growth in individual markets than they do about global brand recognition may decide to take a more decentralized approach, retaining control of only the most important branding decisions while encouraging their distributed offices to create content customized for that particular market.

Considerations: There’s one primary question to consider here: What degree of centralization or decentralization will best serve your organization’s global goals?

A practical note: Compliance with regulatory requirements merits its own mention. Some jurisdictions have stricter privacy laws than others. Examples include the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect on May 25, and rules on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, which is allowed in the U.S. but not in many other markets. When it comes to digital integrity, regulatory compliance is far too important for any multinational company to ignore, since the consequences of violations can be quite severe. The best approach is usually a combination of local input with global oversight and enforcement.

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Defining Both Global Imperatives and Opportunities for Localization

Once you have determined the degree to which you will localize content, it’s time to get specific. That means identifying both non-negotiables as well as areas where local teams will be allowed and/or encouraged to customize company content for their markets.

Considerations: There are several things to consider when making those decisions, including the following:

  • Your company name: Does it matter how individual offices in different locations refer to your company? Is it OK for some to identify it as Global Gadgets while others call it Global Gadgets Inc.? If it is important to the brand to be consistent, you should decide on one name to be used in all local markets.
  • Your logo: Will you use the same logo globally, or are there regions where cultural preferences may warrant some flexibility?
  • Domains: Can individual locations launch their own websites, or must all sites be part of the company’s domain structure? If it’s the latter, what domain hierarchy should be used to organize all localized content?
  • Social media: Who is authorized to post on behalf of your company, and how far does that authority extend? Can local managers post about, or respond to questions on, any topic? Or are there some situations (forward-looking statements, for example) that should only be addressed by global headquarters?
  • Advertising: Can local management teams purchase advertising, such as sponsored posts on social media? Or should that responsibility remain with global headquarters in order to maximize the investment and prevent local campaigns from undermining the campaigns of other markets?
  • Culture: Are there aspects of your digital content that may come across differently in some cultures than they do in others?
  • Appropriate content: Do you have content that may be appropriate in some cultures but not in others? Potentially controversial subject matter includes clothing styles, alcohol use and dancing.
  • Language: Will you translate your content into the local language of every place where you do business, or will you prioritize? What will you do in regions where multiple languages are used? And will you merely translate, or will you optimize your translated content?

A practical note: Written content uses purposeful wording choices to drive specific behaviors. Simple translations may convey the basic meaning, but they may also lose that “oomph” that motivates people to take action. So it is important to decide whether you want to take translation a step further and apply local copywriting practices to the translated content.

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Determining Ownership Structure

Far too often, once decisions about digital integrity are made, the decisions are sent to employees the world over — and that’s where it stops. Digital integrity only becomes a reality when someone — often called a digital steward — owns it. Some organizations may decide the responsibility should belong to somebody in marketing, others may prefer to give it to IT or some other department. That decision will vary. What can’t vary is putting an individual — someone with support from, and authority bestowed by, the C-suite — in charge of digital content on a global scale.

Considerations: A digital steward’s responsibilities will vary from one company to another, but common duties include the following:

  • Conducting an audit of all existing digital content.
  • Using the results of that content audit to prioritize high-risk issues that need immediate attention.
  • Writing policies that address the global rules that all content must follow, regardless of location.
  • Creating guidelines and training materials to help remote offices adapt or create content that’s optimized for their particular markets.
  • Developing a two-way workflow that provides local offices with content they can use and establishes a conduit for local offices to communicate problems and suggestions back to global headquarters.
  • Developing a monitoring program to track compliance.
  • Providing the C-suite with regular updates on the state of the organization’s digital content.

A practical note: Organizations that choose a more decentralized approach may have more than one layer of ownership. They should still have global digital stewards, but their stewards could then delegate local ownership for each market. With that approach, however, identifying which decisions will be made at which level is an essential step.

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Opportunity and Risk

There’s no definitive blueprint for digital that will apply to every organization in every industry and location. However, here are some universal lessons that you can use to frame your own digital programs:

  • There’s no such thing as “just content.” Well-executed content that’s aligned with an organization’s strategic goals can significantly boost success. Likewise, random content produced with no guidelines can expose an organization to significant — and unnecessary — risk.
  • Somebody has to own digital integrity. Moreover, that digital steward must have the C-suite’s full support in terms of both authority and resources.
  • The digital steward must serve as the hub of all communication regarding the organization’s digital content. That includes relaying global rules to all physical locations, offering remote offices encouragement and guidelines on how to localize content within those rules, and regularly updating the C-suite on the state of the company’s digital properties. All updates should include a report on ROI that details what the organization is gaining for its investments in digital content.

Your organization’s digital presence represents more opportunity — and more risk — than you may realize. C-suite executives should have clear insight into the organization’s digital presence and, where necessary, provide policies to guide that activity. Finally, it’s imperative to assign both responsibility and resources to a single individual who will oversee your organization’s entire online presence.

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