Localization & Why It Matters

EPISODE 44 | Guest: Ray Walsh, independent localization expert, author of Localizing Employee Communications

We talk a lot about audience engagement with digital signage, and one way to ensure people pay attention and care about what you’re showing is to make it relevant to their environment. Localization means adapting communications to the specific location and audience you’re trying to reach, and is a vital element to any good communications plan.

Localization expert Ray Walsh talks about where this movement comes from, gives examples of companies that do a good job, and not such a good job, and gives tips for adapting both internal and public-facing messaging for the best possible customer experience.

  • Learn what localization is
  • Understand the differences between global branding and local messaging
  • Consider how to adapt global brand standards
  • Explore how to use photos correctly and effectively
  • Examine communication within the content chain
  • Get tips to avoid common pitfalls when localizing content

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Learn more about this topic with Ray’s book, Localizing Employee Communications from Amazon.


Derek DeWitt: When it comes to communications, even if your scope is large and covers the globe, you want your messaging to be relevant to the specific people you’re talking to. What we’re talking about here is localization: a topic which I know surprisingly little about. Thank God, I’m here with independent internal localization consultant, Ray Walsh. Hello, Ray.

Ray Walsh: Hi Derek. How are you?

Derek DeWitt: Excellent. Ray has just written a book about organizational communications and localization. And we’re going to talk about that topic, how it applies to companies of all kinds today, and yes, a little bit about digital signage.

So, localization means…what?

Ray Walsh: I first heard the word localization maybe around 2010. I had just been hired by UPS in their European headquarters. At the time, what we were trying to do was build a sort of internal news organization. We had a person in France, we had a person in Germany, somebody in the UK and so on. So it was a dispersed virtual team. And they’d all been with the company a long time, but they hadn’t been working together.

So what we were trying to do with our intranet was develop a kind of news source where we would have European-wide information, but also content that would be specific to France and content that was specific to Germany. We would create an article, say, that was for all of Europe. And then we would give it to our German person and our French person, our UK person, and they would adapt that article. Now, of course they would translate it, if necessary and adapt it for their culture, if necessary, but even adapt it for their business. Because France is focused on different customers than, say, in Germany. So, we would call that localization. So, here’s a bit of information, France; take it, translate it, localize it.

A few years later, I found that there was a whole industry called localization, and this is actually, I would call it an extension of the translation industry. And there are probably people who would want to skin me by defining it that way. But you know, if you think about a website, like Coca-Cola or Ikea, you go to that website and it might ask you, okay, which country’s content do you want? Do you want Brazil? Do you want Germany? Do you want Russia? And then you, say, choose Ikea Russia, for example, and it might give you content in Russian language and so on. So these are like Ikea, Coca-Cola. This is usually the kind of company that does a localized website. And there are companies that focus on providing this service on localizing global content to a specific customer experience.

And the keyword here is customer. The localization industry generally is focused on customers. So it’s the marketing departments that are focused on this. Once I learned that there was a localization industry, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I wonder what we in the internal communications industry could learn about that. So I started researching, I interviewed people, people from various disciplines, information architects, content strategists, and that kind of thing. And this research took me about four years, but it eventually turned into a book that I published at the end of last year.

Derek DeWitt: And we’re not just talking about translating a language, not just translating a document that was originated in English into French, German and Russian. It’s much more than that.

Ray Walsh: It can be translation. Absolutely. Especially if it’s straight information: this is how you log onto the tool; first do this, do that, do that. And that can be an exact translation. But very often you need to take information and adapt it to the culture. And that is maybe one where localization comes in.

In internal communications, what I find [is] the operational details can be even more important. So, for example, in Germany their customers may be the automotive industry, high-tech, for example, whereas in a country like Turkey their customer base may be small cell phone shops or textile shops. So they’re focused on a completely different business. So you’re adapting, not just the language and the culture, but also which customers you are trying to target. And that means that the message for employees can be slightly different.

Derek DeWitt: I know you and I were talking about this not very long ago, and you were talking to me about contrasting global branding versus local messaging. What does that mean?

Derek DeWitt: Right. I think that it’s a balance between the message of headquarters and the message of the local business unit. It’s always a balance. And you know, a good example of this might be say a large hotel chain. I want to say global, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as a global hotel chain; they seem to be quite different.

So, let’s say there’s the regional headquarters of this hotel chain, and then there’s the local hotel experience. And when you look at it, you know, especially from a perspective of digital signage, the hotel’s signage in this one hotel might be about the pool is closed this week. The bar is open until a certain hour. This is the conference that’s going on. These kinds of, you know, this is the way to that. It’s a very local experience, and the headquarters doesn’t have any ability to provide that content.

Derek DeWitt: Nor any say in when that pool opens and closes. It’s not their purview.

Ray Walsh: Right. So when it comes to the global brand, we’re usually talking about a color scheme, a tone of voice, a certain kind of standard. And I know that people in local business units can be quite cynical when it comes to the global brand, because they’re used to this police force coming in and saying, “Oh no, that’s not on brand; we’re not, we’re not running with that”. And it can be frustrating with them. And I, myself am a little bit cynical about it as well. So let me instead make the case for why a consistent message is important. And let’s look at it from the perspective of that person who is responsible for the local signage.

So, let’s say you want to put out a local announcement on your screens and you think, well, it’s fall, let’s use fall colors, let’s use orange and red and it’s seasonal. And this isn’t a question of aesthetics and whether it looks good.. You may not like the global brand’s color scheme. You may not like the global brand’s tone of voice…

Derek DeWitt: Fuchsia and green? Oh, I love those two together! Yeah.

Ray Walsh: But there’s a strong reason why, whether you like it or hate it, why you want to use the global brands. So again, you’re focused on the guest experience. Does the guest know that drinks aren’t allowed in the pool? Does the guest know, you know, what conference is going on today? That’s all very important stuff. And you, as the local sign owner, own that content. And I don’t think corporate would want to take that away from you. But you do want to do it in a way that’s consistent with the global brand. And here’s why.

Because some of your guests are frequent guests. They have maybe a corporate account and they travel only in your hotels. So if you changed the color scheme on them, or you start talking about something that just isn’t really in matching with the other hotels that they’ve stayed in, it starts to have that feel of, is this…? Am I really staying in the hotel? They wonder if it’s a franchise. It starts to feel like one of those phishing emails you get: is this really my bank? So when you’re consistent with the global feel, it gives them the confidence that they know you, they know the company and, you know, they’re staying in the right place.

Derek DeWitt: Doesn’t it also, I would also imagine it creates a sense of authority, perhaps? I mean, it’s kind of weird to think, “Oh, corporate headquarters cares about bringing drinks into this particular swimming pool”, but when you brand it with the global colors and fonts and taglines and even layouts, screen layouts and so on and so forth, it kind of feels like…. Nobody’s going through that thought process of did someone in corporate really think about this?

Ray Walsh: It gives them the confidence that everyone is working for the same company.

Derek DeWitt: Those are some good reasons for working within the global or company brand standards. But what about when it comes to localizing stuff? I mean, can’t we just make it fun?

Ray Walsh: That’s a very good question. It’s a very common question. Because, you know, as the owner of the local sign, you may not particularly like the global content. I’m going to guess, in our imaginary hotel, that 90% of the screen content is coming from you and 10% is coming from global or regional or whatever. So, let’s say it’s a promotion for the frequent guest card membership,

Derek DeWitt: Right. Loyalty programs.

Ray Walsh: A loyalty program, exactly. And corporate has given you some slides. That’s all well and good, and the content will look good, I’m sure. But it would probably be much stronger if you would say, if you want to sign up, go to the desk and ask for this person. Or what specific steps can they take in your location to join the program? And now you’re really supporting corporate with their campaign. So, this is an example of localization, of taking the global initiative and making it specific to your customer experience.

Derek DeWitt: And then obviously some of the content is clearly going to be local. I mean, if I’m in a Boston hotel, I don’t care what the weather is in San Francisco or Los Angeles, or what the airport departures and arrivals schedules are in those other cities. So clearly, sometimes the content will also be localized.

Ray Walsh: Absolutely. And I think that gets to a very good point of localization at its heart is awareness of what your audience needs are. You know, what your guests are interested in, you know what questions they’re asking all the time and you want to provide that information to them. So if you’re really aware of your audience (which, let’s face it, the corporate office never will know your guests as well as you do) so if you have that awareness of them and you know what they’re interested in hearing about, that’s your responsibility to get that content out to them. And that’s also an aspect of localization.

Derek DeWitt: Let’s say, I’m the person responsible for it. Let’s say digital signage in this hypothetical hotel. And I’m creating content. Does that mean that I’m roped in? I have to use the baby powder blue and the steel gray that corporate uses and I’m not allowed to…? How far can I diverge from that and still sort of retain a sense of consistency?

Ray Walsh: It depends very much on the culture of your company. I would argue that you do want to be consistent visually. And it really depends on the brand standards that your company’s developed. Some companies don’t have them. Some companies are very loose with this. But if you have a designer at the headquarters office, or a team of designers who are responsible for content or getting content to you, you want to use them as much as possible. And you shouldn’t consider this to be on your own. If you have specific information needs and they don’t have templates for you to use, talk to them. See if they can develop something for you that you can use easily. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel too much.

Derek DeWitt: That’s true. Corporate office should be responsive to their individual branches. “Oh, okay. You guys do this periodically. We get it. Maybe that’s a good idea. Maybe we should roll out a template for that”. Because templates is very often how this works, I think. I talked to a guy once at, literally, at a hotel, big, big brand name hotel, and he was the local sort of franchise manager and owner. And he said he was given basically a file, a bunch of files, PNGs, logos, and this and this, and told, “Go now create your content”. And he just kind of ran with it. But he did…it wasn’t always, it has to be in the lower left corner. He had enough freedom to be able to do what he wanted.

Ray Walsh: That can be a big challenge. If I were that person in charge of that screen, and you gave me a brand book of, you know, seven pixels to the right, I wouldn’t understand how to work with that. I just would not do very well with that. So let’s summarize. If you have those designers in the corporate office, use them, go to them, get their advice. If your company doesn’t have those resources and you are on your own, I would say just do your best to stay within the framework of the global brand, in the interest of providing a consistent guest experience.

Derek DeWitt: It’s not life and death. I mean, should you make a digital signage message or a poster or what have you that isn’t absolutely fantastic and stellar, I don’t think the world is going to come crashing down around your ears. I mean, when all’s said and done, it is just communications.

Ray Walsh: That’s right. Let me give you an example of a visual standard. A lot of brands are photography driven.

Derek DeWitt: Yes.

Ray Walsh: And that be a real challenge. Honestly, sourcing photos that are real. Let’s say that the headquarters is in the US and you’re in Italy, and the photos from the corporate photo bank are all suburban American. It just doesn’t look very Italian.

Derek DeWitt: Not at all!

Ray Walsh: And you have to find your own photos. There’s a lot of challenges in that. There are photo banks available, but you have to be careful about usage rights. So you have to school yourself about that. You don’t want to get yourself or the company sued. But you do want to maintain a kind of look and feel that customers recognize.

There’s no easy solution here. But if, for example, you need to provide photos, you need to get photos. And you have two choices here. You can use the photos that they provided for you, but if you’re really thinking about your local customer experience, you’ll try to come up with photos that look like your local experience.

Derek DeWitt: I keep seeing the same 15 Shutterstock images over and over and over everywhere I go. I see them in Germany. I see them in Britain. I see them in America. I see them here in the Czech Republic. I see them everywhere being used. And I kind of keep thinking, my God, there are thousands of images, you know? What’s going on with these same…? Yeah, they’re great pictures, but it’s the same 15 pictures over and over.

Ray Walsh: It’s because they’re available. Because the commercial usage rights are there. Because corporate has said these are the photos you can use. You can go outside of the corporate photo bank, but you have to be very careful that you have the usage rights. And again, this is a complicated topic that we could talk for another hour about, but do comply with legal regulations. But try to give some variety. And that may take some homework.

Derek DeWitt: Especially if you’re a public-facing organization, like a hotel. Can you imagine if you walked into a hotel and a picture that you know you took showed up on their digital signage? You’d go, “Hey, am I going to get a free drink at the bar, at least for this? Like, what the heck is that? That’s my picture, man!”

Ray Walsh: It’s also quite possible that someone, one of your guests, is going to recognize the photo, and they work for Getty, and you’re going to get sued.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s true.

Ray Walsh: And they’re getting quite aggressive about this. They are looking for these examples. So, you know, it’s quite common. If you’re a small operation, you might be able to get away with it for a while, but you do want to be legally compliant because you will get in trouble.

Derek DeWitt: People who take these photographs, many of them are professionals. They may have entered into a contract or something where they don’t get paid a lot of money for their work, but they do get paid something. Even if it’s just pennies per download. Just like you wouldn’t want anyone to take advantage of your products or services for free. You don’t want to steal from them.

Ray Walsh: I don’t mean to belabor the issue of photography. There are many sites now that offer free commercial unlimited use. You do have to check. But I always use Unsplash, for example. That’s my favorite.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, Unsplash is good. Pixabay is another good one.

Ray Walsh: You want to be consistent with the overall global experience and you want to comply with the brand standards. So if you’re photography driven and you don’t like the corporate library, find some legally compliant, usable images.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So, let’s say I’m the person responsible in my organization for creating this content. I have a bunch of stuff from corporate. I have some guidelines and so on. And yet, our culture is very different.

So, let’s say it’s a Japanese company, but my offices are in Spain, which has a completely different kind of a work culture. You know, we take three hours off every day during the workday; like, we have a whole different attitude. We have a different sense of humor. We have all of this. And so it might not even be that I don’t like the stuff that corporate is handing down, but I don’t think that my people are going to respond to it. And there’s always the risk that, you know, by trying to appeal to everybody, you appeal to no one. So, how can I follow those global or larger brand standards and yet also remain true to myself, and true to my people and make it actually relevant for them?

Ray Walsh: Those are absolutely the right questions to be asking. And I’m afraid there aren’t any easy answers.

Derek DeWitt: Oh, good!

Ray Walsh: The first thing I would say is be a little patient with the corporate office. They’re providing content for a bunch of different regions, a bunch of different countries. You’re never going to get perfect from the corporate office. If you want to appeal to your local customers in your local tone of voice, your local realities, it’s up to you. And that’s a challenge. Now I, myself am a writer. And if you asked me to create slides on a daily or weekly basis, I would be extremely challenged to come up with visuals that looked good. You know, that spoke to my culture.

Derek DeWitt: Just like if you had a photographer who you tasked with this, and you said, write this copy, they’d be like, “That’s not what I do, man.”

Ray Walsh: And yet we are in a world where we’re often asked to do those things that we’re not very good at. So I would just encourage you to do the very best you can to be consistent. Again, because we’re focused on customer experience, provide them with a consistent experience, but speak to them like a person, speak to them as you would want to be spoken to.

And if you have designers, work with them to get visuals that are adaptable, that work for you. If you don’t have designers, then interpret the guidelines and do your very best. Because again, I do believe that a consistent brand presented visually has value.

Derek DeWitt: So those are some of the reasons why it’s a good idea to try and work locally but also within the corporate or global guidelines. What are some of the pitfalls that you could come into it?

Like it occurs to me, like, let’s say I’m, I don’t know, our organization, we make widgets, we’re in Spain, we have our way of doing things. I know my audience and I create something that corporate then says, “Ooh, that’s pretty good. Let’s stick it in our Bangladesh offices.” But it turns out in Bangladesh, it just doesn’t work. Don’t you need a system in place of some sort to kind of be questioning and polling your audience, to make sure that what you’re doing is effective in reaching them the way you intend it to?

Ray Walsh: I would argue it’s going to be pretty hard for any one person or any one department to own all of those cultural parameters. It’s good to have global awareness. It’s good to know these individual preferences and details. But I think it’s hard for any one team to really be aware of all of them. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have local ownership of communication channels. Somebody has to be able to step in and say, this isn’t right for us, this isn’t going to work.

And if you are tasked with running a local signage system, don’t be passive. Don’t wait for permission from corporate, take ownership and know your audience. So number one, don’t be passive. Don’t wait for perfect from them. Second part of that is know your audience. And that might mean taking their temperature. That might be doing surveys, focus groups, talk to your customer and find out what they want.

This is a huge pitfall for any communicator, no matter where you are in the organization. And that is going into broadcast mode. And we all do it, whether you’re sitting in the headquarters office or whether you’re in the hotel. We all think we know what people want to know, and we just put it out and we broadcast it. And that’s where you get the tone-deaf mistakes. That’s where you get things that just aren’t interesting to people.

And again, no matter where you’re sitting in the organization, the way you get around that is constant awareness and constant learning about who you’re talking to. It’s critically important. When you’re in broadcast mode, one possibility is you’ll make mistakes, but another even bigger possibility is you’ll be boring. You’ll be uninteresting.

Derek DeWitt: Which is the worst! That’s the worst you can do now.

Ray Walsh: Yeah. And when we sit and create for ourselves, that’s obviously the tendency.

Derek DeWitt: That’s an excellent point. I mean, yeah, like you mentioned earlier, should you do surveys or polls? We talk about this all the time. Yeah, maybe you should. Or have someone, if not in charge of the, let’s say it’s for internal communications, the digital signage or what have you, whether they’re in charge of it or they’re just involved in it somehow, they need to have their finger on the pulse. They can’t be isolated in a room, you know, fed scraps from the table once a week and, you know, beaten with a stick when they misbehave. Like, they have to be an active part of the community. And the community, the audience, is always changing. If it’s the public, who the heck knows who’s going to come into your place? And even if it’s your employees, people leave, new people come in, younger people come in, they have different sensibilities. Like, it’s a never ending cycle. There’s no steady state for this.

Ray Walsh: That’s right. And I think that the tendency is always for us to go back to our secluded cubicle and create content. Because that’s what we’re tasked with. If you are working in isolation, start getting another opinion. Talk to your colleagues, show them the content before it goes live. Is this working? What are you hearing? Start to create a more collaborative team, even if you don’t have one today.

Getting that second set of eyes on things is hugely valuable on a number of levels. One, you’ll make fewer mistakes, but two, you’ll get feedback and you’ll find out what’s working and what’s not.

Derek DeWitt: And I’d also say, be willing to let things go if they aren’t working. You know, there’s an old, I don’t remember who said it, but there’s an old piece of advice for writers, is that when you’re looking at what you wrote, if there’s a section in there that you absolutely, positively adore, cut it. Because you will try and shape the rest of the book around that one thing. And that’s a mistake.

Ray Walsh: Right. We fall in love with our own content all the time.

Derek DeWitt: I mean this is where, we’re constantly picking on clipart, but yeah, Clipart. When you stick that clipart birthday cake up there, you think it’s funny. Why don’t you show it to five people? And if they all go, “yeah, that’s wonderful,” then you probably have a receptive audience. But if people go, “oh man, no, don’t put that up,” then be brave enough to remove that and put it up with maybe a nice stock photo of a cake. Or even better, take your own picture of a cake.

Ray Walsh: Or call the corporate office to see if they have any images of cakes.

Derek DeWitt: “Do you guys have cake pictures?”

Now your journey with this, we could almost call it, as you said, started sort of small, and then from that kernel grew into a whole thing and then you wrote this book. What is up with the book? Tell me about that real quick.

Ray Walsh: Sure. I called it Localizing Employee Communications.

Derek DeWitt: There you go.

Ray Walsh: And it’s really about the balance between the corporate, overarching, global message and the local experience. And it’s, as we’ve been talking about today, it’s a balance to strike. And no matter where you sit in the organization, I’ve tried to write chapters from, say, the corporate perspective, as well as the local perspective. They each have a role; they each have responsibilities. And neither one can be passive. And that’s our human tendency, is just to keep doing it the way we’ve always been doing it.

Corporate can do things a lot better to make things easier for people to create local content. And likewise, local content creators can be much more active in talking to corporate about what they need and what needs to be improved. And this book tries to bridge those gaps and explain the other perspective to each side of that equation.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. It’s a constantly evolving, shifting landscape and conversation.

Ray Walsh: In striking that balance between local needs and global needs, there has to be a lot more trust. Corporate can’t be so control oriented that everything has to go through them. And local, actually, has to learn to trust corporate, that they know some things and they know how to do some things.

Derek DeWitt: “Hey, we built an international brand. Give us some credit, wouldya?”

Ray Walsh: And I think sometimes, you know, there’s always tension between the corporate office and the local office, just inherently. And I think that just the process of localization, of just trying to build a local experience for your customers or your guests, is in itself a relationship building exercise.

Derek DeWitt: I would agree with that. I would agree. Yeah, what you said earlier about going in broadcast mode. I think, especially with the communication tools that we interact with every single day; social media is interactive (even though sometimes it feels like it’s just shouting at you, but it is interactive). You can comment, you can do this, you can hide things and so on.

And it’s funny sometimes to me that some organizations still hold onto this 20th century idea of communications, of this like, “Here is what you will know!” And that is…. Why would I listen to that when I can just pick up my telephone and have what seems at least like an interactive relationship with a bunch of strangers?

I always say that, especially with something like digital signage, our goal is to prevent people from getting out their phones. So, if you’re not giving them an experience that at least is close to what they can get on their phones, why would they pay attention to you?

Ray Walsh: And frankly, this is a tension that we’re still working out. Media is ever more fragmented, but we still have that kind of old world way of thinking where I have a message and I’m broadcasting it now. We do have social media channels. We do have decentralized ways of communicating now. And we need to acknowledge that, and we need to start figuring out how that’s going to work.

Derek DeWitt: Clearly, we have all of these things because people want them. So how can we get them to want to pay attention to, not just the local stuff, but even the corporate communications, as much as they want to watch share and comment on cat videos.

Ray Walsh: Right.

Derek DeWitt: ‘Cause you know, cat videos, right? I mean, you know who doesn’t love a cat video?

Ray Walsh: They do get clicks.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, they get clicks. Where can we find your book?

Ray Walsh: You can find it on Amazon under my name. The title again is Localizing Employee Communications. If, for some reason you’re anti-Amazon, you can also go to the publisher’s website.

Derek DeWitt: And they are?

Ray Walsh: XML Press.

Derek DeWitt: XML Press. All right. Well, super interesting conversation. Thank you for talking to me today, Ray.

Ray Walsh: It’s been fun. Thanks a lot for having me.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thank you everybody out there for listening.