The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Alan Guinn is managing director of The Guinn Consultancy Group, based in Bristol, Tenn. “Social media and the rapid response of it brings home the differences in communication across various groups of people,” says Guinn. “I’ve noted for years with clients that you should try to keep colloquialisms and ‘cute’ phrases out of your communication for those who do not share the same mother language.”

He shares a client example. “One of our clients was watching the ticker on the Facebook IPO on the day that the stock went public and was using Twitter to communicate with a client in Asia. In Asia, it was the middle of the night. When the stock broke and then started back down, our client said, ‘Well, that’s the ballgame on that one.’ His Asian client was unsure why he planned on going to a baseball game when the stock, in which he’d put so much hope, was cratering and actually asked if there was a baseball game on such an important day as Facebook going public.”

But, Ciarallo points out, unlike communicating through TV, for example, those communicating through social media globally have fewer options to worry about. While it’s important to understand any local platforms that may be specific to a particular region, in reality, he says, “Really, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ are in just about every country except for China. Even in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific we’re seeing a lot of regional platforms on the decline, and the big three or four are on the rise.”

What doesn’t work-what has never worked, says Christine Crandell, a B2B marketing strategist based in the San Francisco area, is creating content locally and then having it translated into other languages. Too much can go awry as these, now widely shared, examples illustrate:

  • When the Got milk? campaign from the California Milk Processor Board was taken to Mexico, the translation asked, Are you lactating?
  • Clairol’s Mist Stick didn’t appeal in Germany, where “mist” is slang for “manure.”
  • Gerber’s widely recognized baby image didn’t work in the African market where companies use images on products to indicate what’s inside.

Natalie Henley is a marketing expert with Findability Group, an internet marketing firm in Denver. “Every country really has to be thought of as its own market,” says Henley. Issues arise not just related to language, she notes. Culture, customs, and practices vary significantly from one country to another. For instance, she says that in the U.S. coupons are a popular approach to attract interest among consumers; in France, that just doesn’t work. “It’s a small nuance, but it can really make or break a social media campaign,” she says.

Strabley points out, though, that while execution of social media tactics should occur locally, the corporate strategy needs to drive those tactics. Social media is a piece of the larger communication strategy; it shouldn’t exist in a silo. “You need to have an overall corporate strategy, but the execution needs to be local. You have the danger of not being engaging or worse, alienating,” he says. He points to Microsoft and Intel as examples of companies that handle this issue successfully.

Another common misstep? Not doing due diligence in checking out the social media tools that resonate with specific global markets. In Japan, for instance, local social media sites such as mixi and GREE provide alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. But, data from Singapore Management University indicate that only 58% of internet users in Japan use social media.

These local variations clearly matter to global marketers, but too often they are overlooked. “The key idea is you have to know your multilingual, multicultural market,” says Janet Sternberg, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “Social media, like most media, depends on how we use symbols, and symbols include words and images-pictures, sounds, colors, numbers, body language, gesture, clothing.” Importantly, she says: “The way we use symbols differs in different language and different cultures.”

Even colors can send unintended messages, she notes, which is relevant for websites, Twitter profile images, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. She says that white, for instance, has a very different connotation in Asia than in the U.S. In the U.S., white denotes purity. “In most of Asia, white is the color of death and mourning-it’s what you wear to funerals.”

These seemingly minor idiosyncracies can lead to big problems.

Best Practices in Global Social Media

While social media is relatively new as a communication medium, the basic principles of good communication still apply, says Sternberg. The first step is thinking about your target audience.

The next, as Strabley points out, is making sure you have an overall communication strategy that is driving social media activities.
“What has been said cannot be unsaid,” Sternberg notes. “Once you make a mistake, you are subject to ridicule.”
Importantly, note the experts, U.S.-based communicators should not attempt to develop content and then “toss it over the fence” for use in other countries.

The wrong way to approach social media marketing in other countries is to have someone in the U.S. writing copy and sending it to a translator, says Henley. “It makes a lot more sense to set up a person in that country.” Even in the U.K., which might be assumed to be similar to the U.S., regional differences apply. Henley’s bias is to hire someone in-house, in the country where you’re communicating, to ensure both an understanding of the local communication nuances and an understanding of your organization and what it is trying to accomplish.

Sternberg agrees. “Hire people from the native culture. They will save you time in the long run because they know the native traditions.”

A solid social media strategy in any country, says Henley, should first begin with an established web presence. “Social media augments your main core brand online, and your website is always going to represent that core brand,” she says.

Strabley agrees. “I don’t think you can enter global markets purely through social,” he says. “You have to have a well-established strategy that goes beyond just the social channel.”

Henley points to a number of organizations that are doing a good job with global social media-IBM, Mercedes-Benz, The Coca-Cola Co., and Starbucks Corp. The localized Facebook pages of these companies provide some examples of how they’re connecting with consumers in various countries:

Facebook, says Henley, is a good starting point for most organizations since it tends to be the dominant platform in most countries. “What you really want to do is find one platform, in one country, to focus on first and then build from there,” she says. But, adds Strabley, “There is no need to try and devise a platform that works for all audiences; embrace the cultural nuances of each target, and create a social presence to serve each of them.”

Finally, learn from your efforts across geographical boundaries, advises Strabley. One of the things he sees companies failing to do is take advantage of best practices and lessons learned by individuals working in different markets. “On the one hand, you can’t take the same vanilla strategies across markets,” he notes. “But, at the same time, there may be certain things that work in one market that would not work in another. So, you need to develop some kind of forum to communicate the feedback that different markets are getting, so you can leverage those best practices.”

Social media, like other forms of communication, presents both opportunities and challenges for global marketers. Taking a “think global, act local” approach and staying on top of both cultural and technological trends can help avoid missteps and ensure that communication efforts are resonating with intended audiences.