By Craig Watson
The Romans would have built phenomenal technology companies. Why? Because they knew how to expand and scale internationally.
They understood that in order to grow their empire and promote their way of life globally, they needed to live in harmony in the countries that they inhabited. To do this they spent time speaking the local dialects and learning about different cultures — adapting and evolving as required. They played the long game so that they could literally reap what they sowed and live off the land as they ventured further and further from the motherland.
They did this by appointing ‘Governors’ (bosses) who were elected officials that carried out the rule of law remotely from Rome, from as far east as Babylon to as far west as Britannia. At its height, the Roman empire encompassed 6,500,000 km² with nearly 90M inhabitants. The Romans achieved all this at a time when their biggest technical achievement was arguably a pipeline that could supply water over long distances. Impressive right? The Romans did more than just come, see and conquer. They stuck around and localized like a boss. Vini, Vidi, Velcro.
In contrast, we live in an age where there are no real physical boundaries. Globalization in short means that every product has a global audience. It has never been easier to sell a product or a service in a location that is physically on the other side of the world. The Agrarian economy was largely subsistence based. The Industrial economy was limited by the modes of transport available to fuel the engines of growth. On the other hand, the Information Age has no geographical limitations.
Surely that means that all tech companies, which pride themselves on selling information in one form or another, are destined to become empire builders too?
The majority of technology companies only pay lip-service to the idea of localization.They’re more like a bunch of Vikings Raiders that are trying to force their own way of life on a remote island nation. The Viking land grab approach was effective but not sustainable. Taking the short-term view meant that even at the height of their existence, the Vikings were generally only able to settle narrow coastal pockets in Europe.
Just like their Viking counterparts, most tech companies are happy to seize opportunities that arise and then retreat to their longships with the goods in hand. If you’re not prepared to learn local customs and languages, no amount of brute force will overcome the slow and steady settlement approach.
Current trends in App development illustrate the same differences between adopting the Roman or Viking approach towards localization. At a time when it’s cheaper than ever to use translation services, it is still amazing how many apps remain in one language only. They expect to just blitz in and win market-share in locations where they have spent no time getting to know the user-base there. The apps that succeed internationally are the ones that take the time to understand foreign markets and who then optimize their product for that user-base.
Be a Roman Boss, not a Viking Raider.
In a study carried out by Distimo — it was found that applications increased their download volumes on the iPhone by more than 128% in the week following the addition of the native language.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. Nelson Mandela
So how do you localize like a Roman Boss?
At Soundwave, we’re building a music discovery app that allows you to see what music your friends, family and favorites are listening to in real-time around the world. As music is the universal language, we wanted our app to be available to as wide a market as possible. I’d be the first person to admit that our plans for global domination are far from complete. In fact, we’ve made a load of mistakes but thankfully we’ve managed to get more things right then wrong. Based on our experience in expanding and scaling the app internationally, here is a list of things that have helped us.
1. Prioritize the Languages
Work out what languages give you the most reach. Localizing is a serious commitment so it makes sense to work out where you will get the most return on the time invested. We used an Irish company calledTethras which provide helpful guidance on the penetration of each language (and the differences for iOS, Android and Windows).
Did you know that you can cover nearly 80% of the globe by translating your app into 6 languages? Neither did we — so work out what markets you want to approach, how much you can spend on this and how quickly you need it done. Tethras have provided a helpful list of what languages provide the most reach by market here.
Bonus Tip: Beware of legacy issues. Whatever languages you do choose to go with at the start will require constant upkeep. That means every product update. Every messaging campaign. They all require updated strings and translations. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The guys at another great Irish company, Reverbeo, that provide a cutting edge localization service for websites, were kind enough to take the time to explain this to us before we launched.
2. Leave Plenty of Time
Typically, localization will be an after thought once a product is ready to ship. In our case, we were so focused on getting the last minute bugs fixed that we underestimated the turn-around time it would take to get the translations done. Translators are only human and need to spend time ensuring that the translations are accurate. You can get things done quickly or correctly. Not both. It’s better to err on the side of caution and get your translations submitted well in advance. If we had to do it all again, we’d give ourselves a month (not the 10 days we had) to go native!
Bonus Tip: Find out in advance how long the translations are going to take and add on 20%. Human error will always come to the fore and you’re more than likely to have some last minute changes anyway.
3. Use Your Networks
Don’t underestimate the power of your networks to help with translations. We were pleasantly surprised to find out how many bilingual friends we had that were more than happy to help out. We were lucky to have friends in Sandbox which is an amazing group of young achievers from all over the world. When we were up against it and needed some initial translations, the Sandbox group went above and beyond and the only reason we made our deadline was thanks to their concerted efforts.
You’d be amazed how many languages a small team’s extended network can cover. There’s obviously a balance between getting a two sentence app description translated and 1200 strings translated. Keep the technical stuff for the pros but don’t be afraid to use your contacts to help with the smaller stuff (and to keep the costs down).
Bonus Tip: Use search tools on social network to ‘remind’ yourself how multicultural your friends actually are and what languages they can speak. Facebook Graph Search, LinkedIn and Twitter can help a lot with this.
4. Localize ALL the Assets
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying — “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing it well”. This applies to localization too. Make sure to work out every touch point with your international user base and ensure that it is covered. Examples of some touch points that we focused on atSoundwave included:-
- Strings in the app itself
- App Store Descriptions
- App Store Images
- Product Update Descriptions
- Press Releases
As mentioned above, this takes up a lot of time. The biggest time sink for us was actually localizing the app store images themselves. We spent countless hours changing the language on our handsets, changing the name of the user profile and then taking the relevant screenshots for that location.
An example below is for our app store description for Brazil. Now those of you with a keen eye might notice that our Brazilian user in the picture looks a lot like Brendan, (our CEO who is from Dublin, Ireland and definitely not from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil). We wanted to make sure that our Brazilian users weren’t put off by some name that they didn’t recognize or by some location that they had never heard of.
Soundwave Brazilian App Store Image
The same applied to our Dutch speaking user-base so we localized that asset too. Again Brendan and Willem look incredibly similar ;-)
Soundwave Dutch App Store Image
If a user makes it as far as the app description in the App Store, you don’t want them walking out the door of the shop because they don’t understand the product description. Make it easy for them to download the app!
Bonus Tip: Go the extra mile and make it super relevant for your user base in each specific market. We found out what the number one songs were in each location and made sure to include that song in the activity feed image that we used. An example below is the Activity Feed image for our Japanese App Store Description. We’re all now big fans of J-pop in the office!
Activity Feed in Japanese
Did going the extra mile make any difference?
Absolutely. On the back of our Japanese localization, we managed to secure an unbelievable feature (front and centre) on the Japanese App Store that led to thousands of daily downloads — thank you Apple! This would not have been possible without putting in the hard yards and localizing all the assets.
Japanese App Store
5. Google Translate is Your Friend
Also if you need a quick solution, there are a suite of free translation services that are good enough for 80% of most use cases. Our Community Manager extrordinare Roisin (who is now almost fluent in Russian and Standard Japanese ;-) has managed to engage with our user base in hundreds of different countries thanks to Google Translate. Ok — sometimes the grammar will be slightly off or a word will be out of context but it’s better to make the effort than it is to ignore customer feedback altogether.
Other services like One Hour Translation are fairly cost effective and are quite quick. If you’re in a bind, this service has served us well.
Bonus Tip: Make a dedicated help section and translate this into as many languages as possible before you launch. You can then redirect your users to this help centre which will hopefully sort any issues that they’re having and will reduce the amount of questions that need to be answered.
6. Mobilize your Troops
We recently introduced a program for Soundwave power users who were keen to act as brand ambassadors in their own countries. We put out an open call to all ‘Roadies’ who were interested in helping to spread the word about our app in the countries where they lived. We even built a microsite to highlight what the benefits would be for any successful Roadie and to give them more information about the team in general.
The response to date has been phenomenal and we filled our first batch of Roadies within 24 hours. Just like the Romans realized two centuries ago, you just can’t beat local knowledge. What would have taken the team weeks to work out can be solved by one of our Roadie experts in a fraction of the time. Not sure what the best social networks are in Russia, our Russian ambassador will fill us in. Need help in getting a press release translated into Italian — we’ve got a linguistic maestro on hand to help us.
In return, we are glad to provide some unique benefits to our Roadies like limited edition swag, early access to new builds and the chance to host events and build out their professional networks. Our modern day Governors are a wealth of information and we can’t thank them enough for their help to date. We’re really looking forward to extending our Roadie program in the coming weeks and months.
Bonus Tip: Investing in people always trumps investing money. Finding, educating and nurturing our loyal group of international ambassadors has proven 100x more enjoyable and beneficial then any amount of money that we could throw at the problem. There are no short cuts here — spend the time getting to know your international users and cherish anyone who is willing to give up their free time to help you with your goals.
7. Get Some Skin in the Game
Although the Romans managed to govern remotely for the most part, the odd Roman Emperor still needed to leave Rome and visit areas under his control. Have you ever heard of Hadrian’s wall? This 80 mile wall which runs across the north of Britain was named after Emperor Hadrian after his visit to Britannia in 122AD.
Physically visiting a market that you’re looking to break into (or one which you’ve already localized into) will give you insights into local customs that you would never gain otherwise. Being based in Europe helps as we are naturally closer to a lot of markets that other developers in the US might not be for example. We can hop on a cheap flight to Berlin, Germany and be back in Dublin the same evening. Bundling tech events or other business development meetings with localization R&D trips is a great way to get to know your user base.
Bonus Tip: Using the download and active user metrics for your app is often the easiest way to justify a trip to another location. If you’re second biggest market is reachable and you’ve never made the effort to visit it, you can’t really complain when your users start churning in that location.
8. Find A Partner
Just like the power of your network, the benefits of buddying up with a partner in another location cannot be underestimated. Again, they have a better local knowledge than you will ever have so spend the time sussing out who might be a good fit for a strategic partnership in the markets that you are entering.
To date we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great partners all over the world. For example, one of the lead BD executives atXiaomi, the behemoth Chinese handset manufacturer, was kind enough to reach out to us after our launch. We had taken the time to have our app translated into simplified Chinese and Xiaomi had come across it in the Google Play Store. They asked if we were interested in uploading our app to their own store and that if so, all we had to was sign an agreement which ported over our descriptions etc from the Play store. If any readers have dealt with the Chinese market before, you’ll know that a Chinese ID is required to do a lot of things so this was a huge win. One week later, we were told by the same BD executive that our app had been downloaded thousands of times in the Xiaomi store (with very little outlay on our part). It pays to have friends on the ground.
Another huge help for us has been the ability to tap into Enterprise Ireland’s extended global diaspora. Enterprise Ireland is the government organization responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. What that effectively means is that if you are looking to break into a new territory, they will know the right people to make this happen. Thanks to Enterprise Ireland, we’ve had introductions to key influencers all over the world including India, China, Japan, Russia and even further afield.
Most national governments will have a similar export orientated support network that could prove invaluable to you as you try and grow your brand internationally. It would definitely be worth sussing this out in advance.
Bonus Tip: As the Romans recognized, there’s always a quid pro quo with any strategic alliance. Often partners in other locations are just as keen to learn about your own country and how they can break into it. Sometimes you have to give to get so don’t be afraid to swap notes and help them get a foothold in your backyard. They’ll repay the favor ten times over if you do.
9. Never Stop Expanding
The day you stop growing and scaling your business is the day that your company starts to contract. There is no ‘settled’ state — you are either expanding or you’re shrinking. Do what you have to do to keep things moving in the right direction.
Recognizing this, we are currently looking to hire a ‘Emerging Markets’ marketeer who will focus solely on building out our app in new and exciting markets. We basically made this role up but this area is so critical to us that we feel it merits a position at the company.
There is a lot of low hanging fruit out there at the moment but you need to spend the time and money picking this fruit. Emerging markets do not come to you — you need to develop a plan of action and execute on this perfectly. Did you know that of a population of 1.2B people, there are still less then 100M smartphones in India?! The expected rate of growth in smart-phones is crazy and so it makes sense to target India now — not after every other app developer has decided to make a play there. We’ve been busy talking with a number of stakeholders in India and look forward to announcing our deals there over the coming weeks and months.
Bonus Tip: Experiment with different strategies. Thanks to the help of a stellar support team in Google Ireland, we were able to test the CPA using Google AdWords both here in Ireland and in Brazil. It was no surprise that Brazil came out on top but it was the margin between the two that did surprise us.
There is nothing better then waking up to find an email from a user on the other side of world telling you how much they love your product.The same sentiment saved Evernote from going under! Spending the time and resources in scaling your app internationally is so important. Don’t expect to win market share if you follow the Viking Raider approach. Users are smart and they will ditch you when they see that you’re not committed to them. Instead, take a leaf out of the best empire builders in history. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!
It would be great to hear from you. If you’re into music, feel free to check out Soundwave. If it’s the chats you’re after, tweet at me. If you liked this post, please recommend it.
Thanks for reading