Managing online communities in two or more languages can be tricky at best, but engaging socially with multiple cultures in their own language can reap big rewards for a brand. This is a given for large firms with operations in many countries, but it can be true even for local businesses.
In Chicago, for example, more than one million people in the city and surrounding suburbs speak Spanish as a first language, 22,000 speak Chinese, and more than 35,000 speak Polish.
Although they may understand English, social media is about connecting with customers on a personal level—and what could be more personal than one’s mother tongue?
I have helped manage social media for organizations in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors, and the following basic tips helped me determine the best way to reach multi-cultural and multi-lingual audiences:
1. Know your audience
It sounds obvious, but it’s important to determine whether you actually need to engage in multiple languages before you expend the time and resources to launch a new initiative. “Because it would be cool” is not a good reason to start tweeting in Farsi—you should always be able to back up your ideas with hard data.
Use analytics, surveys, and market research to determine just how many new potential customers your brand will reach in a new language and exactly who those customers are. Find out where they live, what browsers and operating systems they use, what their habits are online, and which languages they prefer?
Knowing as much as you can about your audience will help you refine your strategy and most effectively target users in multiple languages.
2. Target the right platforms
Based on your research, choose which social platforms to concentrate your efforts. In the U.S., it’s generally a good idea to start with the Big Three (YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter), but that rule doesn’t apply to China—those sites are banned by the government.
Instead, Youku, Renren, and Sina Weibo are the top social platforms for Chinese-language users around the world. A platform called Sonico is popular in Latin America, and Google’s Orkut network is big in Brazil.
Know where you’re users are—you can’t have a conversation in an empty room.
3. Use multiple accounts
It’s a good idea to consider having different accounts for different languages. This allows you to more effectively target certain cultures and geographic areas.
While the message needs to be consistent, accounts in different languages shouldn’t be translated copies of another—personalize each one. A tweet sent at 4:30 p.m. in English might make it to the right people in the U.S., but your German followers will be asleep. Similarly, an Instagram photo of a co-worker digging into a hamburger might be a hit in New York, but won’t go over so well with fans in New Delhi.
4. Avoid automatic translation
While Google Translate and other automatic translators are fine for getting the gist of something, they are sets of codes and algorithms, not people. So unless you want to sound like a robot, avoid relying on them.
Always have a native speaker proof your content whenever possible. At the very least, translate text by hand. There are great online dictionaries such as WordReference that provide context for a word or phrase, or forums to discuss words and phrases with real humans.
5. Look at the bigger picture
Being culturally relevant isn’t just about language. Your French might be perfect, but if you don’t know how many cheek-kisses are appropriate in Paris, your conversation is still going to get off to an awkward start. Take it upon yourself to learn the nuances of communicating, on- and offline in different cultures.
For example, do German Twitter users employ hashtags the same way as Americans? How do you use emoticons in Korean? What is the polite way to address an older customer in Russian? Just as in real life, knowing the culture helps you sound natural and encourages more customers to engage with your brand.
Liz Mannebach is a Chicago media relations professional with experience working for a variety of French and global organizations. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Mannebach. A version of this story first appeared on the Walker Sands blog Footprints.