The internet has closed the distance between countries around the world, democratizing access to content from wherever you are, whenever you need it. Increasingly, companies are operating in global markets—whether they intended to or not.
Craig Bloem is the founder and CEO of LogoMix. “As a company that does 50% of our business internationally, personalization for our non-English-speaking markets is a key focus of our business,” says Bloem. “We’ve found that the best way to do so is to personalize our website for our 10 largest languages and to follow up with our 20 million users with personalized, professionally translated emails.”
According to Common Sense Advisory (CSA), a market research firm focused on global markets, 14 languages account for 90% of digital opportunity. CSA has analyzed the state and size of the language industry every year since 2005. It has identified 21 companies that have qualified to be on its list of the 10 largest language service providers (LSPs). It’s a list that has seen significant changes, particularly during the past year.
The Year in Review
In the translation and globalization world, 2016 was a year of mergers and acquisitions. “There have been dozens of them this year,” says Michael Stevens, the international growth manager for Moravia. “It seems like the industry is going to continue in that vein, with the top companies receiving more funding from outside private equity firms,” he says. “The gap between the large companies in the industry and the smallest companies is growing even larger.” As examples, he cites LanguageLine Solutions, welocalize, and Smartling, adding, “Pactera actually changed hands twice this last year.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Stevens says, 2016 saw the emergence of a number of startups. The exploration of higher-level linguistics is being combined with engineering, he says. “So you have schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon that are becoming hotbeds for innovation within the industry.” Duolingo, he notes, is one of the most popular of these startups. “They’re primarily a language learning company, but they’ve been doing localization through a crowdsourcing model,” says Stevens. In 2013, the company announced agreements to translate articles for CNN and BuzzFeed’s international sites.
Mike Colombo is CMO at Cloudwords. Over the past year, he says, there has been a growing sense of nationalism in the U.S. and abroad. “Major events like Brexit, the refugee crisis, and an unprecedented U.S. election highlight a deep sense of loyalty people all over the world feel toward their home countries.” This heightened nationalism, he says, is prompting global companies to ensure they are paying close attention to how they represent their brand on local and regional levels.
“In many cases, long-standing brands are softening their stance on global consistency across products and messaging and going to great lengths to more closely align with changing local desires,” he says.
“We are at an intersection of globalization (having economic ties with several regions), localization (making content relevant for local cultures/regions), and an added third dimension, personalization (providing customer experiences based on what we know about them),” says Colombo. He points to Pokémon GO as a “great example of intentional localization for regional audiences from the onset.” Nintendo, he notes, “went through great effort to localize the app, renaming nearly every Pokémon character to give it a unique name in the region’s preferred language, while retaining the character’s unique characteristic in its new, localized name.”
Clint Poole, SVP and CMO for Lionbridge, says that companies such as his have been making heavy investments in technology to help automate what has traditionally been a very manual process. For example, he points to a recent announcement from Google about its neural machine translation software powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The system basically trains itself, reducing translation errors by up to 87%.
On the flip side, he says, there is also a renewed focus on the role of people in the translation mix, with some companies moving to a “localization framework strategy”—a hub-and-spoke model in which companies build a technology infrastructure that manages the deployment of content, but provides the opportunity for in-market teams to own execution and content creation. This approach, he says, reduces the burden on headquarter marketing teams, but requires an investment in the right technology. “It’s always on-brand, but they’re writing it in their native language, and it’s more relevant and more timely. The technological advancements that help corporate-pushed content be translated faster and cheaper, and the ceding of control over content creation to in-market teams, have helped marketing move the needle.”
A Look Ahead
As we move into 2017, there are two things that are simultaneously impacting the future of translation services, says Poole: “a change in strategy when it comes to global content and the advancement of technology.” As communication channels proliferate both for text and voice, marketers are creating an increasing amount of content that must be translated for an increasing number of markets that they’re moving into, all in a competitive environment with increasing focus on the customer—or user—experience.
“In 2017, demand for personalization will go mainstream,” says Colombo. “The digitization of products, those consumed online and those connected through the Internet of Things, gives marketers significant understanding of their customers’ product usage, location, and intent. Add in the emergence of scalable localization technologies, and B2B marketers now have the ability to address new levels of personalization.”
Voice translation will also become increasingly prevalent, predicts Stevens, through the application of deep learning. He points to examples from the gaming world in which augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are increasingly being used, and developers are beginning to favor voice instruction over text. Google’s work in the area of neural machine translation will drive this, he says. Facebook has also entered the fray after making an announcement in June that statistical machine translation had reached the end of its useful life. The company deployed an applied machine learning team, which is tasked with finding ways to apply AI to Facebook products. With Google and Facebook in the mix, Apple is sure to follow.
The ability for people to speak in their native language and have their speech translated, via voice, into another language will drive significant change, Stevens predicts.
He envisions the combination of this technology with apps so that, for instance, a French person in Spain could reserve a table via Open Table by speaking into a virtual assistant app, which would translate the request. “Looks like we’re on the edge of a leap here,” says Stevens.
“With technology like this available,” says Bloem, “2017 should be one of the best years to be an expanding business—and a non-English speaking customer.