The simple adage “think like your customer” might have guided business decisions since the world’s first sale was made, but these four words are charged for companies operating on a global scale. Not only do global brands need to adapt to the rapidly evolving digitization of multiplying customer touchpoints, but in delivering their message, there’s a small caveat: ensuring the customer experience resonates with the multitude of preferences of an international audience.

Connections between global brands and their customers are deeper than we could have imagined only a few years ago. But as buying behaviors continue to pick up speed, a brand’s race to keep up with existing customers while juggling expansion into new markets is always going to be an issue.

I see this time after time with my own customers, even those who master cultural relevancy. They find themselves getting so far with their digital content strategies, then stalling. They create amazing customer experiences that hit their targets with remarkable precision, providing content in the right language via the right channel at the right time, but then don’t know what to make of the results. When their next campaign doesn’t work as well, they wonder what went wrong – and I don’t blame them. Up to the sale, they did everything right. But what happens next is a shortfall in the resources and understanding needed to effectively measure and optimize these efforts. At this point in the race, leading companies run ahead while the mainstream followers start to lag behind.

So how do brands close this gap between initial success and true advancement?

First, let’s clear up what’s meant by a “leader” and a “follower” in the global content space. Leaders are the companies that, according to a recent Econsultancy survey of global businesses, are better prepared to internationalize their digital content, and then compare the impact of that content across markets.

Only a fifth of these survey respondents (who operate in a variety of industries, such as technology, manufacturing, and financial services, in both B2B and B2C markets) qualify as leaders. So if your company has a well-developed framework for globalizing its digital content and understands the content’s impact on the customer experience, it’s already a step ahead. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Econsultancy’s research found that leaders are twice as likely as the mainstream to have a global content management framework in place. Perhaps this is a surprising distinction; perhaps not. But what intrigues me, and I’ve no doubt most other CMOs, is how the pioneers differentiate themselves from the rest. What types of content do they produce? Where do they allocate spending? How do they measure the impact of their data? It’s no longer a question of whether global companies are leveraging the power of content, because they all are – it’s how they do it better.

The rest of the report examined the gulfs between leading and mainstream companies in depth, particularly as they pertain to the frameworks, processes, and measurement practices of global content strategies. All questions asked in the survey led back to three central points:

  1. What role does a content strategy play in expanding a brand’s global footprint?
  2. How do global content leaders go about improving the customer experience?
  3. What strategies do they use to increase revenues?

It’s clear from the report’s results that most leaders are getting value from their content strategy, but they employ a few specific capabilities worth mentioning. Here are some findings that stood out.

6 Keys To A Global Mindset

To get a true sense of how leading and mainstream companies differ, you only have to look at their position on critical drivers of global content success. The survey asked respondents how well they align with these gold standards, for example:

The fact that most companies agree with these statements isn’t surprising. But the contrasts between leading and mainstream companies are sharper than most industries would expect.

The prep-oriented priorities we see here – tight control over messaging from the outset, predetermined technologies and resources, laser focus on customer intent, methodical customer journey mapping – set the stage for similar patterns throughout the study. In terms of the efficient production of global content, there were six main areas that drew some interesting insights:

1. Centralization

In the not-so-distant past, most companies’ regional marketers produced content independently of each other. We had to learn the hard way how to repair the damage this caused brand consistency and integrity, not to mention how to put out costly internal fires. Now, adopting a centralized, tightly controlled approach to content internationalization is saving organizations millions of dollars in recouped efficiencies.

This graph compares leaders and their mainstream peers regarding their strategy and governance at a global level. Leaders are significantly more likely to exert high levels of centralized control, and produce most of their content at global headquarters. Almost three-quarters (72%) of leaders describe their governance as very tightly controlled at a global level with little or no local autonomy, while only 58% of the mainstream exercise tight control. The percentage of mainstream companies with no local autonomy shrinks to just 10%.

Although leaders are more likely to centralize control rigidly, this shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of all companies hoping to compete. Siloed organizational structures make sense for many reasons – whether that’s streamlined decision making, stronger focus, or faster execution – but global companies also need to empower regional and country offices to make in-market decisions. They’re the experts on locale-specific needs.

2. Ownership

While the level of empowerment given to in-market teams may vary by company and sector, any organization would be better off establishing clear lines of responsibility for international content, both in terms of production and measurement.

Within the context of global content, leaders are over four times more likely than the mainstream to have “clear ownership within the business for internationalization of content.” The report also found that most companies share responsibility for content across specified business functions (54% of leaders and 67% of the mainstream). As most leaders would agree, it’s not just marketing who owns content – everyone in the company is a brand ambassador.

So that’s content production. But ownership of content analysis and reporting is where things get interesting. Respondents were also asked who within the organization takes care of this end, and most allocate analysts, marketing teams, or brand marketing teams. Analysts come top for leading companies, which makes sense given their expertise in mining data. But the mainstream falls behind on this by a large margin: 46% of leaders assign primary responsibility to analysts, versus 23% of the mainstream.

3. Budgets

As well as clear ownership, dedicated budgets are also a prerequisite for international content success. Some companies can do a better job of measuring content across geographical regions, it seems, but most can appreciate the return on investment internationalization provides.

From this graph, we can see big differences in companies’ confidence and willingness to invest. 54% of leaders are pushing the boundaries in linking budgets with revenue impact, confident that their budgeting is “very much based on quantifiable understanding of the likely revenue uplift,” and six in 10 dedicate a specific budget to internationalization. In the mainstream camp, only 21% base budget allocation on instinct, but the vast majority only apportion spend on a “part art, part science” basis. 16% of the mainstream – a little more than a quarter of leaders – have allocated funds to internationalization.

In their confidence of clear, measurable return, leaders are naturally more willing to part with resources to support expansion. This may be why, according to the report, considerably more leaders are planning to increase their content budgets in all categories of spending by 2018. Central technology infrastructure is one key target, in which twice as many leaders than the mainstream (60% versus 31%) plan to invest more capital.

4. Technology

Centralization isn’t only relevant to organizational infrastructure – this refers to technology as well. By central technology infrastructure, I mean the platform mentioned earlier: the “modular, extensible and standardized tech platform that facilitates expansion into other markets,” which 63% of leaders and only 12% of the mainstream use. As the foundation in the overall content structure, technology constraints constitute one of the top challenges companies face in increasing their local market websites. But when done right – i.e. consolidated – technology represents a huge opportunity.

From an internationalization perspective, standardized digital infrastructure is paramount. Companies that have, say, 100 websites across multiple locales aren’t going to get much pleasure from updating them one system at a time. A central, modular approach that handles multiple languages is much more manageable, cost-effective, and integrable with a modern CMS.

5. KPIs

As we all know, key performance indicators are the framework from which we understand the true return on content investment – or more specifically, in this case, return on internationalization and localization efforts. We also saw earlier that most leading companies agree this is a job for the analysts. However, mainstream companies are hazy on this – and there’s a clear distinction in how they assess the commercial value of their content, too.

First off, it’s interesting to note what types of content companies are producing for context. For the most part, leading and mainstream companies are on the same page here. The top five most popular types (see a full list and the metrics used to understand content value in the report) are email, video, apps, articles, and webinars; the only type the mainstream is slower to adopt is apps.

In this graph, we can see what KPIs companies use to measure effectiveness of these pieces:

Leaders are clearly more likely than their peers to use commercial KPIs such as sales, profit, and conversion rates. Some are even developing their own scoring systems to measure relative performance across markets and achieve an end-to-end view of the customer journey.

6. Benchmarking

While comparing the performance of content across regional offices to figure out how to progress and improve, organizations can and should look beyond their backyard for some insight. Benchmarking against competitor movements can be a great way for digital transformation newcomers to source best practice information.

However, ultimately, a company will need to measure itself against its own performance for the best chance of improvement. According to the report, 64% of leaders turn to internal guidelines for content internationalization and localization techniques, compared to 41% of the mainstream; mainstream companies are more likely than leaders (51% versus 33%) to use third-party resources. Leaders prefer to consult a center of excellence.

Alternatively, they simply buy this insight. Being more willing investors, as noted above, 48% of leaders are open to seeking best practice expertise from vendor partners, compared to 37% of mainstream organizations.

The Path to Global Marketing Perfection

When it comes to localization, global brands face enough of a challenge producing sufficient volumes of content across markets without the added pressure to satisfy both stakeholders and customers. Brands must also identify opportunities in emerging customer needs, such as the increasing demand for social audiences, consumer personalization, and the rising shift in mobile. With all this in mind, visibility of content’s impact in local markets is something many companies have overlooked.

For most, the desire to monetize is there. The majority of organizations, especially the leaders, also believe that internationalization is essential to global branding and that carefully planned content is critical to digital transformation in the age of the customer. But this research indicates followers still have a ways to go in defining success. And as the report goes on to examine, mainstream companies are held back from global expansion by an array of challenges: a lack of actionable data, limitations in technology, industry compliance, and translating at scale, for example.

Few leaders who participated in this study are hindered by these barriers. That’s not to say measuring ROI won’t always be a work in progress. In fact, more than half of leaders believe it’s almost impossible to measure the true impact of content on sales. But getting as close as possible to 100 percent transparency is half of the fun – and certainly the only way we marketers know how to differentiate ourselves. On that note, I’ll leave you with a copy of the full research report, which goes into more detail on how companies monetize their success in the digital age.