Once upon a time, I was scoping out a global site redesign project for a large client. I asked them what their global content and communications strategy was, so we could make sure our approach to site content fit into that structure. The client proceeded to tell me how they would need a process for getting 33,000 product pages translated into 28 languages. And they would need a workflow so that content could originate at corporate, but then be adapted regionally, then approved by corporate again. (Since most of the people at corporate didn’t speak the 28 aforementioned languages, I wasn’t sure how they planned to approve regional content, but I thought it best not to point it out at that exact moment.)

When you ask people about global content strategy, their responses don’t tend to be strategic at all. They’re all about execution.

Immediately, marketers enumerate the languages into which they must translate, or the CMS and publishing processes they use to publish content in these multiple languages and places. But when they do this they are, frankly, missing the point.

Parlez-vous… Nevermind. It Doesn’t Matter.

A global content strategy is not about language. Don’t get me wrong; language is an important concern. With the number of English speakers estimated at 800M-1.5B globally – and under 400M of those being native speakers – if you are a company with a global footprint, considering the native languages of your audience can make your content, and your brand, feel more accessible and relevant. But how you will translate your content from its source language into multiple destination languages is not a strategic endeavor. It’s highly important, but it’s tactical.

Neither is a global content strategy about publishing workflow. We hear a lot about “create once, publish everywhere” content management models. But these models are not a content strategy. They are, as their names would suggest, ways to manage your content production and publishing. They allow points of entry for content and ways to manage that from multiple locations with global stakeholders and then publish out those entries in different languages, to different devices and platforms. Are a publishing workflow and the tools that enable it critical in delivering on a global content strategy? Absolutely. But again, they’re not actually the strategy.

When In Rome… Who Exactly Am I?

A global content strategy starts with asking two questions:

  • In which markets do I play?
  • Who is my brand in those markets?

Brands often make the mistake of thinking that they can develop one message and run it – translated or not – in every single region. They think of this as brand consistency or unifying the brand across markets. But in many situations, even a global brand may be perceived as something different in multiple markets ; it may have global awareness, but not global understanding. While your brand aspiration might be singular (be known as the global leader in your category, for example) the understanding and resonance of your brand may vary regionally. A global content strategy accounts for this, all the while keeping the overarching brand aspiration in mind.

A great example is GE. Here in the US and most of western Europe, the brand is known as a leader and innovator in technological infrastructure. If you’re a business decision-maker who works in a field impacted by distributed energy, industrial internet, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure or health care, you’re not only familiar with GE, but chances are you’ve at least thought about working with them.

However, for years in emerging markets, many people have thought of GE as “light bulbs and washing machines” – as a brand that’s about commoditized consumer products and pushing SKUs, not solving the world’s biggest problems. At the end of the day, while the brand aspired to be known for its tech infrastructure prowess, it had to make a perception shift happen in global markets.

To help support this, a program was created, GE Look Ahead, that was targeted at GE’s priority global markets and helped create a stronger brand association with the industrial verticals in which the company operates. Was the content translated into other languages? Yes. Were processes set up to manage the creation, translation and publishing of the content? Of course. But the strategy was to use content messaging to create a brand perception shift based on understanding GE’s key markets, how the brand was perceived in those markets vs how the brand wished to be perceived globally. The rest was just execution details that enabled the strategy.

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The What And Where Of Your Strategy

Now that you have solved your existential crisis, your next step is to understand the content consumption habits of your global audiences. This, in turn, will drive the selection of devices, content types and platforms. In Asia and GCC nations, for example, a mobile-first strategy might make sense. In some countries, you may, in fact, need to account for heavy SMS users on feature phones instead. In higher bandwidth accessible regions such as the US, UK, and Central Europe, you may consider a combination of lean forward content – interactives and quick-scan articles – that users engage with during office hours and lean back content – longer-form text, video – that they might return to in their evenings. Our own data shows that while business audiences prefer text formats such as articles and reports, visual formats like charts, infographics, and video still play a role. The key is to understand the usage habits of your audience. For a global audience, bandwidth and tech infrastructure play a role.

Understanding your markets also means understanding the social platforms. Twitter has relatively good global reach. But where you might use Facebook, Reddit and YouTube in developed western markets, if your audience is in emerging markets like India and China you’ll need to get to know Weibo, WeChat, and WhatsApp. Don’t just look at the networks and platforms with the largest global reach; look at those with the greatest reach in the markets you care about.

Once your strategy is set – priority markets, market-specific messaging, devices, asset types, and networks – then you can turn your attention to things like editorial calendars, translation processes and publishing workflow. Done well, your content strategy and content execution plan should go hand-in-hand. Just remember not to confuse the two.