What we're talking about

Product localization is all about intentionally adapting your product or service to the new country or territory where you're planning on selling it. The aim is for target customers in your new market to find that whatever you're selling is accessible and relevant to them – and your business isn't jarring with any linguistic or cultural norms. 

Plenty of people think of this as purely a translation job, but product localization happens at many levels. That may, naturally, be around website copy, marketing materials and creating a consistent brand voice, but it can also include the colors you use, imagery and photography, website layout, packaging, sales tactics, routes to market and even specific product features. 

Why it's important 

Entering a new market without friction is a challenge for any business. Logic dictates that you need to do your best to set yourself up for success. That means customizing your offering in smart, tactical ways. This stuff matters to customers around the world: research from data brand CSA Research shows that 76% of people from 29 countries prefer to buy products with information in their own language, while 75% are likely to purchase the same brand again if customer care is in their language. 

It's quite common for businesses to simply trust in the value of their product and brand and adopt a reactive approach to product localization. But proactively developing product localization can help you to attract customers and avoid costly tweaks – or, worse still, PR disasters. Plus, once you've created a plan and learned some initial lessons for one country or territory, it'll be possible to apply a similar process to wherever else you might want to expand.

Things to note

Product localization falls into three main areas. That includes linguistic (eg, translating text, copy or images into the target audience's language), cultural (altering something about the product to fit cultural norms and expectations, like using specific colors) and software or hardware (modifying functionality so that it's easier to use, like reformatting an app to work on a country's preferred operating system). 

It's a bit of an art form. When a new customer in a new territory interacts with your business, it shouldn't seem like an explicit translation or adaptation of an original version. The art of good localization is creating an altered version of your product that provides an original and unique experience for the customer. Whacking all of your website copy into Google Translate and hoping for the best probably isn't the best way to go. 

Expertise can make a huge difference. If you're entering a territory or country where you have limited prior knowledge or understanding, working with localization specialists is a no-brainer. There are companies offering all kinds of services around this – from translation and language specialists to more holistic localization agencies that can help you plot out the entire strategy – and give you all of the nuanced, inside information that you might be lacking. 

Find the level that suits your needs. The level of product localization you should aim for will naturally depend on your business and product. If, as may well be the case, you're selling the exact same product, your focus will likely be on elements like your website and marketing materials. There are plenty of software tools to help with that – from relatively rudimentary translation services like Translated to full-scale automatic website localization software that comes with many complex features.

How to localize your product  

1. Get to grips with your new market. Conduct your own research and get as clear an understanding as you can on your new target market's wants and needs. Dig into any relevant cultural norms and no-nos, current trends and any specific preferences for how people consume written, video or audio content. In some cases, this might require enlisting the help of a specialist in the region who can do specialized market research and customer focus groups.

2. Clarify the different elements of your product or service. Thinking about your product, jot down the different elements that your customers will engage and interact with. That might include your website copy and landing page, product imagery, digital ads and marketing materials, packaging, purchase flow and payment methods, customer service or the product itself.

3. Think about what's achievable. Analyze what's achievable given the size of your business, where you are in your trajectory and the resources at your disposal. For example, you might decide that you'll mainly focus on tweaking your website copy initially. You don't need to be overly ambitious if you're looking to gradually build a customer base and gather initial analytics in your new market.  

4. Decide what you'll focus on. Though you may enlist some external expertise at this point, you should still be in a place where you can decide which of those key touchpoints outlined you'll focus your attention on. Ultimately, it's about deciding which will have a big impact on the customer experience – and then creating a logical list of priorities to tackle. 

5. Confront your knowledge gaps. Based on what you know, and the skills and expertise you have in-house, think about the external help that you'll need. For example, do you need to bring in translators, graphic designers or product developers to make the necessary changes?

6. Decide whether you'll bring in professional help. Based on what you need and the level of input required, it's time to make some choices on whether you need the services of either a localization agency or localization software. This will depend on the scope of what you need and your budget – assess the options available and find the solution that best fits. 

7. Create a timeline for action. Work out a realistic timeline for the different touchpoints that you need to change, making sure you're prioritizing the most important elements. Make sure someone in the team is responsible for success metrics – and the timeline to meet these.

8. Think about how you'll test them. As you make changes to your product or service, you'll need to create a plan for testing it on your target market before it goes live. That means conducting a little user research – and getting direct feedback on what works and doesn't work so well with your new customers. 

Key takeaways 

• Creating a plan for product localization before you enter new markets is essential if you want to give your business the best chance of hitting the ground running. 

• It's a process that's about far more than just translation – it can apply to many levels and touchpoints that a customer has with your business. 

• You'll need to think strategically about what the most essential elements are to adapt – and then do so in a manner that feels natural and authentic. 

Level up 

Perspective. Here Salvador Ordorica, CEO of translation service The Spanish Group, outlines three aspects of localization that are often overlooked

Example. Here, another translation company, Smartling, gives a succinct rundown of five brands that have nailed their product localization, including Netflix and fashion giant ASOS. 

Tool. There are lots of software localization tools out there (and here's a rundown of the best). One that stands out for small businesses is Lokalise, where you can localize web and mobile apps, games, documents, marketing materials and your customer service.  

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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