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Engaging in Babel: Lost in translation

For governments, brands and companies, the ability to interact with target audiences on- and offline has become crucial. Increasingly sophisticated consumer engagement is leading to greater understanding, respect, loyalty and comprehension. And as more and more conversations and social interactions move online, we see more companies and brands doing a magnificent job of engaging loyal followers with digital and mobile technologies. However, many of the same organizations that enjoy tremendous success in America often struggle in Europe. Here’s why.

On a continent like North America, online engagement is relatively efficient and cost effective. A substantial amount of consumers can be reached, from coast to coast, in a single country (the U.S.), and in a single language (English). Adding just one country (Canada) and two languages (Spanish and French), provides access to most of the entire continent.

For metrics tools, conversation starters and community managers, three languages to engage and measure allows for profitable opportunities to scale online influence programs. In Europe, though, it becomes much more complicated—with 750 million people scattered over 44 different autonomic countries, each with its own set of laws, socio-cultural habits and ethno-historic sensitivities. From the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, and from the North Pole to Gibraltar, roughly 70 different languages are spoken. To read and write in all of them, you need to be fluent in five distinct alphabets (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian and Georgian).

This makes online influencing and community engagement fairly complicated. Economies of scale and reusing existing material becomes virtually impossible. Messages and message delivery vehicles need to be adapted to the local language and cultural needs.  Messages not only need to be translated, they need to be rewritten.

Even in smaller countries like Belgium and Switzerland, communication needs to be done in three different languages, which has severe implications on timelines and budgets. Compounding the challenges, big international metrics tools are often unable to filter out all of the semantic sensitivities of these 70 European languages, or simply do not have enough volume to give accurate analysis—enhancing the importance of local tools, and demanding a higher human involvement throughout the process.

Effective community engagement in Europe requires small, dedicated and integrated teams that can take an organization’s concept and strategy and tailor it for the local country. These teams must work hands-on with the tools that are most relevant for each European region, which are often quite different from the big global players. For instance, it’s impossible to reach the Dutch through Facebook, because they’re on Hives. And Poland has at least four different equivalents of Twitter.

To build global communication strategies, it is important to involve people who have in-depth knowledge of their region from the very beginning. All too often, compelling strategies and tactics conceived far from the actual countries where they will be implemented prove to be impossible to execute.

To successfully bridge Europe’s multicultural, multilingual diversity, it is far more effective to build communications strategies up from local insights and understanding. As many organizations continue to discover, in Europe, an overarching, top-down approach to consumer engagement often gets lost in translation.

(this post is part of Porter Novelli’ s “intelligence” series. Find the complete series here)

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