The Spanish-speaking world represents one of the most attractive markets to businesses today. Many national economies in Latin America, especially Mexico, Chile and Colombia, are gaining momentum and are poised to continue on an upswing in the years to come. This positive trend has not gone unnoticed in the global business arena, and consequently many companies are exploring options to tap into these markets as a whole.
From an operational standpoint, the Hispanosphere poses numerous challenges to businesses looking to execute a successful region-centric strategy. Differences in local laws, distribution channels, geography, culture, currency and other factors can seriously impact a business’s ability to enter and operate in these countries effectively. However, there is one major element shared by these markets that helps attract businesses from all over the world: language.
At a glance, there are around 577 million speakers of Spanish in the world, 480 million of whom are estimated to be native speakers of the language according to 2017 data from the Cervantes Institute. This equals 7.6% of the global population today, and that astonishing figure makes Spanish the second most widely-used language in international communications and the third in online communications, only outranked by English and Chinese. In 2017, an IMF report suggested that the 21 countries that have Spanish as their official language amounted to 6.5% of global GDP. These and other such data points account for why many businesses are choosing to follow an international or neutral Spanish strategy to localize their content into Spanish. This becomes the vehicle that allows them to access all of these markets at once.
The benefits of opting for a unified version of Spanish over diversifying your linguistic efforts, thereby adapting to each individual local variant, are therefore evident. If your specific type of content that requires localization to help you enter these markets is prone to standardization, you will be opening the door of your business to millions of prospects across Latin America and Europe.
That is exactly the strategy that HubSpot followed for its marketing, sales and customer service blog in Spanish. The localization team and the regional marketing team for Latin America and Iberia at HubSpot partnered up to adopt a neutral approach for the language with the goal of localizing and creating content that would be suitable for a broad Spanish-speaking audience. This has not been a linear process, and we have had to fine-tune our strategy over time to adapt to our audience and content demands. In the sections that follow, I’ll share some key learnings and tips that can help you and your business if you are considering implementing an international Spanish localization strategy.
1) Acknowledge local differences
The fact that you are addressing a broad Pan-Hispanic audience through a unified variant of the language does not need to mean that you are not cognizant of local differences. When we talk about local differences, we are not necessarily referring to linguistic variations, but rather to other idiosyncrasies concerning culture, lifestyle, attitudes, buying behaviors and other dimensions that have an impact on a business’s ability to market effectively in a particular locale.
There are multiple ways in which your business can show your audience that you are aware of and committed to these differences. One of the strategies that we follow is to include examples and cultural references relating to multiple Spanish-speaking countries, instead of including references to just one or two of them. So, when we are localizing a new piece for our blog, for example, and we see that it includes cultural references that would not be as relatable for our readership in Latin America or Spain (these are typically references targeted at a North American audience), we follow an assimilation approach — meaning that we remove the source cultural reference completely, and add a new one that would resonate better amongst our target Spanish speakers. Every time we need to make such adaptations, we try to focus on a different market — it could be Colombia, Spain, Ecuador or Argentina, for example. This allows us to create a library of content that has not been conceived of with just one particular market in mind, so it becomes easier for readers from different markets to relate to it.
The decision of which country these cultural adaptations will refer to should not be totally arbitrary either. To start with, our regional marketing team publishes a wide range of topics on our Spanish blog, so we need to be informed of what topics are more or less popular for each particular market. For example, we know that social media is a huge topic among brands in Colombia; ecommerce is gaining popularity in Mexico; and inbound marketing concepts will be well-received in Spain. Having this understanding of the industry trends in each locale helps us determine the markets where a particular piece of content is likely to perform better. Another consideration when making cultural adaptations is the traffic that our blog generates. We can analyze our traffic metrics, especially our organic traffic, to see which countries send the highest number of visitors to our blog, so we can adapt our content accordingly.
2) Avoid (linguistic) regionalisms
While your approach to cultural differences should embrace and acknowledge them, your strategy for dealing with linguistic differences should go the opposite direction. As such, avoiding regionalisms and country-specific terminology and expressions should be at the core of your linguistic efforts — this is, after all, the foundation of the concept of international or neutral Spanish.
This is by far the most critical and complex element of this type of strategy, and precisely the area where content creators and language teams struggle and fail the most. In order to handle this effectively, the first step should be to do thorough terminology research that encompasses both terminology that is specific to your particular industry as well as more general terminology that may not be industry-specific, but still relevant to your business and target audience. Your goal should be to determine which terms are used by most countries versus those that may only be used, or even understood, by just a handful of them. By doing this, you will be able to black-list and white-list terms, and this will help you build a comprehensive compendium of terms that will not only guide your linguistic efforts, but ultimately define the tone and voice of your brand in Spanish.
This was, in fact, the starting point of our international Spanish strategy, and it is indeed an ongoing process. When we started to devise this strategy, the first step from a linguistic point of view was to compile our commonly-used terminology in English and determine which equivalents would make most sense to use in Spanish. This was not a guesswork task, but rather there were a couple of strategies that helped us make informed decisions from an SEO perspective.
First, we started off by performing searches in Google for specific terms and setting Google’s location for each of our target markets. This allowed us to analyze the search volume for said specific terms in each market and to start to identify overlapping terminology across countries. Second, we looked at which particular keywords or topics ranked higher in each particular target market to understand the importance of certain terminology in terms of authority. While this step is definitely more granular, it will be a critical step for your content to be correctly optimized. And thirdly, we googled existing online content in Spanish about our most relevant topics, in order to get a sense of the level of alignment between our decisions and what was already being used by the industry, customers, competitors and partners.
3) Choose how to address your audience
How you address your audience will be an important determinant of your brand’s tone and voice in Spanish, so this is a decision that needs to be thoroughly pondered up front. The differences in register, formal and informal tone, and even pronouns across regional variations make this a particularly challenging decision. The main obstacle that many teams face in this area is that, for the particular tone and voice they are looking to set for their brand, the preferred pronoun or form of address may not be common in their most promising target markets.
If you are looking to establish a tone in Spanish that is personable, approachable and engaging, you need to make sure that you are addressing the maximum number of potential target readers in such a way that your brand is not standing out as odd to them. That is why neutrality plays, once more, a vital role here. As we were developing this strategy, we started off by asking ourselves whether we wanted to address our reader as an individual (using the singular form) or collectively (using the plural form). Both were acceptable forms for our specific industry and types of content; however, after studying these options more deeply, we realized that the singular form would pose considerably fewer challenges for us. The question of whether we wanted to be more or less formal was probably easier in our case, as the level of formality in Spanish, for our particular business sector, tends to be less strict than in other languages, so we knew very well that choosing the informal tone was the safe choice.
4) Document and promote your decisions
As you make progress in defining your strategy, it is critical that you start documenting your decisions. No decision is too small to be documented, nor should you take for granted that your teams are or will be aligned with you if you do not give them the resources and information that they need.
Having clearly defined resources that incorporate your linguistic and nonlinguistic guidelines is a mandatory step. We put together two main resources that have become a must-read for any content creator in the business. First, we created a Spanish glossary that today contains over 1,300 terms related to marketing, sales and customer service, but which also has terminology specific to our products and services. Remember, when it comes to terminology, that virtually any term could be troublesome for your international Spanish strategy. This means that you need to be very aware of regional connotations and meanings and make sure that you explain the reason why a particular term is white- or black-listed in order to avoid potential misalignments. Secondly, we created a Spanish-language style guide that echoes our brand voice and style in English, and contains the summary of our Spanish linguistic decisions, clearly explained, alongside some market-relevant information, such as our buyer personas for Latin America and Iberia.
Creating these resources is, in itself, not enough. It will be your responsibility to promote them internally and externally so that they are easily accessible to anyone who will be creating and localizing content for your brand. This includes not only your external translation vendors and their network of Spanish freelancers, but anyone who writes for, or speaks with, customers in Spanish. Your goal should be to establish and promote a consistent use of the language, but you should not become the “language police” in your company. Rather, you should endeavor to promote the importance and benefits of linguistic alignment to ultimately become a strategic language advisor.
5) Seize the golden opportunity
What attracts people to a business today is not only a solid product, reputable services or a well-known brand name. In the age of SEO, businesses should consider language as one of the main contributors to their traffic, authority, reputation, lead flow and revenue. Consumers today value much more than just products and services — they value how brands speak and interact with them.
The increased interactions that occur every day between brands and consumers in the digital world help illustrate the importance of the use of high-quality, accessible and personable language for any brand, regardless of its size or industry. These interactions are helping consumers and brands alike create valuable experiences for one another. Your online presence is no longer just a window for your business to exhibit what it has to offer, but an interactive, multidimensional platform for your prospects and customers to engage with your brand.
There are multiple channels through which you should be enabling these interactions. Whether it is via a chatbot, a live chat or other conversational tools, the expectations from your prospects and customers remain the same: they want to talk to your brand as if it were a real person, and they expect for their particular queries and needs to be clearly understood and addressed.
As you define and roll out your international Spanish strategy, you will need to consider these newer interactive platforms and what register and level of formality you want to use for them. Although the related technical challenges can be fairly complex, you will have the opportunity to give your brand and your voice in Spanish far more visibility and establish yourself as an authority others want to mimic. Investing in these technologies, considering personalization elements, and leveraging your linguistic expertise can help your brand sound much more helpful and approachable for your Spanish-speaking prospects and customers in a very natural manner.