Off the Map: Crowdsourcing culture

In these challenging economic times, it’s been necessary for most people to skimp and save and find every way to cut costs. We all do it on a personal level in our daily decision making as we strive to be prudent and think ahead. Companies and organizations usually do the same thing, of course, by trying to maximize the return on their investments and produce more output with less cost (as for governments, we’ll leave them out of this conversation). Indeed, there are countless resources and a whole industry built around making other industries more efficient.

This is also true for the localization industry, which has always had continual optimization and efficiency as fundamental traits. The localization industry is well known for reusing, repurposing and improving content, including translation memories and auto-translation. So, there is an inherent resourcefulness that comes with localizing content, particularly when dealing with the challenges of client deadlines, tighter and smaller budgets, and the constant demands of opening up new linguistic and cultural territories.

What I find particularly interesting is that the rise of social networking is actually the implementation of similar systems of efficiency in our personal lives. Among the plethora of online social options such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and more, we now have many ways of quickly creating and reacting to information. This can streamline our social interactions and allow us to maximize the interaction with our family, friends and colleagues while also reducing our potential guilt for not staying in touch. Instead of having to write an e-mail, you can just post a comment on someone’s status or even just “like” it or “+1” it to show that you’re alive, well and listening.

Many businesses are taking advantage of this form of communication efficiency and building a substantial online presence to better connect with their customers. Social networks have given companies unprecedented access to their end users, which can be a great boon if a product is enjoyed or a huge risk if a company makes a mistake and thousands of customers inflict digital backlash. Regardless, companies have realized that one of the cost-cutting measures that is particularly enabled by social networks is crowdsourcing not just opinions (which is simply customer feedback) but actual work related to their products. While this has risks, there is much appeal in leveraging the great cultural diversity of a company’s user base. This can be particularly useful when dealing with the nuances of geopolitical and cultural sensitivities that can vary so widely from locale to locale. Such content culturalization demands forms of expertise and a skill set that may or may not be found within a typical company’s employees.

As businesses strive to find deeper and more meaningful ways to connect with consumers (as well as not offend them with inappropriate content) in highly competitive local markets, many of the larger companies have already been relying upon their own internal diversity to help supply a crucial knowledge gap. Most companies today are built upon the success of an employee workforce composed from an international and culturally diverse pool, which might be represented not only at the company’s headquarters but also in the company’s subsidiary offices. Employees are certainly valuable for their skill sets and the expertise that drives the company’s primary mission, but every employee in a multinational company also has an innate cultural perspective and unique worldview, a rich body of cultural knowledge that could be leveraged in a constructive way. Some companies have done so with great success, basically taking advantage of their internal social network to improve their products.

More recently, some companies have taken this a step further by reaching out externally and actually leveraging their loyal fans and user base to contribute their local knowledge. The availability of social networking in various forms really fuels this capability, by increasing the access and frequency of feedback and by providing more structured channels by which companies can collect the user information. Beyond the obvious Wikipedia example, another recent example of a crowdsourced product would be Google Maps and its Map Maker program. By providing the users of Google Maps with basic editing tools, local map enthusiasts can add details and make corrections that previously would have taken years or even decades to appear on printed maps (Figure 1). Any user changes are overseen by trusted, local moderators who then approve the changes for publishing to Google Maps for everyone’s benefit. Why do the users do it? Most usually out of love and loyalty for the product. It’s that simple.

Why wouldn’t more companies take such a step and draw upon their customers’ cultural backgrounds? First, there is a potential quality issue to the feedback a company receives. It’s nice to think that everyone providing feedback is being honest and accurate with comments, but we know that just isn’t always the case. Second, the task of extracting cultural opinions and feedback from users is usually not a top priority for companies trying to maximize their employees’ time; in other words, who has the bandwidth to manage this? And third, there is undoubtedly a sensitive side to asking customers to offer their cultural opinions, which can evoke comments about religious views, political views and so on. Many companies are not ready or willing to manage the kinds of firestorms that may occur in their public forums over such issues, and users may not risk the exposure of their personal viewpoints if they live in a country that might take punitive actions against them.

Another issue to think about with gaining external customer feedback for culturalization purposes is determining how “local” an individual’s worldview may be. It has been my experience in the IT and media industries that both employees of such companies and their consumers may start to unwittingly adopt a more globalized, generic perspective. They might somewhat reflect local opinion, but only through the filter of someone who’s tech savvy, globally-connected in social networks and maintains sufficient disposable income for luxuries such as smartphones and iPads. I recall an incident working on a game title some years ago where an in-country manager whose job entailed articulating local market concerns was asked to provide feedback. A specific issue was flagged as potentially sensitive to the market, and this manager quickly replied that it wasn’t a problem. As a cultural strategist, I had my strong suspicions to the contrary, but the product management at headquarters felt that the local opinion was good enough for launch. Unfortunately, my suspicion became reality when the local government banned the game on launch day due to the very issue the local manager said was “no problem.” In the end, it was determined that although the local manager was indeed from that country, he had worked in the IT industry for so long that he had somewhat lost touch with the prevailing sensitivities of his own local market.

The key to leveraging the crowd for cultural feedback is to provide some structure or mechanism that will allow for it in a constructive form. For example, let’s say that the content creators have a piece of content they’d like to gather opinions on before finalizing, and let’s say that this is for a product headed to East Asia. Imagine that the company has a web page, private Facebook group or something similar, where these creators can choose to post their piece of content, and in the process they can target users based on three things: locale, language and culture. So for their purpose, perhaps the designers select “East Asia” for the locale, “Chinese (Simplified)” for language and “Chinese” for culture. The content is uploaded to the site, and a notice is sent out to the subscribed users that there is a new request for content to be reviewed. The idea is that along with the creation of such a web page, users of various cultural backgrounds could sign up to receive such review requests. When they receive the review request, the users could provide a standardized “severity” rating (such as 1-5, with 5 being most offensive) as well as a few additional comments or suggestions for improvements — perhaps something they could quickly do on a break or at lunch.

With this kind of approach, a company can have an extremely low-cost method of gathering basic, knee-jerk cultural reactions from its employees (internally) and/or customer base (externally) that can help to influence content decisions. This isn’t a replacement for strategic expertise on geocultural risks, but it’s a good step forward for companies that have no plan in place. Can such a basic cultural feedback mechanism actually work? Yes, definitely! Speaking from my own experience at having implemented such a system in the past, it can work extremely well.

Thus, while we’re all busy checking our friends’ status messages or posting the latest news, I encourage companies to think of similar ways to leverage a potentially great cultural benefit from their community at minimal investment. The social networking landscape is dynamic and will continue to evolve rapidly, but even now it’s a ripe environment for being able to creatively leverage the global cultural diversity to which we’re all connected.