Perspectives: Social media strategies for international communities

You’ve got customers and potential customers all over the world. From remote villages in China to the upper regions of Siberia all the way to tiny towns in Quebec, and everywhere in between, your customers are playing your game, buying your technology or ordering your services. Additionally, these customers are talking about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of your product within the ecosystem of online communities — to each other and with those on the brink of becoming customers.

Your community consists not only of everyone talking about your product in your official forums and official social media pages. Your community also exists on private forums that have no official association with your company. It lives as well on unofficial Facebook accounts and tweets from influential Twitter users. On top of that, it’s taking place on fan pages on social media platforms that you have likely never heard of, which are specific to non-English speaking populations.

Your community manager should already be keeping tabs on all these unofficial channels in order to report trends up the chain, and your moderation team needs to have at least some presence within those communities so that they have on-the-ground credibility with community members. But there is one space where you have the biggest influence, where your community will congregate for the “official word” on anything related to your product and where you will showcase what your main values are as a brand and as product. That space is squarely within your official community channels. Your official channels are the only areas over which you have any control.

When creating a long-term strategy for community health and growth, one critical decision is whether or not to expand to foreign-language-specific channels alongside your English channels. You need to decide, for example, if it makes sense to add an official Facebook page for Italy. Would it be a good idea to add a Twitter account for Latin America? Not providing any foreign language support and community engagement at all is no longer an option if you want to achieve success. What isn’t as clear is whether or not that support needs to (or should) take place within separate channels specific to languages and regions, or whether it’s better for you to interact within your main English channel and simply reply in other languages, when appropriate. In order to determine the answer,  you’ll need to ask yourself a series of questions.

 If every other comment on your English Facebook page is in Spanish, then you have an obvious need to expand and create a separate Facebook page for your Spanish speakers. The situation isn’t usually that obvious, though, and will generally require further investigating in order to make a thoughtful decision.

The first order of business is finding out where people are talking about your product in languages other than English, and you’ll need native speakers to do so. Hopefully you already have home-based moderators living around the world who speak the languages of your key foreign markets in addition to speaking English. According to Lionbridge moderator Mirja Maletzki, “If a company is willing to hire people as moderators, they should take a step in the right direction and hire people who speak different languages anyway. That way you kill two birds with one stone.” This is best practice when hiring for community moderation teams as that way you are able to provide 24/7 coverage in English at the same time as at least partial coverage of your key foreign markets. Another function these bilingual team members can fulfill is researching the needs for additional social media channels.

Your moderators should already be aware of the current activity in their languages, as it’s part of their job to report on trends going on in the greater community. However, there are other aspects to consider. By tasking your moderators with actively engaging with the community external to your official page (that is, actually interacting with them, not just observing) you will be able to get a better pulse of the actual needs. Your moderator should strive to deepen relationships with super users throughout this process, specifically those who are stepping up to provide information to others. It’s quite possible that precisely because the community members’ needs aren’t being met by your official channels that there exists a very busy, unofficial community hub created privately by your most vocal super users.

It’s important that the feedback tracked during these preliminary research efforts be organized and presented in such a way that English-only speakers can get a grasp of what is being said. All necessary information must be back-translated into English, including website descriptions and account bios. Moderators must provide context about the importance of these particular community hubs. The information must be easily digestible by all levels of management as some of the big picture strategy decisions will likely take place separate from the moderator team. Also, with a team of moderators based all around the globe there’s a good chance that the person who wrote the information will be asleep when clarification is needed.

Next you need to hone in on what exactly your foreign language communities are talking about and what is (or isn’t) missing on your end of the conversation in official channels. This is where the deepened engagement within external communities and the relationships cemented with super users in the previous step will come in handy. Your moderators should post topics with pointed questions about what the community’s needs and desires are and message privately with super users about this as well. Does the community want a Facebook page run by your company dedicated to them? If it existed, what would its primary purpose be? To meet other people who speak the same language and also love this product? Or would they use it as their main source of information and probably bypass the English page? Do they generally understand what’s written on the English channels and use their native language only for the purpose of meeting others? Or would they use the new site because they need help with something that’s unclear to them in English channels? It’s possible that the majority of this subset of community members is very happy and gets all of its needs met within the existing framework. But it’s also possible that they are all scrambling to find information and never know where to look.

In the final phase of assessment you will have to decide which direction to go. You are essentially left with three options:

Option 1: Continue to serve your non-English community members within your English framework, responding as needed with native speakers on your moderation team.

Option 2: Create region-specific official channels but only to meet specialized needs that are particular to that subset of your community.

Option 3: Create complete parallel accounts for specific (or all) regions, which should mirror all of the content in your English channels.

It may be that separate channels aren’t necessary and would dilute your main channel by creating several small and inactive official channels. That looks bad to new customers and is a waste of time to maintain. In these cases, the information gleaned from the research should be handed off to marketing. According to Lionbridge moderator Fabio Bracht, “I think a marketing push for the product is sometimes preferred in order to first get people interested and talking about the product. Pushing the creation of unnecessary channels before they are needed incurs a major risk of not getting too much traction.”

If you’ve discovered that the majority of the needs of your community are being met in the English channels but there are certain specific areas where they are feeling left out, you have the option of creating specific official accounts for those areas. In games, this tends to be in the area of finding “clans” to join up with. In the experience of Matt Whiting, director of consumer strategy for Lionbridge, “Gamers want to find like-minded players in their region who speak their language and who share their passion for a specific game or genre of gaming.” But it can also be certain technical needs that are specific to a region. It depends on the product, the region, English proficiency and community temperament.

This is one of the areas where top-notch moderators come into play. Your moderation team members will also have special interests which might coincide with the interests you’ve identified in the community. These moderators can oversee the official channels dedicated to these special interests. One important thing to remember, according to Lionbridge moderator Emanuel Ricobenne, is that “it’s important that you keep the main English page easily accessible from the regional one.” This needs to be done in a very visible way with a clickable link so that no one is ever under the mistaken impression that this regional page they are looking at is all there is to the entire community.

If your community is clearly underserved in their native tongue and continuously attempting to find direction and connection within your English channels and/or if you discover large community hubs that are attempting to recreate your English channels, it’s time for you to bring those community members to you and create official channels in their language.

Whether or not to create separate official channels for non-English languages is, in a way, a rephrasing of the age-old question localization professionals ponder — to localize or not to localize. The difference is, when it comes to online communities, people are going to be talking regardless of what you do. You just have to decide how much of that conversation is necessary, and worthwhile, for you and your community team to lead.