Sound and vision

For those of us who are responsible for content globalization programs, it has become increasingly important to manage all content comprehensively, regardless of the language it’s in, who creates it or in what forms it’s packaged (text-based documents, audiovisual media or something else entirely).

I posit this: audiovisual content is not actually a different type of content. It represents an expression of your core message that just happens to have audiovisual characteristics. Why does the distinction matter? Because including such media as part of your program means being able to take advantage of today’s rich and dynamic communication landscape, as opposed to being taken advantage of by it.

“Multimedia is too expensive”

In November 2013, I had the privilege of attending the Adobe Experience Manager Multilingual Content Special Interest Group meeting at the Adobe headquarters in San Jose. This was a forum where Adobe product managers, content managers from large global enterprises and folks from the localization industry got together to discuss multilingual content management in a casual, collaborative setting. The focus of this session was digital asset management (DAM); specifically, “how DAM can be used for multilingual purposes.”

One conversation struck me. A representative from Adobe asked the enterprise content managers in the room what seemed like a perfectly innocuous question, the gist being, “how can we make the creation and management of multilingual audio and video digital assets easier for you?”

The collective answer as I recall was a resounding, “We don’t care. Multimedia isn’t included as part of our content globalization program.”

I was stunned. I had to ask the room, “Why not?” after which someone offered me a straightforward answer that was essentially “Because it’s too damn expensive.”

“Oh, OK,” I remember saying, then retreating into a moment of self-reflection. I believed the answer intuitively, but I wasn’t happy about it. I had spent my professional career removing the language barrier for organizations trying to deploy their message, their products and their value worldwide.

Audiovisual media is everywhere. Why should it be excluded from the language-barrier-destroying efforts of localization? And what are the implications of doing so in the context of audiovisual media’s growing importance in an ever-flattening world?

Audiovisual media and the content globalization crisis

Fast-forward to today, almost four years later, and I assert that the world finds itself in the middle of a content globalization crisis that’s been made worse from the legacy of excluding audiovisual content.

What is this crisis?

Traditional content globalization practices are insufficient to address today’s challenges. This has created a divide that threatens every organization’s ability to reach its full global potential.

The divide is between an organization’s need to remove language and cultural barriers, and its ability to do so. In a world where global scale can propel a company well ahead of the competition, the ability to bridge this divide can mean the difference between winning and losing, even if your solution or product is the best.

Let’s color this in. Say you’ve got a brilliant new solution or product that’s destined to be deployed worldwide — for example, a cure for the common cold.

Were it 20 years ago, you might have only a handful of communication channels to manage in order to successfully get your message out to the world — a website, some print marketing, maybe a public relations function. And for the most part, these channels were predictable and controllable: you create appropriate content for each channel in a source language and then deploy it per a schedule of your design. The local market would then consume it, after which you’d measure the impact and then refine the messaging if necessary.

Sometime further down the road comes localization, another controlled process in which that source content would be adapted for foreign markets, resulting in translated and adapted target content. After deploying this content, you might measure its impact in each market, but you might not be able to do anything about the results if you weren’t set up to process multilingual and multicultural market feedback. The campaign wasn’t well received in Indonesia? That’s too bad; I guess we won’t be selling much there.

Occasionally, multimedia content might be included, say if there were training material involved, but it wouldn’t be typical, and would represent a special type of project with longer durations and higher costs (sometimes even “too damn expensive”).

The speed of now

The world has changed in the last 20 years and the old rules no longer apply.

Crowd models. Cloud computing. Hyper-personalization. Cheap, always-on mobile internet. Smartphones. Social media. More than 20 years of evolving technologies have combined like strands of DNA to create new, multiplied capabilities. These technological advancements have both empowered us and shaped our expectations. And for the current generation of decision-making adults, it represents the way their world has always been.

Managing these communication channels has become more complex, starting with the number of channels you need to manage. Plus, you also need to manage search across a plurality of platforms, mobile apps, a half dozen social networks, community-driven user forums, and various marketplaces in addition to your website, print marketing and formal public relations activities. The lines that divide these channels have become blurry (such as YouTube-hosted webinars that are promoted and discussed on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook).

And new channels can appear seemingly out of nowhere, quickly gain critical mass and then just as quickly disappear into obscurity.

The basic nature of these new classes of channels is very different from the classic channels. They’re omnidirectional. Not only do they represent communication from you to the market, but also communication from the market to you, and discussions about you (a universal need that gave birth to the formal practice of sentiment analysis).

They’re also immediate, operating at the speed of direct, real-time, human-to-human communication — or faster.

Also, like human-to-human communication, these new channels are rich in context and come with a layer of metadata that captures information about who is communicating what, where and why.

For marketing managers, product managers and those responsible for managing communication, maintaining a level of control over these channels, even in a single language, represents a significant challenge compared to 20 years ago. It’s a universal problem that has given rise to new classes of tools and technologies that address content management, marketing automation and sentiment analysis.

Finally, multiply this complexity by the fact that not all channels are equally favored around the world, they operate in multiple languages, and traditional localization processes were never designed to address their high-volume, immediate and omnidirectional nature.

How can you possibly manage so many channels now that you’ve even further multiplied the challenge by including dozens of extra languages? Now you have the makings of a proper crisis.

Deepening the crisis

And then we bring in audiovisual content.  

Both localization technology and content management technology have largely evolved under the assumption that content equals text. Multimedia content has been with us for a while, but until recently was classified by many as an outlier.

Not anymore. A content globalization strategy must account for audiovisual content. Exhibit A: YouTube.

As of March, more than one billion hours of content gets consumed on YouTube every single day. And before you think that it’s all about adorable cats, keep in mind that YouTube has increasingly become the “go-to” place for people looking for product support or making buying decisions. It represents a significant channel of communication about your brand, whether you actively participate in the conversation or not (overlooking YouTube makes a huge brand statement in and of itself).

It is the quintessential modern channel: omnidirectional communication, instant, massive volumes, open participation and metadata richness. But it’s a new and unique type of media: the core message is encapsulated as a combination of moving pixels and audio waveforms, not the text that traditional processes and tools were designed to deal with.

Why am I raising this red flag? Because as more and more communication gravitates to audiovisual channels like YouTube and the world continues to flatten, unaddressed language barriers make this trend a liability to you, and could be what stands between you and realizing your full global potential.

Time to think differently about global content

It’s a false idea that a single product or one simple thing that you can do differently will neutralize the challenge. The right practices and the right application of technology are crucial, but making meaningful progress needs to start with our worldview, beginning with how we think about global content.

Let’s begin with some core assertions that are at the heart of any advice I may have for you about content globalization.

There is no such thing as a “foreign market.” The concept of foreign markets is a preglobalization holdover from an era when businesses were born and raised within the walls of a single nation-state, only later to expand abroad as a logical next step for growth.

Think about the McDonald’s restaurant enterprise, which started in California in the 1940s and was an exclusively American phenomenon for 20 years. It wasn’t until 1967 that McDonald’s opened its first international franchises in British Columbia and Costa Rica, but when it did, it opened the floodgates for massive growth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the “start locally/expand globally” approach, but in today’s landscape it’s artificially limiting. There are very few arguments in favor of waiting for a future stage to become a global company, and plenty of arguments against.

First, some business models don’t work unless they operate at a fully global scale. Can you imagine how much less useful businesses like Airbnb and Uber would be if they only worked in one country? Or what if your credit card or smartphone didn’t work practically everywhere in the world?

Second, if you wait to do business across geographic borders, you’ve given a head start to in-country competitors that already have home-field advantage. You’re also giving ground to global competitors that can wield a significant competitive advantage over you if their operational reach already transcends borders.

So, look at your global content strategy. Is it a start local then expand global business model? Are you creating your messaging with a “home market” in mind, and then adapting it for “foreign markets”? If so, your content strategy is probably a liability to fulfilling your global potential.

Don’t go global. Start global in everything: your product design, your business model, and your content strategy.

Your content does not equal its form. If you ask customer support managers what content is, they’ll likely describe help systems, manuals, white papers, press releases and websites. If you ask marketing managers, they’ll add blog posts, product descriptions, tweets, newsletters and more.

Ask other types of professionals and your list will grow. You might be tempted to conclude that content is a collection of a lot of different things. But I would assert that it isn’t, and that thinking about content in this way is in fact problematic.

The various forms in which we interact with content represent renderings — permutations of content in various forms that have been optimized for the channels and contexts in which it gets used. Content in its raw state — decoupled from its many forms — can be more closely described as an idea or a message.

Thinking about content as being separate from form unlocks natural efficiencies and promotes flexibility and scale.

This isn’t a novel idea; it’s a concept that’s already proven itself, being one of the driving principles behind the development of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and XML (eXtensible Markup Language). The theory goes that by separating content from presentation and delivery, each of these facets can be modified independently. Rewriting a paragraph of text, for example, doesn’t require reworking the layout. Also, content can be written once and reused in many different places.

It was this vision that fueled the single-source publishing/component content management movement that rescued the world from a similar crisis 15+ years ago. It’s hard to imagine, but prior to that, if your messaging needed to change, that change would need to be manually implemented in every permutation of your content: documentation, website, help systems, press releases, advertisements and so on.

If you had localized versions of that content, those costs (including time, money, and resources) would be multiplied by however many different languages needed to be maintained.

As you might expect, the net effect of all of this had a chilling effect on change, and inhibited the localization of messaging that would have otherwise been well received by a global audience. All because of cost. “Too damn expensive.”

Fortunately, the principle to separate content from form was implemented into content production and localization practices, and global content was flowing again, fluidly and affordably.

How is this relevant to the audiovisual content globalization crisis? Because audiovisual content was largely left out of the single-source publishing/component content management revolution, and it’s still handled like an outlier.

Today’s customer support managers and marketing managers will certainly include things that can be described as “multimedia” in their descriptions of content — videos, infographics, podcasts, webinars and so on, but their systems and practices tell a different story. Audiovisual content is treated differently from traditional content. It’s why DAM and CMS (content management systems) are separate acronyms representing separate paradigms, and often separate ecosystems and practices.

There are very few examples of audiovisual content that has been designed for reuse across channels and optimized to be useable worldwide. Why is this?

A lot can be explained by our legacy thinking that assumes that content in its raw state (the idea) still equals text. The basic building block of content management systems that strives to decouple content from form is still the topic, which is still a string of text in a single language. This is a model we’ve outgrown.

If we’re going to bridge the content globalization divide for audiovisual content, then we need to rethink that ontology: text and language are just characteristics, or dimensions of content’s form. Its raw state is still the idea or the message.

This is important because just as the rise of single-source publishing had a liberating effect on the globalization of text-based content, applying its core principle of decoupling content from form can provide the same benefits to audiovisual content too.

Your content is a potentially rich data asset. If you believe that information is power and power is wealth, then your content is a gold mine waiting to be excavated.

We previously asserted that today’s modern channels come with a layer (or metachannel) of data that tells you who is communicating, when and where. What kind of person they are. How they reacted to the content. How they found the content in the first place.

Audiovisual content is, by nature, especially rich in contextual data about the message itself. You can tell quickly if it is humor, academic or the rantings of a crazy person. You can usually extract a lot of context from just a few seconds of audiovisual data because it mimics what our brains decode incredibly quickly.

This universe of content metadata exists whether we choose to make good use of it or not. So much data is just thrown away as a byproduct of processes. But if we choose to think like analysts and deliberately capture and analyze it, we can start to do some interesting things.

For example, we can unleash hidden correlations between content characteristics and its performance out in the global market, giving us actionable insights into what we should be doing differently or what we should do more of.

The holy grail of this type of intelligence is of course predictive power — the ability to anticipate what outcome your actions are likely to produce. The campaign isn’t expected to be well received in Indonesia? What if we change this?

(Incidentally, from an information science perspective, organizing content within an ontology that considers language and form to be separate data dimensions makes these kinds of analyses easier).

For audiovisual channels, the application of such business intelligence to a global content program can mean a re-empowerment of production and localization budgets, since money only need be spent where it’s predicted to pay off.

From vision to action

Used to drive a comprehensive content globalization solution, the above principles reinforce each other and help evolve operational capability in a landscape that desperately needs it.

Today, managing worldwide communication across all channels calls for an integrated approach. Remember that there is still only one global market, even if it uses different communication channels and makes use of different languages. Your solution needs to be able to join the market wherever it hangs out and communicate in all its languages, in both text and non-text forms.

Since new channels are immediate, if you wait to address culture, language and format barriers until later, you risk being left out of the conversation altogether. Your solution must address the problem of language barrier at the speed at which communication takes place in the channel.

Audiovisual content has become both increasingly important as a channel, yet has been excluded from advancements in content globalization. Your solution should neither exclude audiovisual content nor try to handle it “off the grid” from the rest of your global content.

Fortunately, the content globalization crisis represents an opportunity, not only for audiovisual media but for all content. If our practices and systems deliberately capture and make good use of content-oriented data, we have all the makings of a comprehensive solution. One that is suited for today’s complex, global, multi-channel, fast-moving landscape.

And it’s our prerogative to seize it. Borrowing from Google’s mission statement, there’s a big difference between “all the world’s content universally accessible” and “some of the world’s content, mostly in text form, available mostly in English.”

Let’s get to it!