Why localization without personalization misses the mark

Why localization without personalization misses the mark
Scott Abel

Scott Abel

Scott Abel is an internationally recognized intelligent content strategist and cognitive computing evangelist. He is the coauthor of Intelligent Content: A Primer and The Language of Content Strategy (XML Press). Abel is the founder, CEO and chief strategist at The Content Wrangler, Inc. He coproduces Information Development World Conferences, produces a popular series of content strategy books and is the host of the San Francisco Content Strategy Content Marketing Professionals Meetup.

Scott Abel

Scott Abel

Scott Abel is an internationally recognized intelligent content strategist and cognitive computing evangelist. He is the coauthor of Intelligent Content: A Primer and The Language of Content Strategy (XML Press). Abel is the founder, CEO and chief strategist at The Content Wrangler, Inc. He coproduces Information Development World Conferences, produces a popular series of content strategy books and is the host of the San Francisco Content Strategy Content Marketing Professionals Meetup.


early a decade ago, I wrote an article for this magazine in which I argued that we should focus our efforts on solving the biggest technical content problem around: personalization.

Back then, my argument was this: unless you provide a personalized technical documentation experience, you aren’t delivering what consumers require, regardless of what languages they understand.

The stakes are high. Getting content wrong means missing out on new revenue streams worth $1.7 trillion to $3 trillion, according to an estimate by McKinsey & Company analysts.

When you make it inconvenient for consumers to find the information they need, they’re likely to turn to a web search engine or a virtual assistant for help. While searches sometimes lead to the information consumers require, they don’t usually yield the results consumers expect. And they don’t always find you or your content. Instead, consumers may discover content published by competitors.

Much of the information consumers seek about your products and services isn’t readily available to them. The content they seek does exist, but is far too often hidden from their view.

Consumers want convenience. When they need to ask a question, they want you to provide them a relevant answer quickly; most often on-demand. They don’t want you to shove a PDF at them that contains more information than they require (and makes them responsible for finding the answers they need).

Too much content and not enough patience leads to undiscovered content. Analysts at Sirius Decisions say 60% to 70% of B2B product content goes unused. Patience is in short supply on the web, with most website visits lasting only a few seconds before the searcher decides to abandon the quest.

If search patterns from the web hold for your technical documentation portal, then it’s mission-critical to serve up the right content in the search results provided from your site. According to research from SEO marketing firm Moz, “the vast majority of respondents” remain on the first page of search results to find an answer to their query. Only 7% of survey respondents indicated that they browse past the first results page to see as many results as possible. That means that 93% of the time if consumers don’t find your results on the first page of a search, you lose.

Furthermore, information overload is a bad thing. It occurs when we present more information than the brain can process at one time. Information overload causes what cognitive neuroscientists refer to as analysis paralysis — a situation in which users get so overwhelmed and annoyed that they give up and stop looking for the answer. Nearly 40% of surveyed shoppers have abandoned a website because they were overwhelmed with too many options.

Over the last decade, online chatter about customer experience has trended upward. Jake Sorofman, former chief of research at Gartner, wrote that “customer experience itself is proving to be the only truly durable competitive advantage.” Sorofman’s opinions are backed up by a Gartner report showing that 89% of business leaders said they expect to compete with adversaries mainly on customer experience.

Why personalize technical documentation?

Some companies focus their initial efforts on implementing basic personalization tactics like greeting you by name or recognizing your birthday. But the management consultants at Boston Consulting Group say that organizations providing more advanced personalization capabilities realize four times the revenue boost from their efforts compared to organizations with rudimentary personalization capabilities.

Personalization is the process of providing relevant content to consumers based on one or more factors: who they are, where they are, when, why and how they access content, and what devices they use to consume it.

Enterprise content strategy expert Joe Gelb says personalization can enable you to use technical documentation to cross-sell products, present pertinent recommendations and serve up the information individual consumers want to see.

Personalization involves tailoring content so that it aligns with the preferences, interests and characteristics of individual consumers. Localized technical documentation experiences may address fundamental needs — like presenting content in the preferred language of a specific region or group of people — and still fail to serve those who consume it. Personalization increases the utility and relevance of localized technical documentation and allows us to focus our efforts on delivering hyper-relevant content experiences at scale.

University of Texas researchers found that consumers respond positively to personalized content because they perceive that they have a higher degree of control over their content experience. Personalizing and localizing content supports the “perceived decrease in information overload due to the connotation that the information displayed in a customized online environment meets an individual’s needs,” say the researchers.

“An exceptional customer experience is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a requirement for today’s digitally-savvy consumers,” says Rahel Anne Bailie, director of content for Babylon Health.

Percentage of customers

Figure 1: Percentage of customers who say they’ll switch brands in response to poor customer experience. Data from Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service Report.

Building connections, driving sales

Personalization plays a significant role in purchase decision making according to 86% of consumers. 45% of shoppers are more likely to purchase products from vendors that provide personalized product content recommendations. Of those consumers, 56% say they are more likely to make repeat purchases with brands that provide personalized experiences.

“Today, publishing machine-friendly, localized technical documentation delivers dramatic improvements in search engine optimization, leading to increases in organic web traffic,” Bailie points out.

Technical documentation is mistakenly thought of as post-sale content, part of the information we provide to consumers only after they purchase a product or service. But that’s changing as sales leaders begin to recognize that documentation can both satisfy existing customers and attract and convert prospects, turning them into purchasers. Don’t overlook “the importance of keyword-rich documentation as digital bait for prospective customers,” says enterprise content strategy consultant Charles Cooper.

Implemented thoughtfully, Bailie notes, “personalization increases the perceived helpfulness of your content, reducing the likelihood of consumer frustration and confusion.”

Bailie recommends technical communication teams work to ensure the information they develop includes simple-to-implement improvements such as localizing for local currencies, units of measure, time zones, rules, laws and regulations. “When you personalize content, it shows consumers that you value them as individuals and desire to be of service. Consumer trust and brand loyalty are some of the rewards you can expect when you invest in personalization,” Bailie says.

Personalized content can influence consumer decisions and dramatically impact what consumers think about your brand. Research indicates that organizations that personalize call to action (CTA) messages, for instance, enjoy higher conversion rates than companies that don’t invest in personalized CTAs.

Hubspot product marketing manager Jeffrey Vocell examined more than 330,000 CTAs and discovered that personalized CTAs convert 202% better than CTAs that are not personalized.

What kind of content do consumers prefer?

Claiming that you value your customers doesn’t work if you have no idea what type of content your customers desire. While personalization is becoming the de facto experience consumers expect, there’s considerable room for improvement in implementation. As consumer expectations for exceptional experiences rise, patience for — and tolerance of — mediocre content encounters is waning.

According to Gartner, only 12% of consumers feel like current personalization efforts meet their expectations.

Consumers are more likely to spend more than they had planned in response to personalized product recommendations and offers, according to Gartner’s ebook Maximize the Impact of Personalization.

Consumers around the globe value personalized content differently

Of consumers across the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and Brazil, 75% use search engines to locate answers to their customer service questions. And 90% of those consumers expect every organization to offer 24/7 online self-service.

Positive customer experiences are significant factors in deciding to remain loyal to a product or service, according to 59% of all consumers.

The Microsoft State of Global Customer Service Report found that while consumers in different parts of the world have a great deal in common, they also exhibit substantial differences in both behavior and expectations when it comes to personalized content.

For instance, 69% of US consumers are loyal to brands that provide exceptional experiences, while 90% of Brazilians say they’ll switch brands in response to poor customer experience. Only 30% of Japanese consumers feel similarly (Figure 1).

Developing the capability to personalize and localize technical documentation can ensure you meet changing consumer expectations.

Netflix combines localization and personalization tactics to address cultural differences (variances in local content requirements) as well as taking into account the needs, wants and desires of individual customers. Doing so may help explain why the company is growing by leaps and bounds globally.

Localization is about producing an “aha” moment in any language, culture or medium. Personalization is the process of ensuring the “aha” moments are relevant to a particular individual in your target audience.

“A content strategy that doesn’t lead to an ‘aha’ falls flat,” says James V. Romano, CEO of enterprise language solutions provider Prisma International. “Localization-driven personalization strategies are capable of producing meaningful content experiences for an audience, creating ‘ahas’ at the individual level in Anchorage, Andorra and Anhui.” You can’t deliver exceptional customer experiences with content — experiences that produce “aha” moments — if you’re unwilling to personalize the experience.

Content personalization and localization require commitment, continual improvement and resources. A thoughtful implementation allows you to deliver on both promises to users, and promises to the organization, regarding conversion rate improvements (leading to increased sales), improved customer engagement and loyalty (leading to fewer customer support calls and increased profits), support center call deflection (fewer calls to your support center) and better employee engagement and enthusiasm (happier staff).

“Localization without personalization fails to provide the types of personalized experiences that consumers increasingly expect,” says Romano.

The tsunami of information available to consumers is a double-edged sword. When you do not personalize content, you shift the burden of discovery to consumers. You must not limit your recommendations to content associated with past purchasing or browsing behavior, either. Consider why consumers prefer one type of content over another. Then, do your best to provide that content to those who need it in accordance with their preferences.


Personalization and localization should not be the only tools in your content experience improvement toolbox. Organizations that personalize and localize technical documentation should also consider allowing users to customize their content experiences.

Personalization, as interaction design researcher Amy Schade points out, allows you to serve content to users based on a model of that user’s individual needs. Customization, on the other hand, allows the user control of the content. Schade argues that you need both.

While localization and personalization are deeply connected, by themselves they’re not enough to provide an exceptional experience. User advocate Jakob Nielsen argues that you should help users to customize their experiences by allowing them to choose from a set of easily-navigable options.

Global content strategy expert Val Swisher says allowing users to customize their experiences can help us better understand the needs of individuals, especially where localization is a goal. “Creating great localized content experiences requires us to figure out how to obtain — and act upon — the right data,” says Swisher. Allowing consumers to declare their preferences shows that you value and respect them. “Establishing trust, and if you’re lucky, loyalty, in a global business market is essential.”

Customization should be part of both the product selection process (allowing consumers to design a custom vacation package, for example) and the customer service process. Technical documentation teams that aim to create exceptional localized experiences should provide a platform which allows consumers to configure their own experience.

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Figure 2: Amazon provides personalized recommendations to its customers.

“There’s no reason to skimp on personalization when you are localizing technical documentation,” Swisher says. “You’re more likely to provide the best experience possible when you invest in overcoming the ineffective spray-and-approach to content.”

For example, a web portal for an automobile manufacturer might allow a new visitor to configure the features and characteristics of the vehicles they are considering. Prospective car buyers might want to customize their vehicle by selecting a model, color, engine size and seating specifications (number of seats, upholstery type, heated seats) as well as entertainment, emergency, communication and navigation features.

Sites that allow visitors to customize their products use the selections made by consumers to personalize their content experiences. They can filter out content that does not align with customized settings making it much less likely that individual consumers encounter irrelevant content.

Customization also extends to the ability for consumers to change the personalization settings when the need arises. For instance, consumers should be able to change their preferred language, time zone, location and other preferences.

Providing consumers with the flexibility to customize their content experiences increases their perception of control, which researchers say impacts how pleasant consumers feel their experiences are. The higher the level of perceived control, the higher the pleasantness reported. There appears to be an emotional connection to products that we configure to meet our own needs.

Mimic the personalization masters

Amazon and Netflix are two companies that get personalization right. Amazon’s content recommendations are amazingly successful. A full 35% of their sales come from personalized recommendations (Figure 2).

Amazon puts the individual customer front and center. The company is a pioneer in the personalized content arena and has focused on delivering the best experiences possible. Amazon customers don’t need to do anything to set up product recommendations (although customers can tweak the system to influence and improve recommendations).

Amazon serves content to visitors automatically in the form of recommendations. The company combines customer data (web browsing, purchasing and other measurable behaviors) with demographic and current events data to serve up suggestions that provide value to shoppers.

Individual viewers

Figure 3: Individual viewers are presented with artwork that Netflix hopes will compel them to watch.

Amazon’s personalization efforts have helped to differentiate it from the competition and allowed it to capture more than 50% of the total US retail eCommerce market and nearly 15% of worldwide eCommerce sales.

Amazon also learns about preferences from the crowd. Amazon uses deep machine learning (think big data) to monitor the habits of its customer base. For instance, Amazon uses customer data to understand that most people who like product X also like product Y. This data helps the company know that visitors who shop for nontoxic cookware might also be interested in ordering organic produce from its grocery distribution channel Whole Foods.

While some people are uncomfortable with companies like Amazon collecting their data, 70% of consumers say they don’t mind if service providers collect their personal information as long as they are transparent about how they use it. Amazon also makes its capabilities available for free to others (that means you) who want to serve up personalized recommendations.

Netflix is another company that has developed personalized content experiences and helped change user expectations while reducing company expenses. For Netflix, personalization doesn’t just involve pushing entertainment suggestions to each customer. It also involves personalizing and localizing the images that accompany recommendations (Figure 3). The Netflix recommendations strategy not only involves suggesting the best movies and television shows to its customers, but it also serves up artwork for each title that the system predicts may be compelling to you.

OpenEdge Information Hub

Figure 4: OpenEdge Information Hub.

Of the videos Netflix customers watch, 80% are the result of suggestions from the company’s content recommendation engine. Personalizing viewer experiences saves the company over $1 billion a year in unnecessary expenses.

Personalizing images that accompany recommendations presumes you’ll view the image as evidence for why the recommendation might be an excellent choice for you. The artwork might feature a performer you recognize, draw your attention to a mind-blowing space invasion or illustrate a theatrical scene that communicates the essence of a motion picture or TV show. All of these personalizations intend to help you discover new content that satisfies your needs and keeps you coming back to Netflix for more.

Consumers subconsciously expect similar personalization efforts when they interact with your content. That’s important to understand because 89% of digital consumers say one less-than-satisfactory experience is enough for them to abandon your brand altogether.

These two companies provides personalized content experiences that leverage what technical communication expert Lawrence Orin refers to as the 4 Rs of personalization.

The 4Rs

Personalization and localization both involve getting the right pieces of content in front of the right person, at the right time, in the right place, in the format they desire, in essential ways that provide value to them.

To implement personalized technical documentation, you must be able to leverage taxonomy. Organizations that succeed in this arena focus their efforts on providing relevancy, the guiding principle of personalization, says Orin.

Most technical communication teams, Orin says, already think in taxonomical terms. It makes sense to them to tag their content using tags like product name, version and user role. Doing so allows them to deliver technical content for someone with a specific role, who needs to understand how to use product A, version Y.

Product, version and role tags are apparent to most technical writers, Orin argues, because they already think about content creation with these labels in mind. However, these three tags alone are insufficient to deliver relevant, personalized documentation experiences.

Orin recommends you use a checklist of three characteristics to ensure your personalization and localization efforts focus on delivering relevancy. Doing so, Orin says, will produce valuable, relevant, personalized experiences.

Orin suggests using a checklist — like the Four Rs of personalization — to guide your personalization efforts. The four Rs might be more accurately described as a list of the three things you must do (recognize, remember and recommend) to produce relevant, personalized, technical documentation experiences.

Personalized content experiences require you to recognize the individual you are hoping to engage, remember the information they provide you (or that you can glean from their interactions with you and others) and use that information to provide content recommendations.

Common personalization first steps

The first personalization step many organizations take is making simple adaptations to their technical documentation. More often than not, that involves attempting to detect the IP address of the individual visiting a technical documentation portal.

An IP address is a unique identifier assigned to computing devices communicating over the world wide web. Knowing the IP address allows us to deduce which pieces of content we might want to localize to meet the needs of the typical visitor from that location. However, there are two big problems with this approach.

First, assumptions are often wrong. In this case, the IP address alone presents us with insufficient data to guide the adaptations needed to make your technical documentation content relevant to users in different locales.

Second, the IP address is the low-hanging fruit data that organizations often tap to help them make inferences about groups of website visitors who may share similar characteristics and content needs. But in a world where personalization is the Holy Grail of content strategy, adapting content at the group level (for people who access a site from a specific country, for instance) fails to address the individual differences between people in a group that personalization attempts to address.

Using the IP address to drive content decisions is riddled with challenges. While it might be useful to know the location of a website visitor accessing your content, making adjustments to content based solely on the IP address may inadvertently introduce complications and damage the customer experience you’re attempting to improve.

That’s because IP addresses don’t tell us anything about intent (what do they need? why are they here?) nor do they tell us anything about the visitor (who are they? have they had previous experiences with us?) or what their preferences are. They may speak three languages, including the one commonly spoken in the country where their IP address is registered, but they may prefer — or need — to consume content in another language.

Personalization is a deep form of localization that focuses on delivering relevant content experiences to individuals, not groups of people who share common geolocation.

Using the IP address alone to determine the language requirements of site visitors is inadvisable. The approach fails to recognize the many reasons why an individual might prefer — or even require — adaptations to content to fulfill their individual needs, not the presumed needs of the local population. If you must leverage this approach, make sure that you provide consumers with an easy way to override your language settings and obtain content in the languages desired by the consumer.

IP addresses do provide some value. Common assumptions that location data allow us to make include language, currency, time zone, units of measure, weather, and of course, changes to policies and procedures that align with the traditions, norms, rules, regulations and laws specific to a particular country.

Role-based content

When a new visitor first encounters your technical documentation, you may not have profile data sufficient to guide content recommendations for them. That’s why it’s imperative to provide an onboarding experience that makes it easy for the consumer to quickly determine for themselves a clear path for success. By segmenting your content by role, you can help existing customers and prospects alike to understand the value of the content you provide.

For example, you could prove different documentation experiences to audience segments you serve — developers, database administrators, system administrators and DevOps teams. By tagging and organizing documentation by role, you can filter out content that is unlikely to be irrelevant to individual prospects and customers (Figure 3).

To improve the likelihood of relevance, companies that organize content by role can easily add additional metadata to further refine the content experience. For example, you could tag documentation by the level of expertise (content for a novice should be different than for a superuser or system administrator) or based on a level of access (some content should not be seen by some people).

To improve the utility of the documentation experience, you could also tag instructions that involve prerequisites (things to do before you start), or you might tag your documentation so that consumers receive information appropriate for their region or country.

What consumers want

Consumer preference researchers say that consumers want frictionless and accessible experiences no matter how they might be interacting with your brand. If you seek their loyalty, they want you to deliver meaningful, relevant, personalized experiences — every time.

Localization without personalization isn’t enough to protect you from losing business to the competition. Providing the right content in the wrong language is just as unacceptable as providing the wrong content in the right language. Creating exceptional customer experiences simply isn’t possible without adjusting the way you create, manage, translate and deliver content to those who need it.