Native, Hybrid, or Localized?
HubSpot’s framework for marketing in many languages
by nataly Kelly
If you’re a marketer who is tasked with building international marketing programs in many languages and finding it difficult, you’re definitely not alone. Many marketing leaders struggle with this question. When your company is growing and scaling rapidly, in many countries simultaneously, the challenge grows even further. Hyper growth and scaling across geographies have been a major part of our journey at HubSpot, an integrated CRM platform with marketing, sales, service, operations, and website-building software with a mission of helping our customers grow better.
To dive more deeply into this topic, I sat down with a top expert in this area, my longtime colleague and collaborator, HubSpot’s VP of international marketing, Susanne Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. In this article, we share some of the lessons she has learned on this topic, and advice she has for others seeking to do global marketing in many languages, at scale.
Multilingual marketing at scale requires a new framework
At many companies, regional marketing teams are often very disconnected from “core” marketing teams that sit in a company’s primary country of headquarters. Often, local marketing teams focus on very different activities from global or central teams. The regional marketers focus much of their time on activities that benefit their local markets, like local branding, locally conducted campaigns, events, field marketing, local advertising, and of course, all digital marketing activities that benefit their local market.
However, a long-standing challenge for regional marketers at many global companies is that as their company’s presence in each market begins to scale, they require more resources from central teams with specialized capabilities. They are faced with just a few options. One, they can try to hire for those capabilities directly on their team. Two, they can lobby for central teams to support their local initiatives. Or three, they can use localization in order to get some things done. This all boils down to an important question:
“How do we choose what to do natively in each language, versus using a localized approach? And when should we actually do both?”
I asked Rönnqvist-Ahmadi to share more about the model that she developed at HubSpot in response to this question several years ago, to help aid decisions about marketing capabilities and where they should sit as a company scales globally. The framework she and her team developed has evolved over time but is a vital tool the company uses to determine whether specific marketing activities should live with local regional teams, central (global) teams with native speakers, or whether those activities should actually go through localization. Internally, it’s referred to as the NHL framework, which stands for: Native, Hybrid, Localized.
“When we first started building out this model at HubSpot, our mindset was mostly binary in nature. We were basically thinking: Should this be done natively in-language, or should it be localized?” Rönnqvist-Ahmadi said. “To answer that question, we started to look at whether a given type of technical or specialized marketing competence was needed in order for the program to scale.”
Rönnqvist-Ahmadi and her team of regional marketers began to ask questions like: Is this a regionally-agnostic challenge? Is it something that should sit on a regional marketing team due to a need for proximity to the market and deep knowledge of the local market itself? Should it sit within localization, or within a native competency team that specializes in that particular marketing specialization?” The answers to these types of questions would lead them to the best conclusion for building a sustainable and scalable solution.
As they worked through the questions, it became clear that there were many scenarios for which activities would not fall into just one bucket cleanly. As a result, the notion of “hybrid” plays became part of the strategy, and the NHL framework was born. Today, a huge number of multilingual marketing activities at HubSpot are hybrid in nature, along with a very large number of native plays, on top of a very large and ever-growing volume of marketing localization projects.
Geo-agnostic initiatives lend themselves to localization
There will be many times in which marketing initiatives can be easily localized, and this is a very common scenario for Rönnqvist-Ahmadi’s team, in which her regional marketers can leverage the content and campaign assets another team has created, simply by localizing them. “If it’s a playbook that is originally agnostic in terms of insights about the specific country, and we believe that we can replicate the English playbook, we nearly always go with a localized approach,” she said.
For example, if there is a marketing campaign, a content campaign about a business strategy that tends to be the same across the globe, or a case study that will have global appeal, localization makes sense in such cases.
Product marketing campaigns are one example of content that can be localized with relative ease, as there usually are not going to be many differences by region. Features, functionality, and benefits will all be roughly the same.
“In those cases, it wouldn’t make sense to have native writers coming up with essentially the same content in each language individually; in fact that would be much slower,” Rönnqvist-Ahmadi said. “In those scenarios, localization can dramatically speed things up, and alleviate pressure that would otherwise be on the shoulders of the regional marketers, or on a given competency team if done natively.”
Because the marketing localization motion at HubSpot existed before the native language capabilities were created in central functions, localization wasn’t a muscle that had to be built from scratch. Rather, marketing localization activities grew alongside the company’s net new native language plays.
Specialized competencies often require a native language playbook
Rönnqvist-Ahmadi offers the following example to help illustrate how this thought process works: “If the initiative relies heavily on a technical competence, such as technical SEO or working on the back end of your website to ensure crawlers can find your company’s content, you’re going to need to solve that need via native speakers of the language who all belong to the same team who all have that competence area in common.”
Having native language specialists on a competency team makes a lot of sense in this type of example. Technology changes rapidly, and so do search algorithms. Putting those human resources all on the same team ensures that knowledge transfer can happen swiftly between members. If a company were to spread those same resources out and assign them to individual regional marketing teams, they might not be as effective. Instead, the SEO team members for each language at HubSpot work closely with the regional marketers as their key partners, in addition to working with the localization team.
Another example of a competency team where a native language playbook makes sense for HubSpot is automation marketing. When a team needs to create automation marketing plays in each language, they need the ability to do things unique to their own market.
“Automation is a marketing team with their own distinct processes, but they have multiple people who speak each language,” said Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “It’s faster to do this type of work in-language directly, because they can iterate and test out new ideas instantly because they speak the language natively and don’t have to wait for localization as an intermediary step.”
However, the automation team might occasionally have specific pieces that are standardized, such as calls to action and certain content that they would run through the localization team also, if the content is geo-agnostic.
Rönnqvist-Ahmadi also flags that speed of execution is hugely important for marketing at HubSpot: “If speed were not so important for automation marketing, perhaps it could all go through localization instead, but because it’s highly technical and needs to happen at a high velocity, it makes sense to have the majority of it done natively in each language.” Another factor is volume. If the needs are only occasional, perhaps localization is a good option. But when the needs are recurring and the volume of work is high, it justifies hiring marketers directly for those languages who don’t sit on regional marketing teams, but rather, on the central teams with a specialized competency.
Putting speakers of each language on a competency team within a marketing organization offers another, perhaps more subtle but vitally important benefit for the long-term global trajectory of a business: “When you have people on a competency team who are a core part of the team but represent other languages, it has the powerful effect of forcing that team to solve for global customer needs,” Rönnqvist-Ahmadi said.
There is tremendous wisdom in embedding locally-focused roles on centralized competence teams within a large global marketing organization. The impact for regional marketers who seek to grow their overall market share in each region may actually be higher than if they all had the same specialists on their own regional teams. This model ensures that the underlying approach the competency teams develop will be global from the very start, and it infuses local and regional knowledge within those teams as well.
Many content types necessitate a hybrid approach
There are many scenarios that don’t lend themselves to either a localized or a native approach, but rather, require both. Rönnqvist-Ahmadi’s team refers to these as “hybrid” motions, because they require a mix of both localization and native language resources in order to be effective.
One example is educational content, of which HubSpot produces a vast amount for HubSpot Academy. As Rönnqvist-Ahmadipoints out, “For training content like Academy, it’s really important to have a hybrid motion like the one we have today. It’s critical actually. The content has to be agnostic across regions, because we need to deliver lessons and certifications in the same way across the world to ensure that we accredit people in the same way. At the same time, it also has to be delivered in a regionally relevant way.”
This is a great example of a type of content where localization helps ensure speed and quality while keeping costs under control, but regional Academy professors for each language help ensure the delivery is native and locally relevant. “We can’t have a certified inbound marketer in one language have a completely different experience from another in a different part of the world,” explains Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “Yet, we want their learning experience to be as locally relevant as possible.”
Academy is a very content-heavy area for marketing, but it’s not the only type of content that requires a hybrid mentality. “The vast majority of what we do today requires a hybrid approach,” said Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “Most of the time, when we’re looking at any initiative, we ask, ‘Is this a native-only playbook? Or is it a localized-only playbook?’ And the answer is ‘no.’ It’s nearly always a hybrid playbook. Hybrid is actually what we do the most of today.”
A hybrid approach is probably the opposite of what most marketers and localizers might expect when just starting out with such a model. In the early days of adopting this framework at HubSpot, both the localization and the international marketing teams assumed they would see most things fall neatly into one category of the other, but the reality is very different, requiring a tight collaboration between both teams to ensure success.
Go-to-market motion shapes the approach
Because localization teams are accustomed to thinking about content volumes and impact on production and throughput, a natural question most localizers will ask about marketing content is, “What percentage of content gets localized, versus produced natively, versus hybrid?” But as Rönnqvist-Ahmadi points out, a simple percentage-based structure isn’t actually the way international marketing leaders tend to think about it, because not all content is created equal or necessarily has the same purpose.
Instead, she advises companies to think about the effectiveness of the regional marketers within the context of the overall marketing goals, which is dictated in great part by the go-to-market approach. The end result a marketing team seeks, not the content volumes, will determine which path marketers take using the NHL framework. In the case of HubSpot, keeping regional marketing teams focused on activating various plays means they can use the NHL framework to pick the right path to accomplish the job at hand. This makes the process much more agile and flexible than if a strict percentage-based plan were the goal.
For regional marketing teams that are focused primarily on generating leads for local sales teams, it’s also important to recognize that these local marketers need to stay focused on their core activities. “I view regional marketing teams as activators of central programs that will often be localized. On top of that, they may also choose to activate native components to reach their targets. But if you lean too far into native language activities, you’ll start stretching teams beyond their core competence and getting in the way of their core demand-generation goals,” Rönnqvist-Ahmadi said.
The continual flywheel motion requires a flexible model
At HubSpot, the company moved many years ago away from the concept of a traditional marketing and sales “funnel” model, embracing a “flywheel” instead, which implies continual motion in which customers move from an Attract phase (marketing) into Engage (sales) and Delight (customer success). If you’re successful at this more modern motion, customers become advocates, who help attract even more users and customers, who engage even further with sales across new product lines, and the flywheel motion continues. This is a perfect model for a tech company that operates with a continuous deployment and continuous integration model that is constantly in motion too.
The model HubSpot uses today requires that localization be baked into all parts of the flywheel, closely intertwined with all phases of the customer journey, in the continuous flywheel motion. Because marketing in a flywheel model is not only continuous, but heavily intertwined in many aspects of the customer journey too, ranging from in-product content to customer training content to community content and beyond, the relationship between marketing and localization is key. If marketers were to solely activate localization plays, localization on its own would not provide the richest possible customer experience in each and every language. This is why native language plays are also key, and giving marketers the ability to deploy the right option for the right circumstance is critical.
Investments must ideally correlate to business impact
Creating a model that enables such flexibility means making investment choices. When HubSpot decides to spin up a competency team in other languages, it might mean hiring dozens of people to support all of the languages required. When this happens, the question being asked is not typically, “Could we localize instead, to save money and headcount?” The question asked is typically, “What will give us the highest overall value and business impact?”
Ultimately, high-quality leads mean better conversion rates for sales. And leads that come in sooner translate into customers and revenue coming in sooner. In a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business, the amount of leads and deals generated each and every day matters and affects the company’s top-line performance. So, the question marketers in these types of companies must ask is really, “What will make the biggest impact?” Often, that means localization plus native language plays combined. While that’s not always the cheapest solution, it’s often the one that yields the best results. The impact being driven by all such plays is highly tangible and measurable, but no team seeks to claim a specific portion of the success because they all work together to make it happen.
Success depends on a foundation of trust and collaboration
One interesting but less commonly discussed aspect of the flywheel model as it pertains to success for marketing in many languages is that it depends hugely on having a foundation of collaboration and trust. “To alleviate some of the pressure on regional marketers, there has to be trust in the other teams, that they will do a great job, so that the regional marketers don’t always have to be the ones doing quality checks themselves,” said Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “That foundation of collaboration is so huge that the regional marketers view the localization team members as extensions of their own team, to the point they often put their photos on their org chart slides – that’s how much they depend on them and view them as part of their teams.”
Typically, regional marketers wear many hats. At HubSpot, the localization specialists for each language create writing guidelines, terminology, and style guides, built in cooperation with the regional marketers and other HubSpot employees involved in growing the company’s presence in any region. This can alleviate some burden for the marketers to help them scale content both natively and through localization. “That’s a luxury that not every marketing team is going to have,” points out Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “Many regional marketers won’t get that sort of close collaboration and support from a localization team as we’ve had here.”
But the collaboration isn’t just between localization and regional marketing teams, but between regional marketing teams and central marketing teams with specific competencies. Regional marketers also need to have trust in those central teams, to ensure the employees who speak the languages on those central teams will do the right thing for the markets they represent. At a fast-growing company, hiring at speed and onboarding people into new roles so they can hit the ground running, trust and collaboration are critical for this kind of success.
The NHL model takes time but yields dividends
What’s the number-one ingredient that goes into building a model like the one employed at HubSpot? “It takes time,” said Rönnqvist-Ahmadi. “The marketing localization muscle was built at HubSpot over a period of about seven years, and we began adding native content plays on top of that about four years ago. Today, about 80% of what we do is hybrid. That has taken many years for our teams to build together; it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Not every marketing team knows the ins and outs of localization, after all, and most localization professionals don’t have deep expertise in marketing either, especially at the scale and speed of HubSpot. It requires time to build up capabilities on both sides of the equation.
However, the results speak for themselves. As of Q2 2022, HubSpot reported more than 150,000 customers in 120 countries and more than 7,000 employees globally. International revenue has been growing at a soaring compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 55% from 2014 to 2022. According to slides presented in September 2022 at the SaaStr conference, 54% of the company’s net new revenue came from international markets, outside its home country of the United States. Naturally, not all of this success can be attributed to just one or two teams – it takes an entire flywheel, consisting of many teams and sub-teams. But, the strong partnership between marketing and localization, and the resulting NHL model, have no doubt contributed to HubSpot’s international success.
Nataly Kelly is vice president of localization at HubSpot.
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