B2B Tech Marketers

Translation is not a commodity

In the 15 years or so I have been involved in transcreation for leading tech brands, it’s never failed to amaze me how translation can all too often fall by the wayside in multi-lingual technology marketing campaigns.

While organisations can spend countless hours, effort and money on planning, developing and executing their campaigns, they tend to take more of a commodity, price-driven approach when it comes to the final step of translating their content into the languages of their target audiences. Why such a shift in their approach when so much is done elsewhere? Think about how much you spend on agency fees, media, channel programs, SEO, social etc. Consider the science, knowledge and energy that go into optimising every single aspect of your marketing initiatives. Yet all this investment in time and money will be wasted if you fail to give your translations the attention they deserve, and fail to choose the Language Service Provider (LSP) that is right for you.

Not all translators are equal

Translation is all too often considered by B2B tech marketers as a price-driven commodity market with little or no differentiation. The cheaper the cost, the better. This all stems from a misconception that all translators are born equal. But think about it – are all copywriters the same? How many bad copywriters did you come across before you found the one or two who could understand your products, your brand and who could find the right tone to reach your target audience? The same goes with translation, only the language differs. Make no mistake: translation is not a commodity, it is a key link in the campaign value chain. That’s why you should show extreme caution in selecting the right LSP.

Cheap translation – what happens behind the scenes?

Of course it’s important to keep your translation costs down – not least at a time where marketing budgets are being squeezed and every penny counts – but “going cheap” is not the solution. Translation is no different to any other industry: you get what you pay for. Go cheap, and your copy will be translated by a junior translator with little or no experience in technology or marketing, and with at best only a vague idea of what your product does and who you’re talking to. Not to mention the fact that in all likelihood, this translator will work in complete isolation, with no support from a project manager whose sole concern it is to turn the job around as quickly as possible, and achieve the highest margin. Carrying on with the copywriting analogy, it’s like getting your copy written by a junior copywriter who’s only worked on pet food or hotel chain accounts, without any brief whatsoever on your campaign objectives, value proposition or tone of voice. Is that your ideal scenario for your new cloud app and your latest big data solution?

And don’t even think of machine translation, which has admittedly got better with the advent of AI and machine learning, but will never match the human brain when it comes to putting yourself in the readers’ shoes, and zero in on what’s going to make them want to buy your product or attend your webinar.

You are not rich enough to buy cheap translations

The scenario is predictable and yet many B2B tech marketers still sleepwalk into the pitfalls: you go cheap and chirpy, the translation is below par, your country stakeholders get frustrated – the standard feedback is “it was Google-translated” – they ask you to have it retranslated or just retranslate it themselves. In both cases it will cost you more and take you more time than if you had got it right the first time. And bear in mind that although a country marketing manager may be a brilliant marketer, CRM expert or event speaker, they may not necessarily be talented writers. What’s more they often have to rewrite the text under huge time pressure to meet their deadlines. So how can you be sure that their translation will be free of any typo, spelling, grammatical or syntax error? Your brand is too precious to take that risk.

Don’t think cost, think ROI

When it comes to translation, don’t think cost, think ROI. Calculating your translation ROI won’t be an easy task since translation is part of a tightly integrated campaign process. It’s difficult to single out the translation factor unless you’re prepared to compare the response rates of a bad translation with the response rates of a punchy, engaging transcreation for the same campaign. But who’s got the time and money to do this?

So it’s rather a question of marketing common sense: people who receive your comms don’t have to read them. IT managers, CIOs and tech enthusiasts are exposed to countless offers and promotional messages every day. It’s hard enough to draw their attention and raise their interest with powerful concepts and copy, let alone with bad translations. A bad translation will generate few leads, or no lead at all, and will damage your brand in the long term. Before you know it you’ll counting your losses…

The true cost difference

Put things into perspective. Consider translation cost in the light of your overall campaign spend. Take a pan-European campaign that costs you $100,000 in total. Based on that, an ordinary, literal translation will cost you in the region of $5,000, whereas the cost for a powerful, engaging transcreation will be anything between $6,000 to $7,000. That’s only 1% to 2% of your overall campaign spend. Yet this marginal difference in spend could be the difference between success and failure in markets which, put together, amount for several times the size of your domestic market. Can you really afford to take that risk?


B2B tech marketers should approach translation with exactly the same care and diligence as other key elements in the campaign value chain. Translation is not a commodity and the cost between standard, literal translation and inspired transcreation is only a fraction of your overall campaign cost. Going cheap is not only a false economy, it could spell disaster for your multilingual campaigns. For your next campaign, make sure you choose the right LSP.


a real risk in B2B technology marketing

Sometimes the best, most creative tech marketing ideas fall flat when crossing borders. The most common culprit? Ethnocentrism. It’s only natural. We all have a tendency to consider our culture to be the norm and are often surprised when our values, customs and standards are not commonplace elsewhere. What is more B2B technology marketing has always lent itself well to one-size-fits-all campaigns across borders and cultures. After all, it is widely accepted that the overall needs and challenges of an IT manager are pretty much the same from London to Düsseldorf, and from Rome to Warsaw. This is partly true, but don’t get too comfortable in this mindset.

Here’s an example* why: A few years ago, one of our clients asked their ad agency to develop a campaign for a new software that would streamline and improve internal processes, lower operating costs, provide fantastic ROI and increase customer satisfaction.

Eyes glazed over at the Soho-based agency as account handlers read the brief, but they put their best planners on the case and a couple of weeks later, the client’s marketing director was presented with a campaign plan and value proposition. The concept proposed did not focus on the all-too-familiar cost, ROI or efficiency benefits, but rather on what they meant to the core IT manager audience: less stress in the workplace, less overtime, more time and energy for their personal lives. The planners reckoned that this get-your-life-back approach would strike the right chord with IT professionals who, by definition, are constantly fighting fire.

The winning concept told the story of an IT manager who, freed from endless stress and constant late nights at the office, emerges blinking into the, by now unaccustomed, sunlight and decides to get his golf clubs out of the shed. It would be delivered in an attention-grabbing, shed-shaped envelope (looking suspiciously like the HP shed from the “Garage” campaign some of you will remember) with a door-shaped flap that would reveal a dusty bag of golf clubs.

The client liked the idea and there was a real buzz at the agency as the campaign took shape and the DM concept was developed across digital banners, eDMs and landing pages (social media were not so big in B2B at the time). Once everything was signed off, it was sent to us for transcreation into German and French. That’s when reality hit — IT managers in France and Germany don’t really play golf, we told them. Couldn’t they put a BBQ in the shed for these markets, or a bike or anything but golf clubs?

Unfortunately, it was too late to change anything. Reorganising a photo shoot was out of the question due to time and financial constraints. Moreover nobody at the agency was overly excited about the idea of picking up the phone to tell the client there was a slight “cultural” hiccup that they had not anticipated. So they asked us to transcreate the campaign as it was. Our country-based translators called us to tell us exactly what we’d already told the agency. We sighed and asked them to translate it anyway.

The feedback from the local marketing teams was predictably lukewarm. France even refused to run the campaign altogether, saying it looked “too Anglo-Saxon” (a euphemism for “those b****y rosbifs” in French) and would do more harm than good. The EMEA Marketing Director considered having the campaign re-designed for these markets, but decided against it in the end, again due to the lack of time and money.

From what we heard afterwards, the response rates were much lower in France and Germany than they were in the UK.

What can we learn from this story? That we should stick to bland, boring concepts and messages that go completely unnoticed in the daily flood of marketing content? Clearly the answer is ‘no’.

This cross-cultural marketing blunder could easily have been avoided if local marketing teams or the Language Service Provider (LSP), i.e. us, had been involved from the concept stage onwards. The golf issue would have been spotted early enough for viable alternatives to be suggested in time for the photo shoot, giving the campaign the all-important local flavour for a marginal additional cost, while leveraging the power of the original concept.

Let’s face it: we as a whole may not be hard core ethnocentrics, but we’ve all committed the sin of ethnocentrism in one way or another. Always have and always will. The important thing here is to recognise this and involve people with local knowledge early enough in the planning and creative process. It could be your local sales and marketing people or, if you’d rather avoid the two-many-cooks syndrome, it could be your Language Service Provider (LSP) who could give you a consolidated feedback across all your target countries.

In some marketing organisations, this will require a complete change of attitude towards translation in general, and their relationship with LSPs in particular. They will need to consider their LSP as a strategic partner in the creative and execution processes, not just a commodity supplier at the end of the campaign value chain.

The process doesn’t have to be onerous. Often our clients just send us a quick e-mail with the concepts attached. We run it past our market-based experts and most of the time the concepts get the thumbs up within a few hours. But it does give our clients the peace of mind that their new campaign will work across all their target markets and not fall at the final hurdle.

For more related posts, read Translation is not a commodity and our quick buyer’s guide for technology marketers.

* Although this example is fictional, it is adapted from a true story