Social media communication is an essential part of global business. Companies operating on multiple continents will often have local social media accounts too, ensuring that relevant content is delivered to each market. Managing so many accounts across countries, languages and cultures presents significant challenges to any business, and in the unforgiving spotlight of the online world, mistakes are inevitably amplified, causing potentially lasting damage to a brand.
So how should a business plan its global social media activity to take advantage of the many opportunities these channels offer?
Translation is not enough
There’s no standard approach to social media that works across all continents and cultures. Simply translating a Facebook post or a tweet from English to Japanese is unlikely to result in content that’s relevant to the Japanese user. To effectively engage in another market, you’ll need to know:
- which social media channels your customers use in that region.
- what types of content are popular, and how many images, graphics or videos to include.
- any hashtags that might help your posts reach a larger audience. The popularity of a hashtag is often very short-lived, so current knowledge of the local social media landscape is important.
- whether or not the content needs to be translated. In some markets, posts might be as successful in English as in the local language, but still might need to be adapted for local tastes.
For more in-depth details, check out our post Five International Social Media Mistakes You Should Never Make.
Maintain a global brand voice
One thing that needs to remain consistent is your brand voice and how you project your values in all your communications, no matter the platform. Even while you apply local nuances to your social media activity (as mentioned above), the content needs to support your brand identity and tone of voice.
Coca-Cola does this very well, with dedicated Twitter feeds in multiple markets including Nigeria and the Philippines, adding local flavor while maintaining the tone of voice associated with the global brand.
The left hand should know what the right hand is doing
It may be tempting to let your local offices run free with their social media accounts, but the benefits of local authenticity would be outweighed by the risk of conflicting messages. Say, for example, your American office posts an update on an unexpected slump in sales resulting in a reduction in employees. It won’t look good if at the same time your Sydney office is retweeting a photo of the CEO boarding a private jet, or of a sales team enjoying champagne and steak at a celebration dinner. Knowing what other parts of the business are being shared online, especially when the information is sensitive, can avoid a lot of bad publicity. Also, it’s always worth remembering that while you might aim a specific post at a local audience, it will be instantly visible globally.
Have a universal approach to resolving complaints
Customers are increasingly going to social media to vent their dissatisfaction. These complaints, however trivial they may appear, can’t be ignored since they can easily blow up into a storm of negative publicity. Many companies have embraced this trend and are considered champions of handling online complaints, using empathy and sometimes humor in diffusing a customer’s anger, then resolving the issue—and in many cases, winning glowing praise from the customer involved. But imagine the problem caused when that ability (or willingness) to deal effectively with complaints is not consistent across countries. If a British customer receives an unsympathetic refusal to a complaint posted on Facebook (or no response at all), yet they can see how much more positively a similar complaint was dealt with by the company’s social media team in Canada, they will be justifiably upset.
The ideal approach to engaging with customers on social media is one that allows local teams to respond to queries and complaints in a way that works in that market, while maintaining consistency in the structure of the responses across global teams. The ways to show empathy and handle issues can take different forms across cultures, but the failure to do either is easy to spot anywhere.
Research whether it would cause offense in other markets
Mistakes and offense will travel in unintended ways across languages and cultures. Some of the biggest backlashes on social media relate to faux pas made by companies who focused their efforts on their home market and didn’t stop to consider how their words or actions might be perceived elsewhere. MTV Australia got into hot water when they tweeted out a call for subtitles during the Golden Globe awards ceremony when two Latin American actors were presenting. It sparked accusations of racism and negative publicity that traveled far beyond their local market.
Another case of posting without thinking surfaced in the Twitter feed for US airline Delta. Immediately after the United States beat Ghana in a World Cup soccer game, the airline posted two images side-by-side: the US represented by the Statue of Liberty and Ghana, by a giraffe. The Delta social media team may had been unaware of the fact that there are no giraffes in Ghana before they put out the tweet, but users from around the world quickly and loudly made sure they would never forget it, amid widespread criticism of perpetuating lazy and inaccurate stereotypes about Africa.
The difference between a funny and an inappropriate social media post can be all about timing. Baked goods company Entenmann’s learned this the hard way when they used the #notguilty hashtag to promote their donuts. Harmless enough on an ordinary day, but unfortunately, they chose to post their tweet at precisely the same time as the high-profile murder trial of Casey Anthony concluded with a not guilty verdict. The social media backlash was predictable.
As companies develop international social media teams to better engage with their local audiences, it’s critical to consider how locally targeted content might be interpreted by others around the world. Errors can range from small slip-ups to full-blown publicity nightmares that never fade away. There’s no excuse for not taking a few simple steps to produce the right content in the right channels in the right languages, all while ensuring that your posts are sensitive and appropriate to a global audience.