Social media makes communication fast and easy between people anywhere in the world. For businesses, one of the unusual challenges to social media is making sure that communication can still happen across language barriers. Once you’re an international brand, you have to consider more than just English.

We’ve seen how Honey Bunches of Oats worked with both English and Spanish-speaking audiences within the U.S., and we’d like to continue exploring how global companies think about using more than one language. We spoke to marketers working with multiple languages to tell us how you can get your international social messages heard.

Alex Neuman, based in Panama, is the CEO of Reliant Technologies as well as producer and host of Vida Digital. He works with PaloSanto Solutions, a telecommunications firm based in Ecuador, on multilingual campaigns that include audiences in user groups, forums, Facebook Pages, and Twitter feeds for the company’s products.

Nelson Dias Leoni is a social media director at AgenciaClick Isobar in Brazil. One of Isobar’s clients is Embratur — the Brazilian Tourist Board. Leoni explained that the agency developed the strategic planning for Embratur’s entire digital presence, including its Visit Brasil social media accounts. Here’s what they had to say about the logistics of going cross-lingual on social media.

Count the Accounts

For a company adding another language to its social media material, one of the top questions is whether to have separate social accounts for each language or whether to focus all content on one profile per network. There’s no single answer to this question, since the choice would depend on the nature of the business, audience, and social media resources. But our experts were able to add some further pros-and-cons about each setup.

“I’ve seen both efforts done well, and done badly,” Neuman said. He recommended that brands go with whatever approach would be the best fit for their message. “I would advise against double-posting, though,” Neuman said. “Audiences, unless fanatical, can be fickle; reading the same content twice, back-to-back, is very likely to be a turnoff, especially when your audience is likely to be multilingual.”

For the Visit Brasil social accounts, Isobar opted to have a single account on each network rather than develop different accounts for different languages. “Spreading presence thin in a network tends to be harmful,” Leoni explained. “Engagement and relevance are jeopardized by the low number of users and interactions.” He said this offers a single point of contact for anybody interested in the nation’s tourism. It also means that each account has a good volume of interesting and differentiated content in order to appeal to all parts of the target audience. The company managed the issue of post volume by frequently including both English and Spanish content in a single post, as you can see above.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Once the profiles have been created, they’ll need content in multiple languages. This can be a big demand on your social media and marketing teams’ resources, which is why so many companies turn to an agency for help managing the work.

According to Alex Neuman, the biggest challenge to this type of marketing is, “keeping the soul of your message the same across all languages.” Even though posts in multiple languages may not end up using the same words, they need to capture the same essence. This means that at least some people in the marketing process who are fluent in the language need to review the marketing material and ensure that the tone is a cultural fit.

Leoni’s experience follows that line of thinking. The team at Isobar develops the content for Embratur’s social accounts, as well as the content segment for each audience nation. A partner then performs the translation. “Translation is not literal,” he said. “We want the message to convey the content’s essence in the target language.”

Neuman said that in his experience, a company’s regional staffers can play an important role in spotting translation mistakes. Getting the correct order for subject, verb, and object in a sentence is a common error in translation. “They’re actually one of the easiest ways to tell if something has been machine translated, or translated by a person who has a grasp of a particular language.”

He also pointed to the common problem of international companies that try to push products with unfortunate names on a particular linguistic audience. He gave the example of the Chevy Nova car in Mexico, where some analysts attributed the bad performance to “Nova” sounding like the phrase “No va,” meaning “no go” or “doesn’t work.” Catching those potential issues before they get in front of the audience will save a company grief in the long run, so it’s worth spending the extra time and resources to make written content correct.

Expert Advice

Leoni suggested pursuing balance and knowledge when starting a first foray into cross-lingual materials. “Publishing in several countries requires caution and creativity,” he said. “Language is not the only challenge, as each country has its own culture and way of expression.” A good grounding in not only the grammatical rules, but also the intangible cultural differences, can elevate a multilingual campaign from okay to great. “Survey the people’s characteristics and language to reach tourists in a unique way, thus raising their interest for the content,” he said.

Neuman gave a similar recommendation. “I give the same advice about pretty much every other aspect of social networking: your primary goal should be to know your customer, listen to their needs, and, whenever possible, anticipate their needs in order to make them feel special,” he said. He also reiterated the caution to be aware of translation issues. Misspellings are certainly embarrassing, but he noted that adding more languages also increases the odds that a phrase or hashtag your company uses could be something improper to a certain audience.

As both Leoni and Neuman have made clear, the approach to social media in a second (or third or fourth) language should include the same baseline strategies as your first language. With the right partners and the right cultural knowledge, an international company can reach out to a whole new global audience on social.

[Image credits: Antonio Silveira, Thephotographymuse]