Are Social Media’s Benefits Getting Lost in Translation?

In multinational companies, social media may call for a multilingual approach.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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One key positive of social media and social networking is that it encourages communication — whether seeking positive interactions with current or future customers or helping employees to work collaboratively in different departments or even different business units. But particularly among international organizations, there is one key drawback: language.

MIT Sloan Management Review‘s 2014 social business report identified an interesting paradox: While respondents from multinational companies indicated that social media often enabled their organizations to work more effectively across global boundaries, they indicated that it also introduced new problems. As it became easier to communicate with people using social media, the obstacles imposed by differing languages became more pronounced.

Dealing with a global customer base

This problem is perhaps most acute in customer-facing social media initiatives. The Dutch airline KLM, which has been at the forefront of putting social media to use for customer service communication, noted that it was a challenge for most companies to have a social media team staffed with people fluent in enough languages to successfully deal with their diverse global customer base. Yet for these types of initiatives to be successful, there is little a company can do but meet the customer in their own tongue. Translation tools may aid in the response, but they’re still imperfect solutions, particularly in the unique context of social media communication: 140-character Twitter exchanges are sometimes difficult to translate, even for fluent speakers.

One solution: in companies with a global customer base, make sure that your externally facing social media team is fluent in a wide variety of languages — and don’t insist they all be situated in the same geographic location. It may be easier to coordinate a team — particularly one that should be social media savvy — across global boundaries rather than to find all the necessary skills in a central location.

Internal initiatives are not immune

Even internally, companies struggle with the language barrier — a problem that’s especially acute in large, multinational organizations. The authors of a recent


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
More in this series

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Comment (1)
One of the keys to success in the social media environment is responding to customers in a personable and authentic way. It's virtually impossible to do that if the employee isn't a) a native speaker and b) familiar with local cultural touchpoints. Any global organisation who thinks they can hole up their "social media team" in Headquarters is barking entirely up the wrong tree. Instead, existing local customer service teams should be upskilled to include social media channels. It's not as if Twitter is rocket science, and being able to use at least the key sites should be part of a standard office worker skillset these days, like being able to navigate around a PC became 20 years ago.
Kate Rose
Director, Linkedin training london