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Case study: A success story in bilingual social media

Case study: A success story in bilingual social media Craig Brown

Serving customers in multiple languages has long been the practice in Canada, where both English and French are the official languages. Thus, at MTS Allstream, fully bilingual websites have been the norm since the mid 1990s. This includes the company's external-facing website as well as its intranet.

As one of Canada's leading national communication solutions companies, MTS Allstream is constantly looking to forge a closer link between the company and its customers -- and eventually inject customer perspectives very early in the product development lifestyle. Additionally, following the 2004 merger between MTS and Allstream, the company has looked to open up information sharing and break down departmental silos.

To accomplish these goals, MTS Allstream established a presence on a number of external social media sites, as well as built new internal mechanisms to increase collaboration across the company. However, the addition of the social media components created a new set of questions for MTS Allstream regarding the translation and implementation of generated content. MTS Allstream uses Vignette Content Management from Open Text, which enables the company to easily propagate translated material between sites. However, the company learned that the need for translation is not always a hard rule; rather, it's often a very fluid process.

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Getting closer to customers' hearts and minds
Imagine being able to address a group of customers with the questions: "What are the five biggest problems you're facing today? And what if you had a technology that could do this, this, and this?" Having answers to those questions would identify your value proposition well in advance of a product release, strengthen your marketing strategy, and create additional customer advocates.

With the aim to inject customer perspectives early in the product development lifecycle, MTS Allstream set up Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts with oversight from a social media working group. A cross-functional committee representing all three sides of MTS Allstream -- corporate, enterprise, and consumer -- established legal terms and conditions of use, a language policy, and the appropriate security measures. This team also addressed the issues of whether to create a single profile/username to represent the company or propagate several different personas. Ultimately, the decision was made to keep it simple and stick with a single account for each channel, rather than immediately jumping in and populating the channels with multiple personas.

Because MTS Allstream's different customer segments interact using different social media tools, the company handed over control of these channels to different business groups. After the committee set up initial ground rules to accommodate these dynamics, it turned the social media accounts over to the marketing departments of each division to determine how to engage with their particular constituencies.

In all cases, though, MTS Allstream's external social media tools are available in English only. For instance, translating every tweet into French would be both time consuming and a potential turn-off for the company's followers, who would receive an extra, redundant post. Deciding on a single language enabled the MTS Allstream to deliver a single company voice that could be maintained with efficiency and an appropriate number of touchpoints to the company's followers.

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Reaching the internal audience
Gaining a more thorough understanding of the consumer perspective was only one part of the equation; there was also a wealth of information within MTS Allstream waiting to be tapped. For instance, a series of executive roadshows held in January 2009 spurred a great exchange of ideas between internal thought leaders and employees. To capture this dialogue and continue to solicit new ideas, MTS Allstream created employee exchange forums covering five different topics. However, the company didn't want to create two entirely separate forums based on language -- this would only segregate the staff.

Instead, bilingual topic areas were created where employees could post in the language of their choice. It was also decided that, while the forum topics would be translated into French, employees' French comments would not be translated into English. There were two reasons for this decision:

  1. Translation can alter the tone of the conversation and potentially contribute to misinterpretations

  2. Time lags associated with translations make it difficult to continue the conversation in a timely manner. By the time the translation has been posted, the conversation has moved on. As a forum designed for idea generation, a sort of natural selection ensued and everyone is posting in English -- even in the bilingual topic areas.

While it's one thing to create a forum for idea generation, it's quite another to create online conversations. Two MTS Allstream executives have turned out to be quite active bloggers, and although the formats of their blogs are essentially the same, they're a perfect example of why it's important to take the question of translation on a case-by-case basis.

The blog written by Mike Strople, vice president of technology development, is English only, whereas the blog authored by Dean Prevost, president of enterprise solutions, is also translated into French. The deciding factor is the audience reading the entries. Strople's blog is really only addressing his team, but Prevost is addressing the entire company. On that level, it was important to translate his blog posts, which now appear with the English version directly above the French version of the same post. As with the forums, employees are welcome to post comments in either English or French, but MTS Allstream doesn't translate them.

MTS Allstream also set up a group of internal wikis, primarily for the technology group, where information can be shared. In their initial phase, the wikis are only in English but, as the entries evolve and certain sections become actual policy guidelines or the content becomes fairly static, MTS Allstream will take the "best of" and translate the posts to French so they are available for everyone.

On a macro level, MTS Allstream's use of social media is designed to maximize awareness of the company's brand and products, and to help ensure it's being perceived in a positive way. MTS Allstream's Facebook page provides the framework for an open dialogue with customers. Meanwhile, the YouTube and Twitter accounts have provided another channel for MTS Allstream to proliferate its messages through commercials or videos relating to corporate initiatives.

Likewise, the internal collaboration initiatives have helped break down barriers and create a more connected environment among MTS Allstream's departments, which in turn has resulted in greater awareness of the activity taking place throughout the company and the contributions of each group. In particular, the employee exchange forums have been an overwhelming success, having generated several hundred posts to date.

The success of these activities has created a new challenge: How should the company report back on progress? To solve this, MTS Allstream is in the process of developing another intranet site that will actually show the ideas in action. It will be a discussion forum where employees can talk about ideas and allow peers to rank them as well. Additionally, MTS Allstream will have a blog space on the site where the director or vice president accountable for an initiative can report back via blog posts on execution status.

Lessons learned and best practices
How to utilize social media is a top-of-mind question for virtually every marketing department. Serving customers in multiple languages presents an added challenge, but it need not diminish your social media end goals.

  • Identify what you're trying to achieve: Communicating in the customer's language can be a cost-effective way of building consumer loyalty and growing revenue, but determining the best course of action starts by knowing what business problem you're trying to solve. If the dialogue you establish doesn't remain focused on a particular objective, the information you receive in return likely won't address your needs.

  • Understand your audience: Carefully considering who the audiences are and what they need to get out of the forums, blogs, and wikis enables you to plan accordingly for translation where needed. Indeed, not everything requires translation; there is a point where you have to draw the line. The best approach is to address each component individually.

  • Address the needs of the major players: What groups should be consulted in the development of content, and from whom should content be delivered to the community? Identify these early in the process to ensure you have buy-in from all the right stakeholders and necessary resources committed to the task. A social media program, in any language, can't be successful if it isn't consistently updated.

  • Establish a feedback loop: People engage in social media platforms because they offer an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Provide an opportunity for them to see that their efforts have not been wasted.

Craig Brown is senior manager, online communities and social media strategy, and Jeff Gluck is senior manager, marketing communications, at MTS Allstream.

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