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Overcoming language barriers: A truly global social network

Overcoming language barriers is one of the greatest challenges for any business targeting an international audience, particularly in the social space where multiple conversations are happening on multiple platforms in multiple languages all the time.

Here we talk to Jani Penttinen, founder of multilingual community Xiha about how he has developed a platform to facilitate multilingual communications and the role it can play in helping organisations to develop their international visibility.

Jani will be speaking at the International Search Summit Munich on 4 April.

For those who do not know, can you tell us a bit about Xiha?

Xiha is a three year old technology start-up focused on solving issues around languages and translation and providing speakers of different languages ways to communicate with each other. We operate our own social network www.xihalife.com, and at the start of 2011 we started selling the platform as a service to other businesses under the brand PremiumFanPage. With PFP, we provide a service where a business can operate their website in a number of languages without extra effort

All content, from static text to blogs and Twitter feeds, is translated by human professionals in near real time, so a customer in Japan will see a fully Japanese website while someone in America might be looking at an English language website. We also embed Google Translate to all content, so it is easy to communicate with visitors. This is based on what we have been doing with the Xiha community for the past three years now, and we are very happy to be able to provide the same tools for everyone.

Why did you decide develop the website?

I was living in China at the time, and there was no website that worked in Chinese and English and provided ways to mingle with the locals. I could not use the local websites as they were in Chinese and the locals did not want to use the foreign websites, which were all in English. My wife, who is Chinese, had the same problem as she was interested in learning more about other countries. She had the idea of a community where everyone could use their own language for browsing but still make friends in other countries, so together we started building the site and later started a company around it.

You have created a large global community. What has it taught you about the way users from different countries/cultures interact online? What is the most surprising thing you have learned?

First of all, people from different cultural backgrounds certainly behave different way in the online community. Members from the Nordic countries are quiet and kind of shy, while Asians are not afraid to talk to anyone and ask for help to improve their English. People from Latin America and southern Europe are very talkative and colourful.

For the most part, the Xiha community works really well. People are there because they are interested in other cultures, so they are quite tolerant of the differences in behaviour. I have also noticed that people are really OK with broken language, so nobody needs to be afraid to write even if they do not know the language very well. And as we provide the machine translation for all of the content, so we often see lively discussions where everyone is writing in their own language!

It has been a pleasant surprise to notice that people can interact even if there is no common language. Machine translation is not perfect, but then again it is usually a better option than not being able to communicate at all. Google is also doing an excellent job improving the quality of translations all the time. We get most of our traffic from international searches, from outside of the English speaking world, mostly because we have a large website with a lot of public content in dozens of languages. We have learned this to be a competitive edge – the market is way less saturated when you go outside of the English speaking countries, and the smaller the language group, the better we perform.

In your opinion, how can organisations leverage social sites like Xiha to engage with customers and boost brand awareness?

The tools we provide, both in the Xiha community and as a platform, help organisations speak with the customer despite the language barriers. The Xiha community is quite unique because it is so widely spread – one million people in over 200 countries, with no country representing over 5% of the total!

Quite often a company only has customer service in one or two languages, while they may have customers around the world. As I said before, people from different cultural backgrounds behave differently so it is very important to get a direct contact with the customers in different markets. Even if you have local sales offices, the headquarters should keep some level of contact with the customers to better understand the needs. A lot of companies already have a Facebook fan page, which is a good idea, but they are completely missing out on other languages.

At the International Search Summit, you will be talking about the role multilingual SEO played in growing Xiha around the world. If you could give just one tip to marketers running international search campaigns, what would it be?

Work with real humans, native speakers, when coming up with keywords, search phrases and content. Never attempt to shortcut by using a machine translator. It works well with human to human interactions but it will fail with search engines, for a number of reasons.

And finally, why should people attend the International Search Summit?

It has never been more important to focus on international markets. There is so much new research coming out, and the market is exploding rapidly. Performing well in this space can be a real competitive edge for any startup.
The International Search Summit is a conference series focusing exclusively on international and multilingual search and social media topics. In 2011, the event is being held alongside the Search Marketing Expo conference (SMX) in San Jose, Munich, London, Seattle and New York.

For more details on speakers, sessions and registration visit www.internationalsearchsummit.com

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Gemma Houghton

Director of Marketing at Webcertain
Gemma has worked in international search marketing for over 15 years and is Director of Marketing at Webcertain, overseeing all marketing activities for the Group. She also organises and programmes Webcertain’s International Search Summit and International Social Summit, Barcelona-based conferences focusing on international and multilingual digital marketing. Gemma holds a Professional Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, a Diploma in Management and Leadership from the Chartered Management Institute, and a BA joint honours degree in French and German.

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