Addressing localization challenges with headless content management

To serve regional markets, global enterprises need content management capabilities that support a range of localization processes. The wrong CMS will limit how they can approach localization, hindering their success in addressing diverse localization scenarios. 

Michael AndrewsPublished on Oct 1, 2020

A headless content management approach offers distinct advantages over less agile “monolithic” CMSs when it comes to localization. It provides a flexible platform that can address constantly evolving localization requirements.

Why localization keeps growing in importance

Customers rely on online content more than ever, and they are paying more attention to how well this content matches their local context. They expect the content they access to be tailored to their specific locales. Generic international versions of content are often no longer sufficient. 

Global enterprises produce an extensive range of content requiring translation and localization: product information and documentation, service procedures and support content, marketing collateral, and e-learning materials, among other things. Many organizations adopt a task-driven approach to translating websites, apps, or social media posts. They haven’t developed a comprehensive enterprise-wide approach to manage and coordinate all their content localization requirements. When they focus on specific projects such as a new website, they can get locked into specific solutions that aren’t flexible enough to handle all their content or able to address future needs. 

Content keeps growing in volume and diversity, covering more formats and channels. These trends are driving the need to be smarter with how to handle multilingual and regionally-specific content. 

A growing range of options for localization take advantage of the expanding capabilities of IT microservices and AI. These options include computer-assisted translation (CAT), machine translation (MT), and cloud-hosted translation management systems (TMS). Enterprises can choose the right mix of human and machine involvement in the localization process to optimize speed, costs, and oversight relating to different kinds of content.

Synchronizing strategy and process in content localization

Global enterprises should have a strategy to guide their localization priorities and the processes and capabilities to execute them. They need to deliver the best content localization experience as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. 

Choosing the most appropriate approach will depend on the nature of the content and the locales where that content is needed. Many enterprises find they can achieve the biggest impact by following a hybrid strategy, drawing on a range of tactics to maximize their overall effectiveness across the globe. 

Source content can be transformed in three ways:

  1. Direct translation into other languages
  2. Localization - adjusting wording, graphics, and information so that they are customized to specific markets
  3. Transcreation - rewriting or recreating parts to be so idiomatic that it seems as if the source content was originally created in the target locale

On a strategic level, enterprises need an approach that prioritizes content according to how the content needs to be transformed. Generally speaking, the most business-critical or sensitive content will require more extensive human review to be appropriately tailored to a specific locale. 

Content varies in how much of it is repeated or unique. It can be structured into parts so that only those that change will need a fresh translation. If certain phrases are used widely, the localization process should incorporate “translation memory” so that these phrases are quickly and consistently rendered into the target language. 

Some content that’s shared with global audiences will be ephemeral. Translation speed becomes especially important because the content has a short lifespan. Machine translation, using either statistical or neural techniques, can be an effective approach when content needs translation on-demand. 

Widely used content requires planning so that the source material can be readily transformed into localized variants. This planning includes structuring the content to support the different scenarios of use (including related image and media assets), accounting for the anticipated need to revise parts of the content over time.

Managing localization capabilities across the enterprise

Localization processes are becoming more varied to address different speed, cost, and oversight requirements. When considering how to manage content requiring translation or localization, enterprises should adopt an approach that provides for and preserves flexibility. Not only are requirements in various markets and regions different, but requirements within markets can change over time as well. 

Global enterprises often find a major area of difference among locales is their localization capabilities maturity. While corporate headquarters has strong capabilities for producing and managing globally available content, regional or national subsidiaries won’t necessarily match these capabilities. Content teams based in larger national markets may have stronger skills and resources than staff in smaller ones. Regional headquarters may assume responsibilities for producing some local content that’s used in several locales that share common characteristics such as language, regulatory requirements, product branding, or cultural dimensions. These variations introduce challenges for how to delegate localization responsibilities and tasks. Localization tasks must be managed according to what needs doing as well as what teams or services are best able to execute them. Different administrative levels of the enterprise need oversight of how content is shared and adapted for specific locales.

In many global enterprises, both internal teams and external partners will localize the content. For example, in larger markets, the enterprise's content staff will produce local content, but in other markets, enterprises need to translate or adapt content produced elsewhere. Their CMS should support both approaches. In cases where enterprises rely on external services, those services may not require access to the enterpriseʼs CMS. Yet the CMS managing the source content must be able to exchange the content-to-localize with external services so it can easily accept items to localize and be able to submit them back into the source CMS for publication without manual involvement.

Understanding CMS capabilities that support localization

Localization entails creating content variants and adapting source content to specific circumstances. Enterprises should expect their CMS to offer the following features:

  1. Ability to manage language and locale variants based on a language and localization model
  2. Support for content structuring via a content model
  3. Governance support for multiple teams and countries to manage global and locale-specific content
  4. Ability to extend workflow and permissions to handle localization tasks
  5. Ability to integrate with third-party localization tools and services

The CMS should enable enterprises to specify regional and language variants for content items and assets. It should have a language and localization model that governs the relationships between source content and different variants. Such a model indicates a hierarchy for translations and locales that allow enterprises to indicate “fallback” languages or locales that are used when no special variant is necessary. Many CMSs will only support the indication of languages for web pages, rather than the constituent parts used on a page or within an app. The language and localization model simplifies localization management. It enables enterprises to identify what specific content items and assets require unique localization instead of forcing the entire body of content to be managed collectively for each locale variant. 

The CMS’s language and locale model not only guides how to plan and manage the production of content variants but also to manage how items are delivered to audiences in different locales. Enterprises can specify which variant to display when available. The hierarchy indicates what fallback to display, which depends on the availability of variants. The CMS should be able to address different fallback scenarios concurrently, where the enterprise can set rules for the priority ordering of different versions. For example, to address a specific geolocation scenario, the enterprise could rank order the display of three variants of a given content item as follows:

  1. If available, display the Belgian Dutch locale variant
  2. If the Belgian Dutch version not available, display the Dutch language version
  3. If the Dutch language version not available, display the English language version

A CMS that supports structured content with a content model will improve localization agility and maturity. The content model works in conjunction with the language and localization model to define how to manage how parts of the content get localized. Structuring content into modules will allow enterprises to reuse content items so they can minimize translation costs. If a topic needs revision or has additional content added, they only need to specify for localization the parts that have changed. The parts that don’t change don’t need localization review. This will save both money and time.

The importance of governance capabilities

The source CMS should support granular governance, allowing the sharing of content between business units but also enabling flexibility and control over how content is used in specific locales. Because traditional monolithic CMSs are website-focused, decisions about what content gets localized and how it’s used can be difficult to separate from the source website’s templating that controls how that content is organized and presented. Such CMSs require locales to exactly clone the source website in all aspects—not only the content itself. This approach is unable to accommodate the unique needs of different markets that may prefer distinct channels or experiences. A single website template won’t necessarily work effectively everywhere. While in the headquarters locale a single comprehensive website might be most appropriate, in other locales several focused microsites or mobile apps might be better delivery choices. Global enterprises need the flexibility to control what content is available for specific countries or regions to localize without dictating a web template that might not be ideal for that locale.

Global content governance also depends on the CMS’s collaboration and workflow capabilities. People in different roles need to work together on content items, whether writing, editing, or commenting and reviewing. The workflows associated with the content production process need to be specified so that the right people are involved and have ready access to the content items they need to see. In cases where content is shared across business units, the CMS needs to be able to define permissions relating to the shared content. 

Enterprises will want to empower teams that have the skills and resources to take ownership of local content themselves, while ensuring that local teams or vendors that need oversight will be subject to more restricted rights. CMS permissions settings work in concert with the content model, the translation and localization model, and the broader governance of the content’s organization into projects and collections. The CMS should be able to specify what tasks teams can perform according to the content type, the specific content elements (such as legal disclaimers), access rights to items and assets, and user roles and their authority to perform actions. This control will ensure no content localization deviates from brand guidelines, corporate policy, or compliance with laws and regulations.

Addressing global markets also involves embracing greater diversity in platforms and channels. The CMS should support omnichannel content delivery, not just websites. Global enterprises should be able to localize individual items and assets, not only complete webpages, since these items and assets may be needed on different platforms. For example, source videos may need captions or voiceovers to be ready for various locales. 

Localization flexibility through integration capabilities

Localization has become too multifaceted for any single solution to address all scenarios adequately. Enterprises need the flexibility to integrate “best-of-breed” tools and services with their source CMS. 

Integration capabilities such as APIs are a core feature of more sophisticated headless CMSs. They allow enterprises to extend the capabilities of their CMS to support localization tasks. They provide a far wider range of choices of tools, partners, and technical approaches than offered by a packaged “suite” solution that’s sold by a CMS vendor and that’s tightly coupled to their product. When using a service or tool integration with a headless CMS, the translation and localization staff or partners can be part of the enterprise’s workflow, even when they don’t need to be direct users of the CMS.

When the CMS can deal with localization scenarios flexibly, enterprises can choose different services for specific regions or kinds of content to fit what’s required. For example, some content may be localized by in-house teams, utilizing machine translation for some items, and computer-assisted translation for others. These capabilities can be integrated within the CMS. Other content may be outsourced to an external service that uses a TMS that’s integrated with the enterprise’s CMS.

Whether localization tasks are performed in-house or are outsourced, an API-ready CMS can support specialized workflows for allocating translation and localization work and verifying its accuracy.

Advantages of an API-led headless CMS for content localization

To execute localization at scale, many people need to contribute to the creation, translation, and adaption of content—in different locations and across various teams. Coordination and collaboration are paramount, otherwise content operations will become chaotic, resulting in delays and inconsistency. Localization capabilities must support distributed work while supporting centralized oversight. Without that balance, localization operations wonʼt be effective.

API-enabled localization tools and services open up many possibilities—but they don’t by themselves solve the larger governance challenges. That’s where having the right headless CMS comes into play. It provides both flexibility and oversight, enabling the enterprise adapt their localization strategy and processes to their specific needs.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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