Localization Leaders
Localization Leaders

Localization Leaders: Meet AliExpress’ Anna Potapova

We are excited to share our latest Localization Leader interview with Anna Potapova, Content Strategy Team Leader at AliExpress. AliExpress is a business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce platform enabling global consumers to buy directly from manufacturers and distributors in China and around the world. In addition to the global English-language version, AliExpress is available in 17 other languages. 

Enjoy our discussion with Anna where she shared the most effective ways to structure a localization team, tips for establishing clear communications with global colleagues, how to approach measuring the impact of localization, and much more. 

Read the full interview, or watch the videocast below:

Can you start by telling us a little bit about your career path and how you ended up in your current position as Content Strategy Team Leader at AliExpress?

I am originally from Russia, but I’ve been living in China for the last eleven years. I have a background in art management and Chinese studies. For a while, I worked as a journalist and translator, introducing Russian audiences to cultural events and exhibitions here in China and helping Chinese brands and manufacturers collaborate with their Russian partners. 

Eventually, I landed this role with AliExpress, originally as a junior Russian copywriter and a localization specialist. Eventually, I became interested in project management, and a few years later, I found myself managing content creation and localization for some of our biggest sales.

I then gained an interest in content design, which is a new subdiscipline of product design where we use words to design accessible, useful, and valuable business experiences for our customers. From there, I became a team leader and that’s my story.  

So based on your industry experience, what do you think is the best way for global companies to set up their localization teams? 

I’m risking delivering a hot take here, but having experience in writing and as a localization specialist, I’m going to say that the best localization is no localization. I’d like to highlight this point by telling you about one of the cleverest experiments I’ve ever heard of, which I believe was presented at LocWorld in 2019 by Giulia Tarditi

Giulia had this wonderful presentation called “Goodbye Source Text.” She created two landing pages for the product that she was working on at the time. On one landing page, you had your standard English source text translated into the target language. For the second version of the page, she asked a creative copywriter of the target language to take the same brief that the English writer received for the landing page and create another landing page (landing page number two) based on the understanding of the same brief. And what do you know? Landing page number two, written from scratch in the target language, performed better and showed more conversions and leads than the page that was translated. So my take is that the best localization is no localization. 

You need local content management and you need a serious approach when you create content. If you look at the companies operating in Europe or North America, they often have a content team creating content and deciding which expressions are most effective in reaching business goals and addressing user needs. They create user research, hold workshops, join sprints together with designers, and come up with very polished copy that drives business results. Why aren’t we doing that for other languages? I think we should. It may not be the cheapest way to do localization but if you’re asking me for the best approach, I think that’s the best approach. 

If you want all your important languages to be good, you should treat them all as if they were a source language. 

So I would say you probably need an in-house team of content designers with language skills and language background. They would work on style guides, own terminology, own content for the core projects and products of your company, and manage vendors or contractors working on day-to-day translation tasks. That’s how I envision it. This way, they can work closely with their partners and the product to see how their work actually impacts these metrics.

Localization employees can sometimes struggle to gain budget and recognition of localization’s importance. Do you have any tips for localization managers who are looking to demonstrate the value of localization?

Wow, thank you so much for this question. First of all, I think it’s very important to understand the goals, values, and challenges of the organization you’re working for because it’s very different from company to company.

A small business that aims to sell crafted items globally would have different needs and different ways to measure the quality of localization. For example, they might look at whether there are any differences in conversion between English and Spanish, for example. That’s one dimension. 

In other industries, you can look at different metrics. For example, in games, if you mistranslate or if your source text is inconsistent, then it can cause misunderstandings for the gamer, right? For example, in Chinese, you have “书” which can mean both book and scroll. So if mistranslated and you used the word “scroll” when you should have used the word “book,” then the gamer won’t be able to complete the quest because they were looking for the wrong object. That’s a whole different story, right?

That’s how bad localization breaks experience. We should start by looking for places where bad localization breaks your product and makes your business impossible.

If your player cannot complete the quest because of a language issue, then that’s something you should be looking at. If on a shopping journey, for example, you have places where conversion rates are significantly different between different languages, then that’s your pain point. 

Once you identify those pain points, you can start talking to your stakeholders and your team about them. You can say, “Hey, guys, if only we could improve this and that, business metrics would be different.”

First, you need to understand what is valuable to your organization so that you can explain how better localization can help your colleagues achieve their goals in terms they’ll understand. We are not here to evangelize for good content and good localization for the sake of good localization.

Good localization is only good when it creates value for people who work with you. 

Once you can demonstrate the value, then you’ll need to create long-term strategies for how this value will be replicated. You need to be speaking the same language as your business. Sometimes that means changing the way your company looks at and evaluates language. If you have very general ways to measure language, for example, just one question in a net promoter score survey, then it’s very hard to give your management a clear decision on what is good and what is bad and what needs to be improved. Can you try something else? 

If you see that the current ways you use to measure your work don’t seem to resonate with your team and leaders, then try something else. You have more holistic ways to measure the quality of localization, like error counting metrics. 

Experiment, see what works, and of course, tie your data to the original business goals and the values of the people who work with you.

I love that advice, thank you! As the content strategy leader of a large global company like AliExpress, how do you optimize global team communication when working with people in different cultures and time zones? Do you have any tips?

I think that’s a very interesting topic, especially for us working in a multicultural environment. We need to make sure that we are all on the same page because there are different communication standards in every culture. 

For example, if you are late for your meeting in the U.S., that is considered very rude and disrespectful. You should be there on time, sometimes even earlier than on time, five minutes before it starts. In other cultures like India and China, to name a few, things can take a bit of time and people get carried away with their projects, ideas, or topics they’re discussing in the moment. So for them, it feels right to first finish what you’re doing and then go to your meeting and nobody gets offended when the meeting starts 15 minutes later. 

All these little habits, cultural traits, and communication standards work really well in their local environments where people understand exactly how things work. But if you come to China from the U.S. and you find out that your meeting is running 20 minutes late for no apparent reason, then that can be very frustrating and hard to work with. 

So, I think what is important here is to set very clear standards for communication in the particular team that you’re working for, even if you’re not necessarily the manager of the team. If you’re not a manager, you can still bring it up to your manager and come up with an idea and say, “Hey, maybe we can create some aligned standards. Yes, it’s okay to be late for a meeting in India, but it’s not okay to be late for a meeting in U.S.”

For example, how about we decide that five minutes is the maximum amount of time you can be late for a meeting and we all agree to that? All of us, the whole team. We meet in the middle and we set this aligned standard for everybody which we all commit to. Our manager, who is also on board, will evaluate us and talk to us according to the standard. 

After we set up our aligned standard, we need to use low-context communication. What do I mean by low-context communication? This term comes from Erica Meyer’s book Culture Map, and it refers to cultures that place the responsibility of a message being understood on the speaker.

So if I’m talking to you right now, it’s my responsibility to make my message clear. It’s my responsibility to make sure that you understand all the details of what I’m saying, so I need to be very explicit. For example, if we were to discuss a localization project together and I was your client, then I would send you a message saying, “Hey, Corinne, we met last week to discuss my project XYZ. I sent you the requirements. Can I see the quote we agreed on last week?”

I would give you a context, explain who I am, what we did together, and what I expect you to do. This is low-context communication. I give you the context for free, no charges.

If we’re talking about high-context communication, it means that a huge chunk of the message is just implied. Let’s take the same situation of me being your client and asking you for quotations, but I’m Chinese this time. I would say, “Hi, how are you doing?” And I would slowly, slowly get to my question, and I would expect you to remember the context. For example, “Hi, how are you?” can be followed by, “Hey, how’s my request?” This implies that you remember the meeting with me, what we discussed, that you took notes, and that you’re ready to shoot answers straight to me.

As you can see, if you have different people working from different countries across different time zones, you really need to use low-context communication. 

We cannot afford to look for hidden meanings because we all come from different places and the way we decrypt messages is just so dramatically different. So let’s just not do that. Let’s just stay simple and stay clear. Some people might argue that we’ll lose something in the communication which can be partially true, but at the same time, you get this high efficiency of your communication, which is a legit trade-off in my opinion. 

Once you have an aligned standard with your team and you’ve established low-context communication where everybody is direct and upfront with their messages, then you should look at tools and processes. It’s very hard to run a global team where all the knowledge is stored in people’s heads and there are no standard operating procedures. You need clear processes and ways for people to plug into this workflow, regardless of which time zone they are in.

That’s great advice. Do you have tips for global brands that want to build a localization team for the first time? 

I would say that in the early stages, it’s more about quality than quantity. So even if you don’t have the budget or means to hire a localization team, you should at least invest in one senior specialist who has experience with building processes and the whole logic of localization. I think that would be a better investment. Yes, you can get some interns or hire freelancers, but it will not be a good long-term investment. 

You can get things done cheaply and quickly, but localization is something that you need a solid foundation for. 

Otherwise, every new product, every new page, and every new piece of content that you localize will create more and more problems and extra challenges for future localization. So I’d say invest in setting a solid foundation. Invest in people who know how to use computer-aided translation tools. Invest in people who have experience. Invest in people who have connections, maybe with agencies, and can give you solid advice on what to do for your particular case.

If you don’t even feel comfortable hiring somebody like that on the spot, that’s fine. You can even ask for consultancy. You can ask a solid localization specialist with experience in the area and business that you are working for to give you some advice and an understanding of how things work in general. One of the biggest problems for many companies is that they try to do localization without knowledge of how localization works. They try to solve it on a case-by-case basis. Let’s do it first, and we’ll figure it out later. 

But the later you figure it out, the more legacy issues you have and the more translation debt you have. So it’s very dangerous to kind of push this conversation away and look for short-term solutions.

I’d say invest in long-term solutions depending on the budget and resources you have – either hire a consultant for a few conversations or hire somebody to oversee the whole process long-term. I think that would be a better investment than just solving issues on an ad hoc basis. You want to get it right the first time and not pay for all the mistakes later.

That’s brilliant! Thank you, Anna. Let’s move on to our rapid-fire questions. I always like to start by asking what is your favorite language?

That’s a very tricky question. I speak Russian, Chinese, and English, and I can read Ukrainian but I’m not very good at speaking. I think at this point I would say my favorite language is English because it has helped me connect with so many people from all over the world. I also just appreciate its simplicity compared to, say, Chinese. I just love English because it allows me to connect, share, and make friends with people that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

What’s your favorite place that you’ve ever traveled to?

Tricky. It’s probably going to sound a little bit cliché, but I really love London. I’ve been there twice, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful city with very vibrant life. A lot of events happening and a lot of great people live there. I love London, and I’m looking forward to going there again maybe this year.

And what’s your favorite localization tool?

This is going to sound a little bit old-fashioned, but hear me out. I really like OmegaT. I know it’s simple and basic, but that’s where it all started for me. So there’s still a big warm place for OmegaT in my heart. Even now for my personal projects, I use it every once in a while when needed. Just very nostalgic. 

Amazing, and what’s the best localization advice you’ve ever received?

The best localization advice that really changed my approach to localization is that you should tie your localization efforts with business goals and metrics and find a way to talk about localization in terms that are clear and valuable for your partners and customers.

Great, and what’s your localization nightmare?

A decentralized localization process in a big organization where every team creates their own content and has their own localization budget and vendors. I wake up at night in a cold sweat just thinking about that.

Yeah, that does not sound good. And who is your localization role model?

I mentioned her today already but it’s Giulia Tarditi. I think her approach to language and localization is just brilliant and amazing, and I’m a huge fan of her work. 

Amazing, and which brand would you say is your localization crush?

I really like Burger King because they know their markets, they know how to talk to people in different countries, and they know where to be edgy and aggressive and take risks and where to tone it down. So I really appreciate that, I appreciate good transcreation. I’m a big fan of good transcreation, and I think they do it really well. They adapt well to different cultures.

Before we wrap things up, are there any localization initiatives that you have coming up that we should keep our eyes out for?

Together with my friend and colleague Arnaud Frattini, we are building a content design community here in China. We see a lot of interest from localization specialists, so feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn and I can add you to our WeChat group if you’re based in China.

We have monthly meetups with sharings that have to do with content design and also localization. If you want to understand more about what’s happening here and how content and localization can work better together, you’re very welcome, and I would love to see you at our next meetup.

That sounds awesome, Anna. Thank you so much again for taking the time to share your perspective with us and for all your localization advice. It was really great speaking with you.

author post

Corinne Sharabi

Corinne is the Social Media and Content Lead at BLEND. She is dedicated to keeping global business professionals up to date on all things localization, translation, language and culture.


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