7 Things Your Language Company Needs To Start Doing

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I don’t usually write for companies, agencies or corporations. I write for individual learners, private people looking for a leg up in language learning or a curiosity about language in culture.But this time is different. This time I’m talking directly to you; companies in the language industry, big and small.

Some of you are amazing – the very ground you walk upon worthy of worship – others, well…

Since I began writing this blog I’ve noticed things, some major some minor, that your companies either aren’t doing correctly or aren’t doing at all that could make a big difference not only in the lives, engagement and learning success rates of your customers and clients, but also in your profits – should you be into that sort of thing.

So check out this list and consider implementing some of these strategies to help us, the learners, a little bit more.

If you’re not a business, let me know how you feel about these ideas. Do you agree that companies should focus more on some of these? What else might you request or suggest?

1. You’re not active enough on social media

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest – you need to be on all of them, and you need to be using them all regularly to engage your learners in legitimately helpful ways.

  

I know – you’re probably thinking “I already use all of those! this advice is useless!”

Hold the phone – yeah, you’ve made accounts, but I know many of you aren’t using them the way you should be.

Language learners come from all walks of life, from all over the world, and have plenty of different social media preferences. We’re active at all hours of the day and night and even though your business probably closes at 5 PM, we’re still out there learning away, looking for support, entertainment and new knowledge.

I’m not asking you to stay open 24 hours a day – that would be ridiculous – but there are dozens of social media apps and tools that allow you to stay active and engaged with your fans and clients around the clock for minimal effort.

Most of you don’t post frequently enough.

A great example of a company that does, and one I keep coming back to time and time again like a broken record – I know, sorry – is Memrise.

Memrise updates their Facebook page several times per day and actively engages with their audience. As a result (and of course as a result of having an awesome product) Memrise has managed to increase it’s social following by a huge amount – something like over 500% – in 2014. In the Spring they had around 20,000 fans – they now have over 100,000, and that number is growing at an alarming rate because they’re doing something horribly right!

By comparison Duolingo, another great free language learning product, is absolutely terrible at this. I also know their social media person isn’t reading this – they never read my stuff or return my emails.

If you see this person, tell them I said so!

But seriously; Duo updates its Facebook page once every several days, maybe? And when it does it’s almost always about them, and not especially helpful to the half million  fans they’ve amassed on the social network.

Rosetta stone (photo)Rosetta Stone does this too. They have over 2.4 million Facebook fans. Wish I could tap into that. Unlike Duo, Rosetta posts regularly, most days actually. Too bad almost every single post is self promotional.

More advice for your Facebook pages: 

  • Update several times per day, ideally. At least once per day as a minimum. Use Facebook’s integrated scheduling tool to post links, pictures, memes, questions, blog articles and anything else at nice even intervals throughout the night.
  • Don’t always post your stuff. Nobody wants to see your salesy crap, we want to be engaged. We want to know you care not only about your profits, but our quality of learning and about our entertainment and enjoyment. In fact I’d recommend that only 1 in 5 of your posts be directly about you.
 
  • Follow the rest of us, including (especially) the little guys. Part of being active on Facebook is going to mean keeping up on what the rest of the language community is saying. This is the perfect opportunity to find material to share on your page. The majority of LATG’s content is discovered and shared from fellow language enthusiast and company pages.
  • Engage with your readers. Don’t just post your stuff and hightail it out of there. Most of you bigger companies have tens of thousands of fans who obviously like your product, else they wouldn’t be there. It means a lot to the average fan to know that a big company like yours cares enough about their issues to take a moment to address them personally. Even just liking someone’s comment can lift their spirits.
Twitter:
 
  • Most Twitter best practices are going to be about the same as Facebook’s, but you need to post even more frequently. Ideally a couple times per hour. This is a lot, I know, I don’t even manage to post that often most of the time. But give it an honest attempt – at least a few times per day.
  • Integrate Twitter applications to help lighten the load. Twitter, unlike Facebook, doesn’t come with a built in scheduling tool so you need to go elsewhere for that. Twuffer is what I use. It’s pretty easy to figure out, doesn’t cost a dime, and lets you schedule your posts to keep your stuff going around the clock.
  • My favorite Twitter tool though is something called Twitterfeed. It allows me to utilize the RSS feeds from my favorite language blogs and automatically Tweets them for me every time one of them publishes new content. It’s a great way to save time and I’d recommend it to anyone using Twitter in the language industry – it’s important to engage with a global audience 24/7 and this thing does a lot of the heavy lifting for you, so long as you, you know, actually follow and read the blogs of people like me.
Google+
  • Google+ is the red-headed stepchild of the social media world, but it shouldn’t be neglected. With over half a billion users it’s definitely underrated. Most of it’s best practices will be the same though as those mentioned above.
  • If your company has a blog – and it really should, we’ll get to that in a bit – you need to utilize G+’s authorship. By having a company (and personal) accounts for your writers you are able to claim authorship over your blog and website’s updates. This will boost your search rankings on Google. Obviously if you happen to be Pimsleur, Duolingo, Memrise or Rosetta Stone, you probably don’t need higher Google rankings, but if you’re smaller – you kind of really do.
Pinterest
 
  • This one is pretty simple. Pin stuff, cool stuff, all the language related stuff you can get your hands on. It’s really hard to overdo it. It doesn’t even have to be perfectly relevant. LATG’s most popular Pinterest board, called A Celebration of World Cultures, is nothing more than a huge photo album of amazing, diverse faces from around the world. You could do one about food from around the world, art, or fashion. People will follow these boards and become acquainted with you and your brand. And it’s so easy.
  • It’s a good way to promote your own stuff. It’s okay to be a little bit more promotional here, because you can easily balance the salesiness with other content.
  • A few statistics to consider: Almost 70% of Pinterest users are female. Pinterest users have, on average, a vastly higher income than most other social media sites. 50% of users have children – great if your business targets bilingual parenting. And perhaps most relevant to businesses, Pinterest has a higher social sharing rate than Facebook, Twitter and G+ combined.
  • You can even reach out to your most dedicated fans and allow the trusted ones to post images to your boards for you – for free! If you can find a team of avid pinners willing to do this Pinterest can be a self perpetuating traffic beast churning out gobs of interest in your brand.

2. You either don’t have a blog, or you aren’t blogging correctly

 

 

It’s unfortunate just how underrated blogging remains even today.

If your business doesn’t have a related blog you really need to get one! It’s a fantastic way to engage with your learners or clients who are looking for continued resources beyond just your product.

I know what you’re thinking once again; blogging takes a ton of time and effort to do successfully. And that’s quite true, but it can also be a powerful marketing tool and a great way to once again; engage with your customers.

We, the consumers, are simply foaming at the mouth for more advice, tips, strategies, new language products and updates to old ones. If you want to keep us frothing, anticipating, and engaging with your company you need to give us some love.

Many – if not most – of your websites already have blogs, which is great!

Unfortunately almost none of you update them regularly or even remotely often enough. I can’t possibly stress enough the importance of regular updates when it comes to blogs. Your readers come to expect content, and when they don’t receive it, they will lose interest, which of course leads to a loss of engagement and potential sales.

Seriously, nobody ever updates their blogs. Not even you Memrise! You haven’t posted new content since November 13th!

Not only are blogs about engagement, but they’re also one of the best strategies for collecting email addresses. This is how you’re going to reach your biggest fans and build your reliable customer base – with email subscriptions.

However, if you aren’t posting regularly, you’re going to lose these subscribers as quickly as you gain them.

Blogs are highly share-able. People love to retweet, Facebook share, Pin or whatever else they do. This gives your company and brand more visibility.

Requirements: 
 
  • Post at least once a week. More if you think you can handle a greater frequency, but don’t commit to that if you aren’t certain you can maintain it. If you can’t manage that, at least do it once every two weeks. On the same day.
  • If your company is small, or you just don’t have the spare personnel  to write languagey stuff on a regular basis – or decent writers with anything valuable to say – you can always turn to guest posting! There are oodles of talented language bloggers out there who would love  to build some backlinks from your hugely successful websites! All you have to do is reach out. I’ll be the first to volunteer!
  • A blog is also a decent place to host reasonably relevant advertisements. Depending on your site’s traffic – and if your company is large and successful I would assume it’s decent – you could make a decent amount of supplemental income. But don’t do it if you think it would compromise your readers’ experiences in a significant way.
  • Collect email addresses! These fans want to hear from you. They took the time to opt into your mailing list so they could receive your updates, so give it to them or risk losing them. This is obviously also how you’re going to inform them of sales and updates.

 

 3. You should really get a forum

Forums aren’t dead! A forum allows you to build a community around your website and product. It’s another way to show your fans and customers that you aren’t just there to make a buck but that you genuinely care about their interest in language learning and personal development and want to create a place for them to network, chat, and interact amongst themselves..

A large forum can take a lot of work to moderate, but you can also enlist dedicated, active and trustworthy fans and community members to do some of the policing for you. They don’t need to be paid – they’ll do it because they enjoy it, or because they are independent language learning authorities.

Last I checked you can still create basic forums for free with relative ease and simply link to them from your website. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be a place where language learners can congregate, learn from and connect with one another, and reach out to your company, make suggests and provide you with valuable feedback.

Once again, a company that does a great job with this is Memrise. Not only does Memrise have a large, vibrant forum community; it also has smaller, micro-forum “discussion boards” on each and every one of its user created courses. This allows us to contact the administrators and builders of the language courses you select with suggestions feedback and of course rampant praise for their hard work.

 

4. Mobile is everything, build an app

Most bigger companies these days have apps already, which is great. It’s probably the single greatest tool there is right now when it comes to offering flexibility and ease of access to language learners – or anyone in any industry for that matter.

Mobile apps allow language learners to take their projects on the go and gives adult learners in particular the ability to make greater use of their time and fit study into their busy schedules.

It’s also a solid means by which to connect to the younger generations of prospective language learners – a demographic you really need to be emphasizing as an industry right now.

If a company does not have a companion mobile app to go with its primary product – barring a company’s primary product being an app – I am less likely to use it, and less likely to review it as favorably as I might a company that does utilize this tool.

I’m not an app designer – I actually did make an LATG app several months ago, but operating on a budget of zero meant that my “trial” period only lasted a month and that no more than 40 users were able to download it before the company wanted to start charging me. The app still exists, but you can’t really use it unless you’re one of those 39 lucky individuals. (I’m the 40th).

Anyway, my point here is that making an app can get pretty expensive – I don’t know how expensive exactly but hiring a professional programmer probably costs an arm, a leg and a small army of sacrificial virgins

But it may still prove to be well worth it.

There are certainly cheaper options (such as not making an Apple Store release), but if your company is worth its salt it can probably afford the expenses involved and will most likely reap the rewards in the long run.

If your company doesn’t have an app, I very highly recommend changing that as quickly as possible!

 

5. Offer better free trials

This is big, so pay attention.

Many language companies do in fact offer a free lesson, level, or a short period of time to prospective customers before attempting to enroll them in their paid programs or insisting that they purchase their products.

But most of these suck, a lot. 

 

Lets pick on Babbel as an example.

Anyone who visits Babbel’s website will be offered the opportunity to take the first lesson of their language of choice from the reasonably sized (though exclusively European – and Indonesian -) selection of supported languages. You’re given a choice between a “beginner” and “advanced” lesson, both of which are pretty easy.

After completing this 11 word teaser you submit your email and answer one or two easy questions to build an account. Once your account is complete you’re taken to a dashboard from which you can engage in your first real lesson.

This lesson is the most mind-numbingly simple, brutally obvious waste of time I’ve ever seen presented by a language company (sorry Babbel), and based on this “teaser” alone I would never purchase their admittedly very reasonably priced full subscription regardless of their fancy endorsement by the European Union.

It’s comprised of 11 additional words that don’t really amount to anything meaningful or particularly memorable. A free trial should actually offer something valuable, and in order to do that you need to give us a little bit more love than this.

But this isn’t meant to be a review of Babbel, and the truth is that while this may sound harsh, Babbel is far from the only company to provide a sub-par preview of their language product.

My advice for those willing to listen is to seriously make an attempt to better your prospective customers’ lives with your freebie. Commit to actually giving them something worth their time. Even if they walk away after the trial and never make a purchase – you’ll have contributed in some small way to furthering a multilingual world and chances are they weren’t going to buy anyway.

One such strategy for companies with online subscriptions such as Babbel that I would highly recommend, would be a timed trial rather than a specific set of lessons. Give new subscribers a week, maybe two weeks, or even a month if you’re feeling generous, of unlimited access to a much larger selection of your program for free. 

I know, you’re a company, a business, not a charity, and you need to make money to pay your expenses, employees, marketing, improve your product and of course make a profit. But you will make money by giving people a chance to actually come to love and appreciate what you’re offering.

But Brian, people will just recreate trial accounts over and over and take advantage!” 

…Then don’t be stupid about it! You don’t have to give trials complete access to everything, just a more rigorous, in-depth selection than 11 words so easy a jellyfish could manage.

Nobody is going to become fluent in a week with your product – if they could you’d have cornered the market and your developers would be billionaires. But a week (or two) will be sufficient to motivate learners to take as much time as possible to commit to your program, and really gives them a complete feel for your style. It’s a great way to reel them in.

It worked for World of Warcraft, it might for you too.

Some companies will have to do things differently. If your product is an app, offer the complete app for free! Cat Academy’s Cat Spanish is a good example of this.

If you need to make money with it, add additional content for in-app purchasing. This is an increasingly popular route among app designers. Once again it reels language learners in, they come to appreciate what you’re offering, and then they buy.

If your company is audio based – such as The Pimsleur Approach – you can’t really do the whole timed subscription thing.

Currently, Pimsleur offers one free lesson in whichever language you choose. This is nice, it’s actually what first convinced me to give it a shot, so clearly it works.

But I think it could work even better if more was offered. Give us the first 3-5 lessons for free. Once again, maybe people decide not to buy, but you’ve built a rapport with the global language enthusiast community. People love free, they’ll come back to you later if they were impressed and this time they will commit.

This is also great because a lot of language learners sort of tackle new languages without a real sense of purpose. We often choose without direction a new language to learn, not really knowing how well we’re going to enjoy it, or how well it will fit us. More advanced freebies will allow us to experiment a bit more and really shop around for the languages we will fall in love with.

 

 6. Offer a more custom learning experience

While it’s important to once and again review simple, introductory material, it’s really nice sometimes when I encounter a new language product; to skip ahead to something more appropriate for my proficiency level.

Duolingo does this perfectly. It offers users the opportunity to test out of each and every one of its lessons. I found this extremely useful when I started using it to learn Spanish. I’ve taken two years of Spanish in high school and I’ve been studying it off and on ever since. While I’m not advanced by any means, I’m certainly not interested in going over the same 100 elementary level words with every single product I pick up.

And I pick up a lot of products, it comes with the territory.

We’re more likely to stick with your program, and with our language projects in general, if we’re not bored to tears re-doing the most basic of the basic a thousand times over.

 

7. Your learners have to get experience speaking – to real people!


Learning a new language is more or less pointless if you’re never going to use it to communicate. Unless your only goal is the ability to read in a foreign language – which is a fair goal, but relatively rare on its own – language learners have to acquire speaking experience!

And I don’t mean just the AI speech recognition kind.

Your product, app, software, whatever, needs to give learners something to get them speaking out loud! It’s the only way to really learn a language and it’s something that most products simply don’t offer.

Some do it better than others – Rosetta Stone’s speech recognition is pretty good, despite the program’s other shortcomings. While it’s still no substitute for the real thing, it is at least something to get learners talking, even if it’s just to a barely responsive machine.

The Pimsleur Approach and programs like it such as Michel Thomas also tackle this well. In fact they’re entirely based on listening and replying. This is great – but once again it doesn’t actually connect a learner to a real speaker, native or  fellow learner, making the experience generally inauthentic.

This is sadly, going to be difficult for a lot of companies to tackle. My best advice is to incorporate, if possible, a tool into a language product, or its website (or even a forum!) that allows users to connect to one another and encourages them to take their learning outside of your program.

All language learning companies would love to think that their product or service is superior, that it offers the most features, and that the competition is just that – competition. Unfortunately I think this mindset really hurts the learner more than it helps you.

By all means, compete, improve, monopolize, but a good language learning company cares about the success of its learners, not just the success of its bank account, and that means doing what is necessary to educate.

To do this, you need a speaking component, or you need to be willing to direct your customers to a product that has one. Otherwise you’re doing them no favors.

 

Conclusion
 

I am not a businessman. This is not a business. Heck, it’s not even employment. My degree is in anthropology, I’m a TESOL educator and a language freak, a techie and obviously a bit of a critic.

By all means, don’t let me challenge your business model on the grounds of being an expert in marketing or sales. I’m sure you’ve got guys (or girls) for that already.

But what I do know is what makes a good language learning product and the company behind it. I also know more than a thing or two about building a successful blog, and creating a respectably sized, engaged social media following.

And I know what language learners are looking for because I talk to hordes of them, and because I’m one of them.

These factors – along with cost-effectiveness – are the biggest attributes that I look for when I review a product. Most of your products work. Some of them work exceptionally well. But even those that rock have room for improvement, and in some cases this improvement could be incredibly simple.

I realize that some of this may have come across as a touch harsh, and for that I apologize, but I care deeply about the success of language learners everywhere and feel that there’s room for improvement on all fronts.

If you’re a language learner, rather than a company or service provider, I apologize for what has turned out to be an enormously long-winded post that really wasn’t about you. But I’d be thrilled to have your input on this as well!

What sorts of things do you look for when selecting a new product? What things drive you away or really reel you in? Leave a comment!

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  • Good advice! Not only for language learning companies, but also for translation agencies like ours.

  • Certainly, it’s absolutely relevant to translation agencies as well.

    Some of these could be said to be best practices for any company of any kind – particularly things like blogging and reasonable social media activity. It’s a lot of work but you’ve got to do it!

    Thanks for reading!

  • tikismeekis

    hey, you hold a degree in anthropology. Me too. I’m still figuring out what to do with mine. 😛