A Behind-the-Scenes Look at TikTok Localization Strategy

TikTok, a hot short video app by ByteDance, is well known as a cultural phenomenon. In this article we will dive into something that has received little attention: how the TikTok team balances its global presence in 150 countries with agile product development.

 
First off, let us give you a short intro and throw in some stats.

TikTok was launched internationally in 2017, and it quickly started gaining popularity. In the span of a few short years the app has seen explosive growth, from 800+ million downloads in 2018 to a whopping 2.6 billion downloads by January 2021. 

Here are three factors that have contributed to TikTok’s mind-blowing popularity: 

  • A smart marketing strategy involving influencers and exciting ‘hashtag challenges’
  • Keeping up with the trends AND being a trend-setter
  • Localization strategy (TikTok is available in 75 languages across 150 countries).

 

Let’s talk about how the TikTok localization workflow is set up. As one of TikTok’s localization vendors, here at Alconost we have the inside story.

The founder’s vision: ‘Going global is a must’

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming has always had a global vision for his company.

“China is home to only one fifth of the world’s internet users. Going global is a must,” Zhang Yiming told KrAsia in an interview.

These global ambitions were backed up by cutting-edge technology. One of the first ByteDance’s products, the popular news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, employs AI-based recommendation algorithms.The app was successfully expanded to overseas markets, and this experience along with the app’s technology were employed in other ByteDance products.

Why localize TikTok into 75 languages?

Since the TikTok interface is easy to navigate, you might think localization wouldn’t be all that critical—especially not into 75 languages. But the TikTok team strives for a seamless user experience, and localization is an important part of this. 

TikTok has been working with Alconost since early 2018. Besides common languages like German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, our translation languages include Afrikaans, Tagalog, and others. 

Why include less common languages? Our previous case studies have shown that successful mobile apps usually go with several dozen languages in order to cover as wide an audience as possible, and it pays off.

By 2019, TikTok and Alconost had streamlined the translation workflow, and multinational localization was in full swing.

In February 2019 TikTok soared from ranking below 100th place to join the top 20 most downloaded apps in the world (see the spike in growth on the chart), and has shown steady growth ever since.

Spike in TikTok’s growth on Google Play starting in February 2019 (source: Apptrace)

Now let’s take a look at how the TikTok team manages continuous delivery and localization.

Agile localization customized to TikTok’s needs

TikTok’s agile workflow with its frequent updates calls for continuous localization. Over the past two years of collaboration, the TikTok localization team and Alconost have defined a process that ensures swift delivery while also meeting standards for quality.

New strings for translation arrive twice a week under tight deadlines. We work on Crowdin, our favorite localization platform, which allows automatic uploading and exporting of strings. 

Constant interface updates require sharing a lot of context, which is easy on Crowdin: clients can specify the context for a standalone string, add screenshots to it, and communicate with linguists in a chat.

The TikTok localization team and Alconost’s project manager are constantly in touch, so as to swiftly resolve any questions and handle urgent translations when they arise.

As high-quality localization is very important to TikTok, all translations undergo proofreading before the team rolls out a new update. Linguists also perform monthly QA to ensure quality.

With a huge volume of text (150K+ words) and frequent updates, consistency is essential. Glossaries and translation memories are important tools for this, and we maintain both for this ongoing project.

“As we roll out updates about once a week, we have very tight deadlines. With our high requirements for localization quality, the vendors have to be at top performance. Sometimes we even need a 24-hour turnaround time, and we have been pleased with Alconost’s ability to meet our deadlines and quality requirements.”

- Dong Ming, head of localization at TikTok

 

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