2017 MBA@UNC Global Immersion: New York City Day Three

MBA@UNC Global Immersions are offered four times a year as unique opportunities for students to travel to major domestic and international business destinations with their fellow classmates, participate in engaging discussions with their professors and elite industry leaders, as well as apply what they have learned to real-life problems.

NEW YORK—On January 6, 2016, Netflix expanded its service from 60 countries to 190 countries, effectively becoming a global company overnight. Providing access to its content across the world was only the beginning of globalization for Netflix, however. 

Allison Smith, senior localization quality control specialist at Netflix, taught MBA@UNC students today about Netflix’s strategy on creating localized content as the company seeks to capitalize on global markets.   

“I think because people are outside of this world, they don’t know that localization exists outside of translation,” Smith said in an interview. “It is about a holistic experience.” With nine international users subscribing to Netflix for every one domestic user, according to Smith, localization will only continue to increase in importance.

Localizing is the process of adapting content to meet the needs of a language, culture, or group. To ensure that users around the world can access content on Netflix in their “native way,” Netflix uses different fonts and visual elements, which undergo A/B tests with users, and provides translated titles and synopses of the episodes.

Smith told the class the she enters the picture “when you hit play.” Time-intensive localization assets like translated subtitles and dubbed audio are Smith’s responsibility.  

“Both of these seem fairly basic—you translate it and time the text and audio—but we actually do a ton of research on different audiences and how they like their subtitles” in terms of font and color, Smith said. They even use focus groups in countries to determine the audio style users prefer.

In the entertainment industry, the supply chain has three major players: the content creator, the fulfillment partner, and the distributor. Smith said the “least sexy part of Hollywood,” the fulfillment partner, ensures content meets technical specifications and handles all localization tasks like freelancing translators, recording in dubbing studios, and merging audio files.

As Netflix expands its original content and global reach, the company is exploring doing the fulfillment partner work in-house and completing the entire supply chain independently for original content. They’re running into “a lot of problems,” Smith said, because “no other company is localizing on this scale for this amount of content for the whole world at this level of quality.”

As David Shams, a student from Washington, D.C., who works at a construction sub-contracting company, noted, Smith’s presentation on localization is so helpful because “tens of thousands of hours” go into creating localized content.

“Netflix is changing the world in a subtle way by bringing content to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience it,” Shams said in an interview. 

With Season 1 of the talk show “Chelsea,” Netflix experimented with implementing localization in-house as they released three half-hour episodes per week. Smith designed workflows with her team to truncate the entire subtitling process to 12 hours, dramatically less than the expedited three-week estimate she received from a fulfillment partner. With technology advancements, the goal is to progress toward live streaming with immediate localization for content.

But Netflix still has a long way to go. The services that fulfillment partners provide typically require hundreds of freelancers, so one of Netflix’s first steps was to create a platform called Hermes, which provides a translator test and organizational system. By assigning an ID number to translators, Netflix can track the most effective translators, the number of translators in the industry, and data about their workforce.

In the first month alone, 500,000 people took the translator test on Hermes, far exceeding Netflix’s expectations, according to Smith. She said the tracking system will hopefully “reverse the effect of the commoditization of translators” by fueling a more competitive fulfillment industry and helping workers get fair wages.

In an interview, Shoshana Rosenberg, a student who works as an attorney at a professional services firm in New York, said she “was completely blown away” to learn about Netflix’s “high level of coordinated project management” for localization.

“The way they’re pushing their culture and transparency into every aspect of business they touch, including the translation industry, is inspiring,” Rosenberg said. “It will have impacts on so many other industries.”

Students on the digital media track at the immersion progressed from sessions with faculty from the UNC College of Arts and Sciences on Friday, to faculty from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School on Saturday, to industry leaders on Sunday. Other industry experts on day three were Jackie Gebel from No Leftovers, who presented “Passions Speak Louder Than Words: Building a Business in the Digital Age,” and Gaurang Manjrekar, founder of the blog Football Paradise, who presented “Digital Media’s Role in Elevating a Blog to a Global Phenomenon.”

Kristina Shaw, a student from New York who manages a compliance division at Goldman Sachs, highlighted how Smith’s session was a culmination of content covered during the weekend. “It really tied together the content we learned yesterday. To hear from a professor about Netflix’s business model and then to hear from someone who actually works there directly was great,” Shaw said in an interview. 

While Netflix has significant hurdles to overcome in penetrating the global market, there is no doubt localization is a crucial component of their strategy. “It is a huge part of the entertainment industry in the U.S. that people really aren’t aware of,” Smith said in an interview. “There’s a lot of room for innovation and changing the digital media landscape.”