“Why I Won’t Work For You.”

That sounds like an attention grabbing blog post headline, but I’ve found myself saying those words upfront to potential clients. In fact, I turned away work more than once in 2012, because neither the client nor the culture were in my backyard. Sounds a bit disheartening, backward almost, in the age of barrier-breaking technology, no? Let me explain.

Yes, the Internet opens up the world. It’s enabled me to crash time zones and work with people around the world. I’d be unemployed–or at the very least, severely underemployed–without the ability to work from the nearest wifi hotspot. But just because I can get online, and speak your language, doesn’t automatically make me the best communications professional for you.

For instance, I got a question the other day, about SEO for a US-based website that attracts Francophone traffic and eyeballs from France. It could have been an interesting project. I’d get to add more “international” to my resume! But I had several reasons to not challenge myself thusly.

To begin with, I don’t speak French.

crazy stuff

To quote many a friend, “Wuh..?” (courtesy electricnerve)

See how that’s a major problem?

But even if I did know the language, I’d have thought twice. Because I don’t know how SEO or social media function in French. Skyrock, anyone?

The Internet really isn’t about Google’s math. It’s about people–how they look for things and how they use the web. If you don’t know the people, the Google’s not going to help so much. So I wrote back to my friend saying:

Really, your client is looking for someone who:

a) Speaks French.

b) Understands how social media works in France – social media isn’t always international, because it’s very much a reflection of the culture. 

c) Can do the above two AND knows SEO. 

I can ask around, but I’m guessing your client is going to need to either find someone who does SEO in France/French Canada (not the same as someone who speaks French). 

voice of the nation

courtesy of Dipanker Dutta

And then I came across a series of articlesall from India where I was born and spent big chunks of my childhood, am familiar with the culture and the language, and in English. Both paint a picture of a communications industry that is growing exponentially, noisily, and completely changing everything. From how the consumer now sets the rules, to more fluid organizational structures in what is still a conservative and hierarchical society. From my perch on the other side of the planet, it would seem that India’s communications and social media world are where the US was 5 years ago–still coming to grips with how the media landscape is changing.

So that would make me a great pick for an Indian client, right? Because I’ve been where they are, right? Wrong. Because it’s a different country, and you really don’t know how things are going to shape up there. (Hello, changing norms across a wider socio-economic divide than the US’ urban/rural, and in several languages simultaneously!)

To quote an old friend, Paarul Chand, founder of Bright Lite Communications and a media professional in her own right:

While India may be where the US was five years ago, its not going to stay there much longer. It will get to the growth point much faster than the US itself did. While you were the pioneers, India is growing up in a flat, open information market and that makes a huge difference to the learning curve. We are seeing a live example, as you said, of growing up in a massive hurry. Even I find it tough sometimes to predict and keep pace, in spite of being here. It’s a case of “if it’s an apple tree, it automatically does not an apple pie make.”

Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t push hard to get a gig in the motherland. Apart from looking good on my list of achievements, it would be exciting to do something professional in an emergent market around folks who don’t need some things explained–Bollywood, burfis, the proper pronunciation of Basmati*. Certainly my parents would have something more immediate to brag about in their backyard. Also it would kick me out of my comfort zone, which I think everyone should do periodically. But I digress….

The point is this. Communications is more than knowing how to use the tools and speak the language. It’s about knowing your market, being able to talk to the consumer, and negotiate the marketplace enough to get their attention first and fast. So if I can’t do that, then no, I won’t work for you. Elementary, yes?

*(emphasis on the first “a”, not the second).

p.s. I’m told by my trusty Francophone babysitter that Hi5 and Skyrock died out in France after 2010 and Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, MSN, Deezer and Copain d’avant are the most famous ones. Now we know.