Cost Per Word is a sacred cow of the translation world. It’s time to kill it.


Translation services have traditionally been offered on a cost-per-word basis; and there are good reasons why. It’s transparent: we all agree on what words are, and it’s clear that more words require more effort. But if we look a little deeper, it doesn’t align well with the changing world.

Charging by the word is not new. In fact, part of the reason that we think it’s outdated is that the best example of charging by the word comes from 100 years ago the telegram. Because customers hated being charged by the word, a pioneer named Nelson E Ross carefully put together a guide to all the sneaky ways to avoid word fees while still communicating effectively. 

You can read a transcript here, and it includes helpful yet courteous advice such as when you think of telegraphing someone to reply at once’, you may very well save the cost of an unnecessary word and write it, reply immediately.’”

Ross would have loved email.

The point is, the real value lies not in the individual words, but in the whole message, or even better, in the entire conversation.

Paying for Value vs. Charging for Cost 

“Don’t eat the” is 25% shorter than Don’t eat the cheesecake”, but 100% less effective. So when we’re charged by the word, we feel cheated because we are being charged for something arbitrary rather than what we actually value.

Paying for value is something we’ve all already experienced; unfortunately it’s usually called being held to ransom”. It’s why airlines can charge six times higher fares if you buy the day before you fly. They know that you value last-minute travel more highly.

But value doesn’t need to mean cost. Online, you’ve got the perfect blend of choice and frictionlessness whereby making a different choice is as simple as opening a new browser window.

Cost per exchange, not per word 

Smart and digitally savvy businesses are therefore aligning with customer value: charging in ways which respect their customer’s desired outcomes. Take your Customer Service tickets. Re-engineering a relationship around the ´cost per exchange´ is powerful. Not only does this speak the customer’s language, it aligns the translation component with the broader desired outcome a positive customer experience. Your customer service people will never be incentivised to write less in order to save money, so translation will never be an excuse for poor customer service. Everyone has the same objective a happy customer (and that’s also an easily measured ROI).

The same principle can be applied to product descriptions, subtitles or blog posts when translation is aligned with business outcomes, everyone wins. So as Unbabel endeavours to push the translation industry forward, we think the death of cost-per-word will bring Language Service Providers and their customers closer together.

When translation is embedded in your business rather than provided transactionally (a technology black box’), you will find ever more strategic uses for it; drivers for success like:

– Becoming more customer-centric: serving every customer with local nuance, despite operating globally;

– Expanding revenue streams: entering new markets quickly and seamlessly, reacting to local change effectively;

– Operationalising: doing more with less, automating repetitive work and deploying human capital where it’s most useful.

Unbabel helps companies move the needle on all these objectives, and killing cost-per-word is critical to unlocking the strategic value presented by global opportunities. 

We’d love to talk to companies who are moving towards a cost per value’ operating model. Get in touch here.



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