What do successful global brands have in common? At their core, they see foreign markets as an opportunity, and they choose to invest in their global growth. They understand that, in today’s economy, being internationally competitive isn’t just a nice-to-have. Especially in the tech sector, where competitors can arise from anywhere in the world, global readiness has become crucial for long-term viability.
According to the latest data, only 6.9% of the world’s five billion Internet users are based in North America – meaning the U.S., Canada and Mexico, combined. So from a North American perspective, “the rest of the world” now represents more than 93% of all Internet users. For tech companies, whose products or services are delivered (partly or entirely) by digital means, it just makes good business sense to think of international users from the get-go, and to be as global-ready as possible.
So what does global readiness mean?
1 – Speaking the language of your international buyer
For starters, you need to think about the local language of the people you’re looking to engage with. English speakers – including people who speak English as a second language – only make up 17% of the total global population. This means that 83% of all the people on the planet neither speak nor read English – and given demographic trends, that percentage will only keep growing.
So why is it that, according to the latest data from W3Techs, English still accounts for 62.5% of all the website content out there? In fact, that percentage has increased slightly year over year. There are historic reasons for the disproportionate amount of English-language content online, of course. But in 2022 and beyond, as Internet penetration rates plateau in North America and Europe (while still growing in regions like Asia, Africa, and Latin America), global-minded brands need to carefully consider: where in the world are their potential buyers? Which language(s) do those buyers prefer to interact in? And what kinds of content gaps currently exist for those buyers?
Slide #61 of DataReportal’s April 2022 report exposes some of the most obvious language gaps in terms of “share of website content” versus “share of speakers globally”: Chinese (1.4% vs 18.9%), Arabic (1.2% vs 4.9%), Spanish (3.6% vs 6.9%), Portuguese (0.7% vs 3.3%), Indonesian (0.7% vs 2.5%), French (2.8% vs 3.4%), Korean (0.5% vs 1.0%), and Thai (0.5% vs 0.8%).
Yet we know that buyers have a preference for local-language content.
Survey after survey has shown that, especially when making purchasing decisions, people prefer to consume content in their native language, even if they have a good level of English. Interestingly, this principle seems to apply just as much in a B2B context as in B2C, perhaps even more so.
So for any company getting ready to expand into a new international market, it’s important to understand what the preferred language of the local target buyers is, and to set aside an adequate budget for professional translation services. (No, sorry, running your content through Google Translate is not option. Not unless you’re looking to damage your brand.)
At the end of the day, language is an accessibility issue. If you want to be understood by buyers in non-English-speaking markets, you need to communicate with them in their preferred language. The good news is: if you work with the right language services provider (LSP), the money you’ll be spending on professional translation will turn out to be an investment, allowing you to reach new buyers and generate new revenues.
2 – Making sure your software is usable in other markets
Translation may be the most obvious part of what’s involved in going global. But for tech companies, another, often misunderstood requirement is the proper internationalization (i18n) of their software or app.
For a digital product to be global-ready, the code itself must be able to accommodate non-Latin character sets, such as in Japanese, Korean, Indic, Chinese, Greek, and Ukrainian. It also must be able to display right-to-left writing systems, like in Hebrew and Arabic. And it must accommodate the different conventions around time-and-date displays, mailing-address and telephone-number formats, and units of measurement. Finally, for people to be able to make an online purchase, prices need to be displayed in their local currency and payable via locally-preferred payment methods, and data collection needs to abide by local regulations.
Internationalizing an app or software is, in fact, a pre-requisite to translating its linguistic content in an efficient, cost-effective way. The earlier i18n happens in the product development process, the better – otherwise, the code will have to be internationalized retroactively. So internationalizing the code properly from the start saves companies significant time and expense down the road. In practice, though, that kind of foresight is rare. Most developers are not trained in i18n best practices. That’s why companies often end up dealing with i18n at the last minute, with the help of external i18n specialists, just before their first international launch. Not an ideal situation, but unavoidable at that point, if the product is meant to support global user requirements.
3 – Putting yourself in your international buyer’s shoes
Last but not least, successful global brands understand that for each different market, their content needs to be adapted for the local cultural context. Some regions of the world are more conservative than others. Some countries use higher levels of formality. Symbols, colours and even numbers can have very different connotations in different cultures. Humour is also very culturally dependent. In short, content adaptation needs to go beyond just translating words.
Your international buyers expect to be just as engaged by your content as your domestic buyers do. They are looking for content that is relevant and meaningful to them, in their location and in their context. Of course, they need to be able to understand the words. But they should also feel that the content was created for them, with them in mind – not for someone else, somewhere else.
That’s where localization comes in.
Think of localization (or L10n) as the secret sauce that helps your international content convert. It’s a special combination of ingredients that gives your message the right local flavour, making it appealing to the palate of your buyers in a particular region. Without it, even professional translations may simply fall flat, cause unintended laughter, or leave a bad taste in the buyer’s mouth. Don’t assume that what worked in your home market will work elsewhere. You might love hot salsa with your food, but others might prefer something less spicy. What’s appropriate in one culture can seem over-the-top in another. Do your research and really get to know the market you’re looking to enter.
Although translation and localization often come as a package, even markets that share the same language as your home market, at least on the surface, benefit from localization efforts. You don’t even need to cross an ocean to find differences in spelling, vocabulary, and cultural references: look no further than Canadian English versus American English. Of course, most English speakers can come up with words (like ‘jumper’ or ‘trainer’) that mean one thing in the U.S. and quite another in the U.K. Add to dialectal variations the issue of socio-cultural context, and it becomes obvious why content needs to be localized, even between English-speaking markets. And similar kinds of differences exist between the dialects of other major world languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, and Chinese.
So how can you make sure that your content is flavoured with the right seasonings for your target buyers? By working with localization professionals, who have a deep, first-hand knowledge of the target culture, and who are familiar with local tastes and trends. This usually means hiring someone who is based in that region, who can evaluate your message from a local point of view, and adapt the message to be as effective there as possible. In the case of marketing content, this could even mean recreating the content from scratch, using a marketing brief instead of an original source text. So you may find yourself working with in-country, native-speaking copywriters.
Whether you invest in original content creation or stick to translating your existing content, do plan to work with an international SEO specialist as well, someone who knows how to do keyword research for your target market. Running your original keywords through Google Translate isn’t going to cut it: people in different markets search for things in different ways. So local keyword research is essential if you want your international target buyers to find your content online.
And speaking of online content: don’t forget to create a user-friendly website experience for your international visitors. They should be able to navigate your site and find what they’re looking for just as effortlessly as your domestic visitors. So make sure you understand current website globalization best practices, and seek the assistance of a web globalization expert, if you don’t have one in-house.
As your company plans to expand into a foreign market, remember: never make assumptions. Inevitably, international buyers will be different from the buyers in your home market in various ways: how they communicate and via what channels, their tastes in content, how they search online, their cultural norms, their world view, how they make purchasing decisions, how they prefer to pay, their expectations around customer service, etc. You just don’t know what you don’t know. The only thing you can bet on is that you have blind spots.
If you want to attract, engage and retain international buyers, you have to be willing to learn everything you can about them, and serve them at the same level as your domestic buyers. Don’t make your international buyers feel “second-tier”. As always in marketing, it really boils down to this: know your customer. Getting to know your international buyers starts with market research. Creating content that will engage and delight them requires specialized help. You may not have a Localization team in-house yet, but there are lots of experts out there who’ll be happy to help you get started on your global journey. Assuming you’ve already made a solid business case for international expansion, the investment you’ll make to adapt your content – through translation, localization and (for digital products) internationalization – will certainly pay off.
President & Chief Strategist at Verbaccino Inc.
An earlier version of this article was published in April 2022 via the ToFu newsletter on Substack. ToFu is an online community for climate tech marketers, of which Verbaccino Inc. is a founding member.