If you translate your marketing Web site, will more people buy what you’re selling? What kind of financial return should your company expect when you adapt its products for sale outside your headquarters country? Is English enough for both the products and the Web sites that market them?
These questions come up in every conversation that I have with companies that sell products and services globally. “Yes,” I typically answer, “translation and product localization are extremely important when you’re doing business outside the United States. People don’t buy what they can’t understand.”
For anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the linguistic divide, this is a fairly straightforward bit of advice. For example, my two words in Mandarin, “hello” and “thank you,” didn’t get me far once I ventured beyond Beijing. Without an English-speaking guide, my meals would have been bigger surprises than they were and my appreciation of the tourist sites I visited would have been less memorable.
It’s this realization that led me and my colleagues at Common Sense Advisory in 2006 to ask over 2,400 consumers in eight non-Anglophone countries about their buying experiences at English-language websites. We weren’t surprised to find that they preferred interacting in their language, even for those respondents who spoke some English. For more expensive purchases and things that were critical to their life style – financial services like banking and insurance, for example – content in their own language was critical. I wrote about this study in November 2006 for Chief Marketer (link: http://chiefmarketer.com/disciplines/international/language_global_marketing_11032006/index.html).
The lesson we took from that study was that if you’re marketing to consumers, you have to make sure they can understand your value proposition. But how about business buyers? Are they any different? We regularly advise companies that sell high-tech products to corporate and government users. For some of these hardware, software, and networking products, the conventional wisdom is that people inside the server room or at certain managerial levels can speak enough English to use a product. Tired of making the case for translating the marketing materials and localizing product interfaces into the target country’s language, we decided it was time for another survey, this time of business buyers.
We polled 351 businesspeople in eight non-Anglophone countries about the software they buy for their firms. Our goal in undertaking this research was to test the hypothesis that companies can increase their sales by localizing their products and websites. For more details on the questions we asked, our survey sample, and who responded, see “Localization Matters.”
Why did we choose these countries to poll, as opposed to others? They constitute a representative mix of the countries for which companies frequently localize their products (France, Germany, Japan, and Spain), attractive developing markets (China and Russia), and locales for which English is often thought to be sufficient for most offerings (Sweden).
We asked our respondents about eight factors in the buying cycle where localization plays a role. The initial decision to purchase a given product over another begins with marketing literature and technical specifications. Usability enters the equation, with both user interface and product documentation. Technical support rounds out the buying cycle for when things don’t quite work the way that the manual says they should.
Let’s look at just the first element, marketing materials. These items interest potential buyers, then move them from consideration to purchase, helping them understand a product’s value proposition.
We asked our survey respondent to agree or disagree with the statement, “Having printed marketing and other collateral material in my language makes my organization more likely to purchase a software product.” Across our entire sample, more than 80% told us they agree with that statement. As we expected, the outlier here was Sweden, with just 60% of respondents preferring marketing materials in their own language. If marketers accept the conventional wisdom that English is enough for Sweden, they still leave three out of five buyers on the outside looking in. That’s not good for long-term sales. The other seven countries all came in at 80% or higher.
What does tell us? Most business buyers will not give full consideration to a product unless it sports localized marketing materials that they can read and understand to the fullest. In stark terms, it means that products without translated materials stand just a one-in-five chance of making it to the short list.
The case for translation and localization becomes even clearer as you drill down into other elements like documentation, installation and administrative instructions, and troubleshooting, support information, and localized user interfaces. Our respondents told us that having information in their languages, from first contact to post-sales support, made them more likely to purchase a product. In fact, when we had our statistician analyze all eight elements in the buying cycle that we measured, we found that more than 96% of our respondents preferred to purchase products for which all components have been translated and localized. The outlier, once again, was Sweden, where “only” 80% of buyers prefer fully localized products.
Just as we were finishing this research, we spoke with Dell’s marketing director, Kevin Baker, who had just finished an experiment in Web site globalization. As the pioneer in online computer sales, Dell has a long history of localizing products and websites for Western Europe. In 2008 Baker’s group began localizing the company’s website for less common e-commerce languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, and Turkish.
For its Middle Eastern sites, Dell measured an 18% increase in site visits following the introduction of the translated content. Once Baker’s group stopped adding new content, traffic leveled off. Their extrapolations on continued growth with translation and actual conversions to sales all underscored the value of providing content that Dell’s prospective customers in the Middle East could read. This increase took place in the absence of any other marketing initiatives, thus providing a veritable clean room for this experiment in website globalization.
But you say that you don’t sell software? Our study has implications beyond the subject of localized productivity and enterprise applications. Software serves as a proxy for a range of consumer and business products that include a user interface, require detailed documentation, and offer technical support when things don’t work. Consider medical devices, machine tools, airplanes, and automobiles as similar offerings, especially given the software foundation that underlies many of them. If you believe that English is enough for these global business buyers, think again.
Don DePalma is the founder and chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory.