Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters to Global Marketing

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

If you’re reading this article, there’s a pretty good chance that your mother tongue is English. When was the last time you bought something at a store, a restaurant, or a Website that didn’t offer its wares in English? If you’re like most people I know, it’s unlikely that you ever bought anything of any value in a language other than your mother tongue.

At some basic level, everybody knows that language is important–people don’t buy what they don’t understand. For years arguably the most widely cited statistic in Website globalization has been that buyers are three times more likely to purchase something if addressed in their own language (that was from a report that I wrote way back in 1998). Until now, however, there has been no large-scale, independent behavioral study of consumers to validate this contention.

To quantify what actual benefits companies get from tailoring their marketing and sales material to specific national audiences, my colleagues and I at Common Sense Advisory surveyed more than 2,400 consumers in eight non-English-speaking countries about their online buying habits and preferences. At least 300 people from each country–Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Spain, and Turkey–completed the online surveys, which were conducted in their national languages.

Here are a few of the findings from the report that may help you develop your business case for global marketing, on the Web or offline.

International visitors spend more time on Websites in their own language. Nearly 90% of people who have no or little English ability spend most or all of their time on sites in their own language. How about foreign visitors who can handle English? Even 60% of them prefer sites in their own language over English-language sites.

Most people buy from sites in their own language. Just 10% of the participants with little or no English make most or all of their online purchases from Anglophone Websites. Among those who do speak English, the number jumps to 37%. But that still means more than 60% of those who can read English prefer buying from sites in their own language.

Most people will pay more for products in their own language. Nearly 65% of the respondents who spoke little or no English said they would pay more for information they could read in their own language. Those with English proficiency were split nearly 50/50 on this proposition.

Yes, language does matter, but that’s not all. Even many consumers who feel comfortable in English prefer buying in their own language. Most want customer support that is similarly accessible. And with sites lacking local currency or transaction support, many nonnative speakers discover that buying from English-language sites is literally an impossible undertaking.

Don DePalma is the founder/chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory, based in Lowell, MA, and author of “Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.”

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