From Kalamazoo to KathmanduWhy Going Global Really Means Going Local

By Nataly Kelly

The hype around globalization is well deserved - it has never been easier for organizations of all sizes to have a worldwide presence.

In fact, the mere launching of a website effectively makes an organization global. There is a distinct difference, however, between having a global business and doing business globally.

Globalization is about removing the barriers that exist when people try to work together and when doing business in new locations. As Thomas Friedman wrote in his best-selling book "The World is Flat," the greatest business benefit of today's global communications and technology infrastructure "is that people can work with other people on more stuff than ever before."

Globalization does not mean the world is homogenizing, however. The global communications infrastructure makes it much easier for people in different countries to communicate with one another, and inherent in that comes a greater understanding of cultural differences. However, this does not cause those cultural differences to wane. The earth is still populated by a wildly diverse set of people, with their own languages, traditions and societal norms.

To effectively market and sell in our globalized world, it is critical to understand that, as in the pre-Internet days, all business is local. People like to do business with organizations that fit comfortably within their cultural norms. Businesses that speak and write in a way that is native and familiar will always outcompete those that do not. Organizations can be global simply by launching a website, but only those that effectively localize content are actually doing business globally.

The Localization Imperative

Speaking the language of your customers might seem like a fairly basic economic discipline, but many companies struggle with the notion of translating content into a language they themselves do not speak. Worse yet, many companies publish content in English figuring that it is today's de facto "language of business," so customers will figure it out one way or another. Studies show that companies operating on this misconception are putting themselves at a significant disadvantage on a number of fronts. For example:

  • In a Common Sense Advisory study of 2,430 consumers in eight countries, 72.4 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language.
  • The same study found that more than half of consumers are willing to pay more to companies that provide information in their language.
  • A European Union (EU) study based on a Gallup survey from 23 countries revealed that 9 out of 10 Internet users always visit websites in their language when given a choice.
  • The same EU study showed that 42 percent of consumers never purchase products or services in other languages.

The data is clear - translation matters. Consumers want to do business with organizations that make them feel comfortable and important. It is almost impossible to do this if you are not speaking each consumer's native tongue. The big question is, "How should I go about translating my content?" This can seem like a daunting task, as there are thousands of languages spoken in the world. Obviously it is not practical (nor is it necessary) to translate into all of these languages. However, strategically choosing a few languages for translation can increase your addressable market by 50 percent or more.

For example, approximately 30 percent of Internet users today speak English, representing approximately $16 trillion in spending power. By adding just five languages - Japanese, German, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and French - retailers and the like can increase that spending power by a whopping $17.5 trillion, according to our internal data.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for prioritizing languages. German might be critical to one company, but relatively minor to another. Each organization needs to make sure it prioritizes translations according to the languages delivering the biggest "bang for the buck." The following questions can be helpful:

  • Which countries and languages already account for a significant amount of your online traffic?
  • What percentage of your revenue comes from international markets, and how does this compare to your competitors?
  • What percentage of your customer base is located in other countries? Out of these, which countries and languages account for the largest number of customers? Does your market share in these countries map to industry market share data?
  • Where do you already have locations, branch offices, distributors or partners?
  • In which countries and languages do your competitors currently operate?
  • Which other languages are spoken in countries where you already have a presence - for example, Spanish in the United States or French in Canada?
  • Do you have any ties to another country that would give you an early competitive advantage by entering that market before your competitors do?

Understanding the answers to these questions can provide a translation roadmap that clearly defines which languages are most important to a business. Armed with this roadmap, globalization becomes a function of finding the right technology and service partners to create high-quality translated content, and to update it on an ongoing basis. (Updates are key, otherwise translated content will quickly fall out of sync with your business.)

Doing Business Globally

Before the days of the Internet, localization was almost inherent in global business. There was no way to sell into foreign markets without having local infrastructure and people - and ultimately the local people would ensure localized content.

With the Internet, however, virtually any business with a website is instantly global. Today, a digital music store in Kalamazoo, Michigan can sell to a hipster in Kathmandu, Nepal. In this type of economy, content localization needs to become a foundational discipline, right alongside elements like marketing automation, customer service and order fulfillment.

Translation does not have to be a massive undertaking. Once you've prioritized your languages, you can start with a single language and progress from there. Even this limited approach will have immediate bottom line benefits as customers become more amenable to your messages and your offerings.

The most important thing is to start. Once you do, you will begin the transformation from having a global business, to doing business globally.

Nataly Kelly is the VP of marketing at Smartling, a New York-based translation software platform company.