There are around 375 million native English speakers on the planet, and roughly another 375 million speak English as a second language. One of out of four people in the world speak English with “some level of competence.” That sounds like a lot, right? I mean 1/4 of over seven billion people is almost two billion! But think about it as percentages, it’s not quite so impressive. Even being generous and assuming the “some level of competence” reported by everyone is better than my “some level of Italian” which would really only ever let me order dinner or ask for the bathroom, only 25% of the people on the planet are prepared to appreciate your message if you’re not taking steps to make it globally accessible.
Even among speakers of English (or a number of other languages for that matter), there are cultural differences that can get in the way of communication. Terms for sports, names for foods, holiday traditions and more vary widely even just between the United States and our not especially distant relations in England, and that’s with an alleged shared language between us! The internet’s great appeal, though, is in the ability to interact without concern for borders or geography, so it’s worth the extra thought to make that great piece of content one that people can appreciate in as many cultures and languages as you can manage.
A few tips on how to do that:
Get your website translated – Especially if there’s a particular foreign market you’d like to connect with, consider spending the money to get your website professionally translated. Machine translation is iffy at best and requires effort on the part of your customers that they may avoid in favor of already localized content.
Cultural sensitivity – It’s probably not possible to be aware of how a particular reference might be interpreted in every culture, but again, if there are particular foreign markets you want to connect with, you should be aware of those specific ones at the very least. References to things like sports, holidays, or pop culture can be great for reaching domestic customers, but if you want to connect with a global audience, try and at least make the references specific enough so that the meaning can be pieced together by someone without native familiarity. Something as simple as specifying NFL or American football instead of simply saying “football” can make your message much clearer.
Clean layout and navigation – In case someone is using something like Google translate, or is navigating your website with a non-native level of proficiency in your language, make generous use of things like headers and lists to make the content easier to parse. A wall of text isn’t especially friendly even for a native speaker, and for someone with less proficiency in a given language, it can be absolutely off-putting. Also be sure to label things like the unit of currency or other measurement you’re using. You should really be doing most of this for the sake of mobile users anyway, so it’s doing double duty!
Respect the locals – Especially if you want to break into a specific foreign market, just translating your website is likely not enough. If you want to connect with an audience, you need to understand who you’re really talking to, the same way you do with domestic markets. Invest the time and money in working with a consultant who has, at bare minimum, a solid understanding of the region you’re wanting to do business with, or even better, someone who is from or has lived in the area. Direct, lived experience is going to trump academics in this instance, likely by a not insignificant margin.
The internet truly is making the world smaller in many ways, especially when it comes to content, so take these tips and think beyond your borders. Have any examples of great internationally relevant content from a brand you love? Share with us in the comments, and thanks as always for being part of our community.