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Want to go global? Re-think local

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

Look at the amount of content online – it used to be about 80 per cent English, but now it represents only about 20 per cent of online content and it’s expected to bottom out at about 10 per cent. For all intents and purposes, we’ve got a Chinese Internet, a Russian Internet, a Brazilian Internet and so on, and people are consuming news in a much more local way while interacting with social networks in the language they happen to be fluent in.

We’re living in a challenging world of rapid linguistic diversification, and the very real danger associated with this is that businesses stay so ‘local’ that they don’t diversify and tap global markets. In the EU alone, despite the general freedom of movement, goods and people, only 12 per cent of European online retailers actually sell to neighbouring countries, and only 15 per cent of Europeans actually buy from neighbouring countries.

It shows that language is still a big barrier and that sometimes, staying local can be limiting for business. 

When language becomes a barrier to going global, it’s time to re-think the definition of local and what it means for business. But where do existing businesses start, and how can new businesses go global from day one?

Re-think what local means

The truth is, people today move around a lot, and work in different countries. We're all global citizens, so driving consistent engagement is vital.

Like it or not, ‘local’ doesn’t any longer mean doing business only in the native language of your country, and this is because of the other language groups that are no doubt present in your local market. Six years ago, there were 500,000 Polish speakers in the UK. That number is now over one million. That’s a one million strong untapped market right on the doorstep of British businesses. There are countless other examples: look at Italy, with its hundreds of thousands of Romanian speakers.

Think about what would happen if you could offer your product, and the customer service surrounding your product in someone’s native language in your local market., especially when that might be completely unexpected. It’s a great opportunity to create new markets, win new customers and raise your profile significantly. Local has never sounded so good.

Going global from day one

We’re now about 3.5 billion people online. We’re expected to hit 4.5-5 billion in the next 4 years, and most of the people that are coming online right now are coming from developing countries who don’t even speak English. And less and less will they need to. The days of the web as an English-only medium are over, and businesses will have to adjust or risk alienating an ever-increasing non-native market attempting to access their services.

For enterprises to become accessible in multiple languages, they must maintain a consistent tone of voice to build trust with consumers and maintain quality. Digital communications also require a fast turnaround; I predict that within a few years, to hit their SLAs, global businesses will consider embedding translation into every app, interface and business process. But to start, email and chat are the first logical domains to unlock and make multilingual.

So how else can companies already suffering low cross border trade volume look to tap into other markets, and to truly go global? And how can new companies go global from day one?

  1. Think globally. If you increase your market substantially, the world is your oyster. Look at WhatsApp – if it had just focused on the US market, it would have failed as it initially grew fundamentally through international means. There are people with needs all over the world and there are different conditions in each market, but the basic premise is this: when there is a market of 3.5 billion people, why would you focus on a market of only 300 million?
  2. Translate your website and app into the languages of the countries you want to target, and get some website analytics in place. The earlier you do this the better, as it will help you to determine where people are responding to your message, and will dictate what languages you should focus on.
  3. Translate your blogs, FAQs and newsletters. This is an important next step, as it will allow you to begin prospect and customer marketing, while also making your site a go-to news source. It may also be time to consider whether you want to go beyond translation, to develop topical local content. For example, if you’ve got offices in different locations, you may choose to use your blog to write about what matters to customers in different locations.
  4. Prepare for the needs of your global customers. Customer service is probably the most important part of going global, and it usually means evolving your customer service platform so that you can easily provide customer service in multiple languages, and so that you can ensure a consistent customer experience in a highly competitive global market. This means establishing a technological intermediary so that messages can be sent and received in a customer’s native tongue and so that customer support emails, and live chats. It should also mean globalising your self-help resources, including chat bots, so that customers can help themselves in their preferred language.
  5. Video is also key. It may sound surprising, but most people consume video on their phones without sound. However, there is technology that is fast enough for near-to-real-time video subtitling. If you can provide subtitles in different languages, think of the huge global market you’ll be tapping and helping.

The language barrier to commerce can’t be ignored, so whether you’re considering international expansion or not, when it comes to the user experience, it pays to be multilingual. There’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel for businesses looking to accommodate change to globalise, and a ready-made landscape of opportunity for new businesses looking to go global from day one.

Carmen Carey, Chief Operating Officer, Unbabel (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Flex

Carmen Carey is CEO at Apica.