Translation and localization – is it worth it?

Adapting content for new markets takes time and money. Is it worth it? Two new studies provide answers.

You’ve put forward your bold new plan to strike out beyond the English-speaking world by translating your website. It sounds impressive. Your fellow sales managers are on board. Who doesn’t want to conquer the vast Chinese market, after all? But then come the dreaded questions from the executive suite. “Is it worth it? Can you prove it?”

Determining the return on investment for translation and localization can be tricky. After all, localization is just one puzzle piece in a complex jigsaw, and marketing, sales and operations all have their part to play in an international expansion as well. What’s more, the costs and potential revenue can vary widely depending on your setup and the market you’re trying to break into.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw well-informed conclusions. And two new studies, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” by CSA Research and Project Underwear by Nimdzi, are here to help. (Don’t worry, the second link is perfectly safe for work – we’ll explain what underwear has to do with localization later.)

If you want to persuade the C-suite, you need to speak their language: numbers. Here are 10 facts to help you on your way:

1. 40% of consumers won’t buy your products unless the product information is available in their language.

In other words, English may be the international lingua franca, but if you try to crack a foreign market without localizing your website, you’ll miss out on nearly half your potential sales.

Interestingly, the proportion of consumers who refuse to shop in a foreign language varies significantly from country to country. Taiwan (at 90%) and France (at 70%) are linguistic protectionists, but in countries such as Romania and Saudi Arabia, English content is actually seen as a hallmark of quality. In general, however, you can’t fully tap into your target markets without localization.

2. And 76% prefer to buy in their own language, even if they can read English.

That means you’ll be at a disadvantage in competitive markets if you don’t localize. There are also significant – and interesting – differences between countries here.

While emerging markets such as India (25%) and China (62%) are relatively comfortable with English-language content, localization into the “FIGS” languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish) is essential for anyone looking to expand into Europe. Around 90% of FIGS speakers prefer content in their native language. And Russia is even less forgiving: 95% of consumers there expect to be addressed in Russian.

3. English gives you access to just 32% of the world’s consumers.

That’s certainly not to be sniffed at! But…

4. If you add just seven more languages, you can reach 75% of them.

That’s a much bigger chunk of the world’s total addressable market (TAM) – and a remarkably efficient strategy when you consider that more than 6,500 languages are spoken on our little planet. Here are the top ten by GDP:

  • 32% English
  • 14% Chinese (simplified)
  • 7% Spanish
  • 6% German
  • 6% Japanese
  • 4% French
  • 3% Arabic
  • 3% Portuguese
  • 2% Korean
  • 2% Italian

5. More than 90% of websites that are available in more than two languages have an English version.

So competition is high, and a beautifully phrased English website won’t necessarily help you stand out from the crowd.

But a German version (only available for 28.7% of multilingual websites) or even a Czech one (8.7%) just might.

6. Customer retention is particularly difficult when consumers are forced to shop in a foreign language.

The studies show that localized content is important for all phases of the sales process – but particularly in the retention phase, which aims to connect customers with the brand for the long term.

Many consumers are prepared to shop in a foreign language if it’s the only option available. But if they need the same product again, 75% of them will look for an alternative in their own language rather than returning to their previous provider.

7. And acquisition is also tricky.

There are two factors at play here. Firstly, 90% of the consumers surveyed will only fully engage with content in their own language. This is particularly important in the consideration phase – the period where you try to convince them that your product or service is perfect for them.

Then Google throws an additional spanner in the works. Consumers usually start by searching for products in their local language. If your content is only available in English, you can optimize your SEO till the cows come home, but they still won’t find you.

8. The closer you get to your customers’ underwear, the more important localization becomes.

Finally, the explanation you’ve been waiting for! Nimdzi has put a catchy name to an interesting phenomenon: the Underwear Effect.

This rule states that the more likely a consumer is to access your content while they’re in their underwear – in other words, the more relevant it is to personal use or their private life – the more important translation becomes. Here are two examples:

If you want to sell your business software to consumers, an English-only website isn’t such a hindrance. You can safely assume that not only is your target customer sitting fully clothed in their office, they’re also going to speak some English – and be willing to put in the time to understand your site if they think it’ll help them get a better offer.

By contrast, someone shopping online for household goods (e.g. food or personal hygiene items) may well be on their couch – and in their underwear. User experience is a much more significant factor in purchasing decisions here, as consumers aren’t likely to be analyzing your products in much detail. In other words: go native or go home.

9. The same is true of selling via mobile.

The numbers agree across more than 60 countries: people buying on mobile devices set greater store by localization. The reasons why are less clear, but we suspect it’s connected to the Underwear Effect. People tend to surf from desktops in a business context and from their phones for personal use.

10. And if the C-suite still isn’t convinced: 67% of consumers can live with partial localization.

If your budget doesn’t stretch to a complete localization, never fear: a surprising number of consumers will sympathize. Even a partial localization that only translates buttons and navigation elements is preferable to a fully English site for many users.


“Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” by CSA Research

These studies have been carried out on a regular basis since 2006. The 2020 edition surveyed 8,709 people from 29 countries around the world. At least 300 full sets of answers were obtained per country.

Project Underwear by Nimdzi Insights

A new study looking at the impact of language on consumer behavior and involving 9,209 participants from more than 70 countries.

Cover image via iStock

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