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Why language is a dealbreaker for global customers

Would you buy from a website if you couldn’t read the text in your native language? According to a survey of more than 3000 international consumers, the answer is usually “no”.

The Common Sense Advisory (CSA) has released a new report Can’t Read Won’t Buy: How Translaton Affects the Web Customer Experience and Global E-Commerce.  The independent research firm found that three-quarters of respondents wanted information in their mother tongue when making purchases online.

People prefer to read online in their native languageFor a long time, English has been the lingua franca of the web. As the CSA puts it: “If you speak English natively, you have enjoyed the best of the web since its creation.”

But that’s changing. As hundreds of millions of people across Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia get connected, the linguistic diversity of the internet is increasing.

While almost half of content is still in English, there’s clearly demand for more text in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, and other languages. Even when people speak some English, they still prefer to browse and buy using their native language.

The report’s author, Donald De Palma, the CSA’s Chief Strategy Officer, said: “There is a longstanding assumption that enough people on the web feel comfortable using English, especially when buying high-tech or expensive products. Our research in 2006 proved that 72.4% of consumers surveyed were more likely to buy products in their native language. Our 2014, larger-scale behavioural study of consumers again validates this preference and, in fact, concludes this demand is increasing, with a full 75% of respondents saying they want the products in their native language.”

The CSA surveyed 3002 people in 10 countries (Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Spain and Turkey). They asked respondents about their language preferences as well as their proficiency in foreign languages. They found that 55 per cent would only buy at websites in their mother tongue. This soars to 80 per cent among people who speak limited English.

These preferences vary by country:  in Japan, 70 per cent of consumers will only buy at Japanese language sites. French and Turkish users also have strong preferences for information in their own language.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to a major purchase such as a car or financial product, understanding the text is even more important. Consumers are least likely to buy these products without information in their first language.

Many customers are prepared to make an exception when it comes to major global brands.  Egyptian web users were especially likely to trust well-known names, even if their sites were not available in Arabic. But this doesn’t work everywhere – Germans are least likely to overlook language even when it’s a famous brand name.

The report concluded that consumers show a “substantial preference” for their native tongue, saying: “It doesn’t matter which language it’s in if visitors can’t read it – they won’t stay for very long, and they’re unlikely to buy what they don’t understand.”

If you’re still unsure about localising your website, this research suggests that it can really make a difference in attracting cross-border customers. Buyers are more likely to visit sites in their own language, spend longer on them, and are more likely to purchase. They also prefer to have instructions and post-sales support in their mother tongue.

Localisation isn’t just about getting the language right. Providing a great customer experience also involves thinking about details such as privacy, payment methods and delivery.  It’s worth taking time to understand your global customers’ preferences – for example, the CSA found that Egyptian and Turkish respondents were more likely to be concerned about sharing personal information.

Making visitors feel comfortable and “at home” on your site will dramatically increase the chances they’ll turn into customers. It’s all part of the package of offering great service –  no matter where in the world your customers are based.

Christian Arno, Founder and President, Lingo24

Christian Arno is Founder and President of Lingo24. He started the company in 2001 after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in languages. He has won numerous awards including HSBC Business Thinking and International Trade Awards (2010), and TAUS Excellence Award (2012) for innovative technology. He contributes to leading industry publications and has been featured on the BBC, in the Financial Times and other media around the world.

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