Christian Arno is founder and managing director of professional translation-services provider Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 has more than 150 employees spanning three continents and translated more than 60 million words last year. Its clients in 50 countries include MTV and the World Bank.
It’s easy to imagine English is the universal language of the Internet. After all, Germans write die Emails in das Cybercafe while the Spanish download el software from el web. Words such as “blog” or “Facebook” need no translation. And while most multinational companies have realized the importance of social media marketing, few bother to post in more than one language.
But English is becoming less dominant every day. More than half of tweets are in other languages. Twitter has just launched its Swedish version (thanks to crowdsourced translation) and is available in 21 languages. And the most Twitter-addicted nation is Indonesia, with more than 21% of the population using it.
On Facebook, the number of Portuguese and Arabic speakers are growing much faster than English-speaking users. One-ninth of the world population has a Facebook profile — and it’s hardly surprising most prefer to communicate in their native language. And Chinese is soon set to overtake English as the Internet’s most widely spoken language.
Despite this, most marketers are lagging behind when it comes to chatting, tweeting and interacting with their international customers. A report by Econsultancy found most businesses planned to increase spending on social media — but only around a quarter intended to translate it into other languages.
There’s no doubt this is a missed opportunity. Social media is an effective way to build a brand, raise awareness and engage with customers. It’s also far more cost-effective than establishing an on-the-ground presence in new markets. Plus, with relatively little content in languages other than English, it can help your websites climb the search engine rankings and stand out from the crowd.
It’s not always as easy as simply translating your tweets. Understanding the way different cultures use social media — and their favorite networks — are the keys to success.
- Keep it local. An obvious first step is setting up separate Twitter feeds and Facebook pages in each target market. Mixing two languages in a single one will only confuse and frustrate users. But don’t just use a translation of your English content. Research which topics are trending in each country to produce timely, relevant updates.
- Be aware of linguistic differences. Did you know a cuadra means a city block in Latin American Spanish, but a stable or pigsty in Spain? Using different accounts for each country, not each language, will ensure your message isn’t lost in translation. Don’t assume that a single French feed will cover both France and Quebec. As well as spelling and vocabulary, will Canadian users really care about updates from Paris?
- Know your audience. Different cultures use social media in different ways. A study at Palo Alto Research Center in California found German and French speakers were more likely to use Twitter to share information and include hashtags, while Korean and Malay users tended to hold conversations. Translation site Bab.La found Russian and Portuguese users were far more likely to “like” a Facebook page than Swedish users.
- Facebook isn’t always king. It might seem ubiquitous, but in many countries it’s outshone by home-grown networks. Russian users tend to prefer Vkontakte, while Brazilians love Orkut. Anyone marketing in Japan can’t ignore Mixi, which has 15 million active users. And while LinkedIn is popular among American business users, many Europeans use Xing for networking.
- Be social. Social media is never a one-way conversation. More and more customers are using it as a way to contact brands -– and expecting replies. Taking time to interact and respond to comments is the key to engaging users and building your brand. If you don’t have time, it can be worth hiring local translators or social media managers to respond and provide regular updates.