To maximize the effectiveness of launches and campaigns, companies must localize their products, customer experience, marketing, and other corporate communications.  But which languages are vital for your brand to deliver optimum ROI from your localization?

One social media company began its globalization phase by setting out to address 80% of the world’s online population.  This startup conducted extensive market research, created a detailed data matrix to aid decision-making, and then tracked its results.  Based on their findings, the company quickly grew to support 42 languages representing 180 country markets.  This result exceeded the company’s original plan and forever changed its own expectations for the value of translation.

Language support by itself is not sufficient to “enter” a market But language support by itself is not sufficient to “enter” a market.  Other required functions and partners include sales channels, logistics and fulfillment, customer support, human resources, payment systems, legal, and more depending on the type of business.  Some companies make the language investment as part of a strategic plan to enter the new market, expecting launches will be more successful with localized products.  However, in many cases, companies begin selling into a new market with a widely used or regional language – such as English, French, or Russian – until results from the field justify the cost and effort of adding and maintaining a new language.

Identify Top Languages For Audience And Economic Opportunity

What is the value of a language and how is potential market opportunity assessed?  Government and industry trade data traditionally appears in formats organized by country, making it difficult to compare with languages, which don’t match up with countries at all.  In 2007, Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) began publishing annual benchmarks for both the size and economic value of online audiences.  Uniquely, these numbers provide brand marketers with a total Internet audience and online GDP figures by language.  The 2015 data compiles inputs from 195 countries and for the Internet’s 100 most economically-active languages.

In 2007, English was almost twice the size (27%) of the next largest language, Simplified Chinese (14%).  Japanese and Spanish were each at 7%, and German was 5% of the total online population.  Arabic was less than 2%.  It took 12 languages to reach 80% of those traversing the interwebs. The composition of the online world shifted dramatically between 2008 and 2012 with the rise of Asian languages , especially Chinese and Arabic.  Today it takes 14 languages to hit the 80% mark.  Simplified Chinese surpassed English back in 2011 and is now 21%, English has fallen to 20%, Spanish is 9%, Arabic is now 5%, Portuguese and Japanese each contribute 4%, while French and Japanese add 3% each.  Russian, German, French, Hindi, and Indonesian each bring in 2% or more apiece.  But in 2015, you’ll also need Bengali, Korean, and Turkish to reach 80% of the world online audience with the fewest languages – and smallest budget.

Bootstrap Your Budget Using ROI To Change Viewpoints

To maximize the effectiveness of launches and campaigns – and ultimately the uptake of products and services in the global marketplace – companies must localize their products, customer experience, marketing, and other corporate communications for the countries and online audiences they serve.  Publishing web content in a dozen or more languages is no laughing matter – it requires significant resources, expertise, and expense.  In 2013, over a third of the global executives surveyed by CSA Research stated they spent US$1 million or more annually on localization.  The majority (74%), however, don’t track return on investment – a number that hasn’t changed since 2003 when we first asked about it.

Among those that do measure ROI, the number one reason cited was prioritization of spend across the range of languages and markets, “to determine which sites deserve more or less investment.” Companies that don’t measure ROI tend to view translation as a cost center, which leads to underfunding and competitive disadvantage.  Over time, companies that track and report on ROI switch to viewing localization as a revenue enabler – a critical change that in turn drives improved decision-making and market share growth.

Table: Sample Investment Categories and Budget Sources for the “I” in ROI Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc. “Return on Investment for Global Websites” (Sept 2013)

Table: Sample Investment Categories and Budget Sources for the “I” in ROI
Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc. “Return on Investment for Global Websites” (Sept 2013)

Make The Case For Metrics

Most companies with a mature approach to web globalization end up with a tiered strategy for content footprint and translation spend.  Tier 1 languages reflect their largest markets deserving a full complement of product lines, informational content, and marketing campaigns.  Tier 2 markets get a smaller collection of content and campaigns, while tier 3 language sites display a minimum footprint of static information such as corporate contact information.  Content freshness also de-escalates stepping down through the tiers.

Each industry – and each company within an industry – will have a way of narrowing audiences by demographics, personas, or more dynamic signals such as engagement levels or intent.  The metrics in Figure 1 provide the home base from which to begin the narrowing process for each language.  The total online population figure for each language provides the benchmark against which “reach” can be measured for any campaign.

Figure 1: Online Audience and GDP Benchmarks for Tier 1 Languages in 2015 Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc. “The Rise and Fall of the Top Online Languages” (April 2015)

Figure 1: Online Audience and GDP Benchmarks for Tier 1 Languages in 2015
Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc. “The Rise and Fall of the Top Online Languages” (April 2015)

Adopt A Multi-Tier Strategy For Content Investment

Digital experience exerts a direct influence on the economic activity of consumers and producers, at work and at play.  As businesses interact with customers, prospects, employees, and partners using text, images, sound, and video, these corporate digital communications appear instantly around the globe via e-mail, web, mobile apps, voice – even television and radio – affecting both online and offline purchasing behaviors.

For this reason, the economic benchmark is not based on e-commerce, but on the total economic contribution of the online audience.  Simply put, the online GDP figures represent slices of GDP distributed to important languages, which are then summed from all countries where a given language plays an important role in a national economy.

As more individuals enter the digital marketplace, every year the raw numbers go up for all languages, but market share percentage falls for those growing more slowly than the internet as a whole.  The top 10 languages, even with massive growth from Chinese and Arabic, continue to fall as a percentage of total online audience as more long-tail language populations come online.

Brand marketers for B2B and B2C products and services should look primarily at the economic opportunity of online audiences, while global web services that derive revenue from online advertising should consider audience size – eyeballs – and economic values equally. There are 12 must-have languages for global marketing and sales success , which should be considered the Tier 1 online languages for any global brand.

Tier 1 languages, selected on the basis of economic opportunity, together address almost 90% of world online GDP.  Global brands aiming for 95% need 21 languages, 35 for 98%, and 48 for 99%.  Since economic contribution is more concentrated than population, it takes more languages to reach any equivalent percentage of the world online audience.

Use Data To Grow Budget, Revenue, And Market Share

As global companies extend online presence to dozens of local languages, content programs must follow , including social media and mobile applications.

Hypermobility among companies and consumers has raised expectations for branding and message consistency across countries, languages, and cultures.

Talking to brands, we know that translation spend grows rapidly as content footprint expands and new languages are added, which is especially frustrating when budget allocations were set in the previous year.  Global market planners should keep revenue opportunity and ROI metrics – pre-campaign and post-campaign analytics – close at hand in order to preserve and grow the content flow that stimulates revenue and share growth.

Prioritization among languages is critical to maximize the impact of language budgets.  Annual benchmarks on audience size and economic opportunity help planners to rebalance spend for maximum impact.  These proprietary benchmarks from CSA Research highlight the biggest and the fastest growing languages in the digital landscape.  They detail which languages matter the most in terms of online population and economic opportunity, provide a framework for categorizing languages into tiers, and aid in both pre- and post-campaign analysis.

The data in this article is based on population, internet penetration, and economic data from 195 countries and 100 online languages, from two recently published Common Sense Advisory research reports, titled “Benchmarking the Top 100 Online Languages for 2015” and “The Rise and Fall of the Top Online Languages