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The growth of the internet and the influence of globalisation have combined to make doing business abroad easier than ever before. The world wide web allows you to reach customers wherever they are around the world – in theory at least – and even traditional exporting has become more accessible to small businesses and individual entrepreneurs as communication channels are opened up to consumers and potential new business partners alike.

In order to take full advantage of these opportunities however, you have to speak your customers’ language. A shopper in the US is not going to browse a website in Korean and a French smartphone user is highly unlikely to download an app in Japanese. Whether you are selling digital products or traditional goods and services via the ‘net, you need to localise in order to penetrate new markets effectively.


Some localisation projects can involve changing your design and creating new content to appeal to different cultural expectations but in many cases it’s sufficient to simply translate what you already have. Automatic translation services such as Google Translate can provide a quick and easy solution but are also prone to errors, whichever direction you are translating in. When American fast food giant Taco Bell relaunched in Japan earlier this year it was left with eggroll on its face when its localised website carried a number of hilarious blunders. A spokesman later admitted that automatic translation had been partly to blame.

The best way to localise is to work with native translators – who might actually use more sophisticated translation programs to help speed up the process. This can still be expensive and time-consuming however. Even if you consider your product to have true global appeal it usually makes sense to concentrate on a limited number of new markets at any one time.

A reactive or proactive approach?

You might already be getting a number of visitors to your website from around the world. If you are receiving orders that should be easy enough to track through your sales and dispatch records but you can also use tools like Google Analytics to track where in the world your visitors are coming from. Unfortunately not all search engines have this capacity. If you used Baidu’s analysis platform Tongji you can access regional reporting for mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Everywhere else is grouped together under ‘other countries’.

If you are drawing a lot of interest from specific countries or regions you can capitalise on that by focussing your localisation efforts on those places. This can be a useful approach as you are not wasting time and resources on localising for areas where there is no pre-existing interest but a proactive approach, where you localise for target markets from the start, also has distinct benefits. If you market correctly you could create or spark that interest yourself, essentially forcing yourself into those new markets. It can also make the localisation process far easier if you design it in for a start, whether you are designing a website or an app. Game and app designers often use the simship model, where versions for different markets are designed, built and released simultaneously.

Choosing your languages

You could, of course, simply choose a bunch of different languages and hope for the best. A 2012 Common Sense Advisory report found that 21 languages were needed to reach 90% of the online audience. By 2015 it was 25 and it’s estimated that, as internet penetration grows throughout the world, the number needed to reach 90% of internet users will nearly double by 2020. It therefore makes sense to target specific markets. Games designers will often use groupings such as EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) and CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) to hit the major gaming markets but your own ideal markets will of course vary depending on the precise nature of your markets. If you are selling tech-based or luxury products for example, you will be aiming for a different demographic than if you were selling cheap basic items.

It can also be useful to use a lingua franca that can cover several or many geographical areas at once. Spanish, for example, could cover Spain itself as well as much of Latin America and much of the Hispanic population of the USA. English also remains very important. Far more people speak Chinese than English as a first language but more people speak English as a second language. To some extent English is already serving as a lingua franca in Asia, particularly within the ASEAN +3, the grouping of the ten states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and Korea.

Localisation can help your reach new markets and customers. It can be a very involved process however and focussing your efforts on the right languages for your business will help you avoid wasted time and resources.

*Photo credits: zimmytws /

Lingo24 is a global translation company, with interests in marketing, e-commerce, product management and many other areas that are of relevance to our clients. We share news on our company performance, innovative technology solutions, exciting new hires and guest posts from some of our translators.