This post is part of the Ten Golden Rules of Global Content Strategy series.

Too many companies make the mistake of assuming their global audience speaks English. I hear it all the time. “We don’t need to translate. All of our customers can read English.” And “English is the language of the world. Everyone speaks English.”

Well…no. That is simply not correct and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

How Many People Speak English, Then?

Here are some interesting statistics from our friends at Wikipedia:

  • Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language.
  • English is likely the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. (This means that more people speak Chinese or Spanish as their first language than English.)
  • Estimates that include people who speak English as a second language vary greatly from 470 million to over a billion depending on how literacy or mastery is defined and measured.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 7,034,759,848 (7 billion) people living on earth right now.

So, while many people speak English, the number of native speakers is only 3.6% of the total population. The number of total speakers (first and second language) is 14%. Clearly, not everyone speaks English.

A very important part of your global content strategy is making sure that you are providing appropriate content, using appropriate methods, in appropriate languages to your worldwide customers. Providing English-only content to foreign markets can be a revenue-limiting mistake at best and a total catastrophe at worst.

Global Markets and Consumer Product Companies

I recently read a very interesting report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (DTTL) called “Global Powers of the Consumer Products Industry 2012.” This 50-page report takes a deep dive into the economic outlook for global consumer product companies, the trends in global consumer products, highlights about the top 250 global consumer product companies, and more. The report is filled with a plethora of interesting information that drives the point home: It’s the global economy, stupid.

Most consumer product companies are anticipating more growth from non-U.S. markets than from U.S. markets. And, according to the report:

 “…understanding the consumer in each of these markets (and in some cases in each region within a market) is a task that cannot be underestimated.”

Yeah, what he said.

According to an October 2011 Forbes Insights Survey of 376 senior executives and talent managers at companies with annual sales of +$500 million worldwide, 33% of senior executives view “expanding into global and new markets” as their top strategic priority.  This does not come as a surprise to me. And the fact that understanding the consumer for each market is critical is no surprise either.

The Deloitte report goes on to say that “the need to meaningfully engage with consumers throughout their journey with their brands and convert them from merely loyal customers into active brand advocates” is a constant denominator for consumer products executives.

So, we all agree that we need to engage with our customers using culturally-aware content that is readable in the customer’s native language.

Let the Numbers Speak

Let’s put a few numbers around this, just to drive the point home.

Here is a chart from the Deloitte report that shows the share of the top 250 global consumer product companies by region in 2010:

Just about 35% of these companies are US-based. However, 65% of them are not. Well, that’s interesting. However, even more telling is the chart below that shows the share of top 250 sales by country/region for 2010:

About 67% of all sales from the top 250 consumer product companies are outside of the U.S. If we take into consideration the UK and Canada as primarily English-speaking countries, this chart shows us that approximately 60% of sales are to countries where English is not the first language.

What’s That Rule Again?

Rule #2: Do not assume that your global customers can understand your English content. If you really want to capture more of the global market (and you know you do), your strategy must include localization and translation and transcreation.


Val Swisher
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