Deciding which language to use to communicate online is usually easy. I write this column from the midst of the United States, where, of course, English is the predominant language. Businesses based in the United States create web sites in English, for the most part, and use English when communicating with customers via email.
But as the Internet truly becomes a global network, decisions on language are becoming less easy and less obvious. Putting aside political and cultural ramifications for the moment that’s worthy of dozens of columns alone let’s consider what happens if a company is based where one language is native but markets goods and services to a community where another language is native. Is it a wise business decision for a, say, U.S.-based company that markets to Mexico to conduct all its communications in one language, namely English, or should it expand beyond that?
For a look at how one company has answered this question, let’s head to Canada, where going to a bilingual campaign paid off handsomely in response rate.
Canada, as you know, has long dealt with a population that does not have a single native language. Of the approximately 30 million or so Canadians, a significant minority, around six or seven million, are French Canadians, and that has made for some complicated online business decisions as they relate to language.
Futureshop.ca, a major retailer of consumer electronics, computers and entertainment items, is headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia, but it ships its products to all the provinces. The web site was launched in November of 1998 (the Future Shop company was founded back in 1982), and in July of last year a formal Internet marketing strategy was put into place.
One of the first issues the new five-person team faced was how to best deliver its then English-only email newsletter to all its customers, who make up a mailing list of close to 100,000 individuals.
The email newsletter is a fairly typical business newsletter, with offers, announcements, and links to the futureshop.ca site. Along with the standard text and/or HTML issues that most businesses encounter, Futureshop.ca needed to decide whether to write the newsletter in French as well as in English. Intuition said yes: When sending email to a large population, it makes sense to reach them in their own language. So the Internet marketing group went about testing this theory.
First, it evaluated useful information from Canadian polling services. The group looked at demographic data and found there was a substantial interest by French Canadians in receiving this type of information in French.
“It was a business decision that was quick,” says Vida Morkunas, group manager of Internet Marketing. “Speaking in a native language fosters better communication, a greater degree of intimacy, a greater degree of reach.”
So far, so good nothing earth-shattering here. The real test would be actually putting this strategy into place. Futureshop.ca began preparing a French version of the newsletter, and Morkunas says this is where the hard work came in.
Clearly, you can’t just plug the English version into AltaVista’s Babel Fish and expect to have a professional newsletter. The staff had to think about the message, consider the regional feel, and come up with a newsletter that was truly written for the audience rather than put together as an afterthought.
This, Morkunas says, took longer than expected, but in November 1999 the first French version was launched. Futureshop.ca says it is thrilled with the results, and you can judge the success for yourself: The French edition has a 40 percent click-through rate, which is three to four times higher than the click-through rate of the English edition.
Of course, Futureshop.ca’s strategy won’t work for everyone. Factors such as which language is the native one and what resources are available to a company play a huge role. But if your company is faced with a similar situation, it’s clearly worth considering.