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Company Culture, Minority Businesses, Retail & Inventory

Don’t Get Lost in Translation: Overcoming Language Barriers in Business


Have you considered growing your business internationally? Would your customer base increase significantly if you could effectively communicate with the ethnic groups in your local area that primarily speak another language?

Thanks to the increasingly global environment in which we all live and work, small business owners have expanding opportunities to sell to customers who speak other languages. Those who do broaden their market reach to non-English speaking customers are increasing sales and building brand loyalty with those who appreciate the extra effort required to cross the language barrier.

Attract Non-English Speaking Customers Online

The vast majority of internet communications is written in English. However, a growing number of businesses realize that creating content translated into other languages can jumpstart sales from customers who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to their products and services.

It’s simply a fact that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t speak English. According to the United States Census Bureau, more than one in five U.S. residents primarily speaks a language other than English. In certain states, this number is far higher. For example, nearly 40 percent of California residents speak either Spanish or Chinese at home!

Technology companies, cable providers, and insurance companies commonly have websites written in a variety of languages because they cater to such broad-based market segments. They have to think globally if they’re going to communicate with their customers. For example, healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente lets website visitors click on icons to switch between sites written in English and Spanish. Cisco Systems offers an array of international websites in a variety of languages including French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

While translating online content into other languages is a must for many large corporations, it can also be accomplished by small businesses. A single landing page written in the language of an ethnic group you wish to target is a great way to start. This can be a sub-domain on your existing site or an entirely different URL. Either way, it will begin to build traffic from non-English speaking potential customers. From there, you may want to start adding Facebook ads, blog content, and even eBooks that are written specifically for this new target market.

Once you’ve built up a healthy database of non-English speaking customers, you may want to continuously nurture your relationship with them by regularly emailing translated newsletters, promotions, and announcements. Practically any method of marketing that you’re currently using with English speakers can also work with non-English speakers.

Say it in Print

While translating online content can certainly help you attract new customers, it’s important to remember that there are still plenty of individuals who prefer to learn about a business from reading a newspaper ad, brochure, sales sheet, or direct mail piece. In most cases, it’s inexpensive to change out written words on print pieces. Yes, you may have higher printing prices because of the smaller runs you’ll need on these pieces, but the investment will pay off if you begin generating sales from customers who previously didn’t have access to information about your business.

Generate Top-of-Mind Awareness with Radio and TV

Some of the best deals in media buying are on non-English speaking radio and TV. A single local radio or TV ad can reach thousands of potential customers at one time and instantly boost your brand exposure. If your marketing budget includes radio and TV, it may be well worth the time to explore opportunities with radio and TV stations that cater to specific ethnic markets.

Because these media outlets are focused on specific ethnic communities, they tend to have very loyal audiences. This loyalty spans to the businesses that advertise on these outlets which translates into increased ROI on every broadcasted ad.

Like with all forms of radio and TV ad buying, costs are higher during certain peak times. With a small marketing budget, it might not be possible to purchase a TV ad during primetime or a radio ad during rush hour. However, many media outlets offer remnant ads at a discount if all slots are not filled, as well as discounted pricing during non-peak hours. Take the time to speak to an ad sales representative to discuss your goals and budget. You might be surprised at the deep discounts offered so that you can start reaching these new audiences.

Translate Your Customer Service

So, you’ve created a great online campaign and print piece to attract Spanish-speaking customers in your area. Now what? When they call to purchase from your company, will they hear a recorded message that only plays in English? If they buy online, will they be able to read the invoice?

While it’s fantastic to translate your marketing tools into another language, your customer service also needs to be translated to effectively sell to this target market.

This begins with ensuring that phone recordings are translated. If you have a phone system with an auto-attendant, it’s easy enough to provide a prompt for non-English speakers. Adding a translated on-hold message can add even more strength to this very important customer touch-point. Snap Recordings offers inexpensive professional voice recordings in Spanish, and individual voice talents who speak any language can be found on freelancer sites like Elance.

Having a bilingual customer service representative on staff who can speak with non-English speaking customers can be particularly beneficial. This person may be able to help with both phone service, as well as email correspondence and even translating marketing content. Check with local ethnic chambers of commerce or universities to find individuals who can help you with your translation, customer service, and marketing needs.

Do your products or services have manuals, guides, labels, or instructions? These may also need to be translated depending on the volume of non-English speakers buying from you. Purchase orders, invoices, returns documentation, and more should be written in your customers’ preferred language to ensure you’re providing consistent service to everyone who buys from you.

Consider Tastes and Influences

Of course, there’s much more to marketing to other cultures than just translating content. Every ethnic group has its own preferences, aesthetics, and tastes. For example, colors are deeply symbolic in Chinese culture and can greatly affect your success with a website or ad. White is considered to be mournful, and putting a black border around a photo of a person’s face symbolizes that they are dead.

When marketing to Hispanics, it’s important to remember that there are vast differences in the cultures of Mexicans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach just because they all speak the same language is not a good strategy.

If you’re ready to start marketing to non-English speakers in the United States or abroad, the first step is to learn about your target market. Take the time to research what they like and what they don’t. Closely evaluate the marketing efforts of those businesses that are already successfully selling to this group. Form new alliances and friendships with those who speak the language and understand the culture. They can provide valuable insight and guidance that can help you as you begin your outreach.

Thanks to the internet and our increased mobility, we’re all living in a much more diverse world. Businesses that take the time to expand their marketing reach beyond just English speakers will find increasing success and new ways to grow.

Are you marketing your products or services to an international market or to a local ethnic community? Share a tip that has increased your success in the comment section below.