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Giovanna Chirri, the reporter who broke the news of the Pope’s resignation, got the scoop ahead of other journalists because she understood the Latin in which the Pope made his announcement. She tweeted the news as others waited for the official translations to come from the Vatican.
Of course, this was an exceptional set of circumstances. I doubt there will be a sudden rush on Latin text books. But it does illustrate a point: to be understood by an audience, you must speak the same language.
English is the world’s most spoken language, and the language that has become the default for global businesses. It’s usually the starting point for campaigns both online and offline.
But while English is the most spoken language online, it only accounts for a quarter of all social content.
According to Social Bakers research, the growth in English speakers on Facebook is slowing as Facebook gains traction in emerging social media markets such as Central and South America, and the Middle East.
Chinese (simplified Mandarin) is the second most common language online (but its use doesn’t impact Facebook and Twitter as they are still banned in China). Spanish trails behind in third place.
To think only in English when creating a social media campaign is to miss out on three-quarters of the online world. People expect to be spoken to on their own turf (Facebook, Twitter and so on) in their own language.
And if you’re going to encourage them to interact with you brand, you have to think about more than just the language you use:
Consider the network your customers are using
Facebook may dominate in most of the world, but there are still significant parts that it doesn’t reach. As previously mentioned, Facebook and Twitter are illegal in China.
The big domestic networks are QZone, with 560 million users, most of whom are teenagers; and RenRen which has 162 million registered users, most of whom are students or office workers. If you want to reach teenagers in Russia, Vkontakte still rules the roost.
Orkut has maintained significant presence in Brazil and India, though it’s losing ground in both markets to Facebook.
Local markets may not always behave as you expect
It’s hard to fully understand the culture of a place, and all of its contradictions, without being a native speaker and resident. Only someone who understands the nuance of a country’s language and traditions will be able to tell you if a campaign is going to work in a local market.
It’s not just about language
Yes, language matters, but so does using the appropriate cultural references in your campaign.
A campaign focused around a Brazilian footballer will probably play out really well in Brazil (where the biggest names on social media sites are footballers) but may not work so well in Japan.
Consider any regional quirks
In Japan, Facebook introduced a feature for sharing your blood type, which is a popular method for defining a person’s personality in the Japanese culture, similarly to a Westerner’s perception of astrological signs.
Social media is becoming the place where we live out our lives, reveal our family secrets, and announce our major life events. It’s intrinsically personal space. The very least we expect from organisations trying to market to us is that they bother to do so on our terms, in our language, and using cultural and societal references that we understand.