A Rose Translated Into Another Language Can Be a Thorny Thing

To truly understand marketing internationally, and international search marketing in particular, you need to get out and travel. What you read, or even gather from trips to major world cities, really doesn’t prepare you for how things differ once you step away from the well-marked path.

On my recent visit to SES London, with side trips to Amsterdam and Beirut, I had some eye-opening experiences from very different perspectives. London is one of the major capitals of the world. Internet access is everywhere and the UK people have long been receptive to all types of online marketing. But they seem to be very Google-centric, with more than 80 percent penetration.

The old national search engines have essentially gone. Espotting used to be a decent engine with lower volume, but decent conversion.

As a nation, they’re very connected. Television ads and stations constantly push domain names and URLs — in this they even put the U.S. to shame. Stores have their domains in display windows or overhead awnings.

But just over the channel, Amsterdam is a completely different situation. People here speak Dutch, English, and German predominantly. Access to the Web is everywhere, but determining the best way to reach them starts with decisions of multiple languages, before moving on to how the message should be crafted. Does the language and country reflect separate mindsets?

Is a message that works well in English simply translated word-for-word into German and Dutch for the same results? Or do people who use German share some of the cultural perspectives of residents of Germany, who generally dislike having a message repeated to them?

In some respects, the use of a particular language in a multilingual country reflects a slight personality difference. Add the fact that others who prefer to use a second language for search because the results seem better, are reading them through a filter as well. The person can only understand the message in this language as deeply as they think in the language.

These factors play a considerable part in conversion and general usage of the Web. Generally, Europeans understand and use the Web; they don’t fear providing credit card information and have long been aware of the security used by most commercial sites.

Move to the Middle East and the world changes completely. Aside from technology problems, the people are less comfortable giving any financial information online.

Even the engines give them less attention. While I was in England, I started a client’s account in AdWords. No problems. The account was up and running and delivering ads for my keywords inside of five minutes. I made some changes in Amsterdam and by 10 minutes they were live.

Now move to Beirut. I needed to change some ads in the account and had all sorts of problems. After getting around the fact that even such a modern city has regular power outages — and the country’s main Internet feed has been known to go offline — I finally got in to my AdWords account and made the changes.

But Google wasn’t swift in implementing my new ads. I checked for three hours, only to find them listed in the search results as the old ones. I gave up at that stage and found that they were done overnight.

I had had all sorts of problems getting access to my Gmail account just before I left the United States, but leave the shores of Mountain View’s home country and it gets even worse.

I’m hoping that Google doesn’t look upon the rest of the world as some afterthought given it represents more than half of the world’s searches right now. Hey, China alone has more people using the Internet than the U.S.

But back to the Middle East (where people in the U.S. thought I was mad to travel to), I’m here right now writing this. The Mediterranean is within view and the popularity of Beirut as a destination within the area is noticeable.

I’m marketing to 13 countries in the area. While virtually all speak Arabic, they have their own local dialects and own words for many shared things. And beyond this, there’s a lot of rivalry between them, so no one will listen if it sounds like you’re using one version in the wrong country. Breaking new products can face even more difficulty.

You have to be able to understand the language and also the specific way it’s used, country by country. The company I’m handling the marketing for has multiple offices, so we’ve addressed this problem. But what is someone who lives outside the area without access to these resources to do?

Social media comes to the rescue. There’s an Arabic Twitter, and you can engage people from the various countries and ask them how your translations work for them. Facebook is also building a major presence here, so can also be used, or you can look for Facebook groups within the area you’re marketing and read/translate the country-specific conversations.

Travel definitely broadens the mind. This trip has made me very aware of just how pervasive subtle differences can be, and how easily they can be forgotten, leaving marketing efforts to fall on resistant ears.

Chris Boggs Fires Back

Great topic, Frank! I was just discussing the topic of multiple language targeting, even within the U.S. According to a delegate at the ExL Pharmaceutical conference I attended, some health conditions occur to specific nationalities at a much higher rate than others. Creating targeted non-English messaging, even within U.S. English search results, is something to consider, along with actually targeting non-English related search phrases.

A funny thing about Holland is that it’s quite difficult for an American to learn Dutch — because the Dutch people are so often anxious to practice their English that they will steer the conversation back to English. Although I speak French and Dutch, I certainly don’t think in those languages, so many of the nuances of the marketing message may be lost to me should I read a paid search listing.

Although social media can be helpful, it can be a bit of a crap-shoot if you rely on communities to provide feedback on creative. Partnering with a local marketing team, or someone who has deep experience as a native speaker, is paramount to success in targeting international markets. I agree that there is much industry listening and brand monitoring to be done within regionalized communities.

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