Why Would Somebody Fluent in Chinese Make Purchases from English Sites?

Sun, 10/27/2013 - 08:17

“Our target customers are fluent in English so we don’t plan to translate our content into Chinese.”

This is a statement I come across somewhat frequently when talking to marketers that are planning to enter the Chinese market. I hear it particularly often when speaking to people from the education industry who are looking to attract English-reading Chinese students for university-level study abroad.

It’s not always easy to convince business owners of the value of using Chinese-language content. But today I’m going to address this issue from another angle based on an online experience I just had.

I just made a hotel booking in English for a trip to Beijing tomorrow. That’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Why would a fluent Chinese reader use English to make an online purchase? I’ve spoken Chinese for half my life now and I’ve spoken Mandarin on a daily basis at work and at home for many years. I’m more than qualified to make a hotel booking online in Chinese. And if there’s anything I don’t understand, a Firefox add-on can immediately show me the English translation in-page.

So why did I just make a hotel booking through an English site instead of a Chinese one?

I think the most important reason is this:

One’s first language speaks louder and clearer to them than their second language ever will.

In my case, even though I have so much experience with Chinese, I still have more experience with English.

Processing Chinese requires more effort for me! Ugh, don’t you just hate effort? I especially hate effort when I’m super busy – and it seems most people are super busy nowadays, right?

Any good copywriter or UX designer will tell you that the less effort it takes for a customer to buy, the more likely they are to buy.

But if that reason isn’t enough for one blog post, I have another one for you: Speaking to a customer in their language shows them that you can actually serve them.  

In my case, when I purchase something online, I want to use my Canadian credit card, and I don’t have any Chinese credentials. I have sometimes come across problems in the past where I try to make a transaction online, but can’t because I end up blocked by some little annoyance in the checkout process. You’d think this kind of problem would be smoothed out by now, but it really isn’t. Just earlier today I wasn’t able to take out a cash advance on my Canadian Visa card at a Chinese bank. This bank’s ATMs support Visa and I’ve even previously withdrawn money from that exact ATM at that exact bank location with the exact same card I tried to use today!

Now, if a Chinese business has gone to the trouble of setting up an English-language website, I assume that it’s more likely that they’ll be able to serve me.

Finally, one more reason that is relevant some of the time is that even if somebody can speak the other language, they might want to share content with somebody that doesn't. In my case, I was making the hotel booking from our Canadian company, which means it could be helpful to have all the transaction data in English in case our Canadian bookkeeper needs it.

In the case of an English-speaking Chinese person that wants to study English abroad, it's almost certain that they aren't the only decision makers in the buying process. What if their parents are footing the bill? And what if they can't read English? It would help to have Chinese-language marketing materials available for them to read.

So, to sum it up so far, providing content in a reader's native tongue will make it easier for them to understand, show them you can serve them, and be helpful if they need to show it to somebody else. I hope these points help make it easier for some to sense the benefit of localizing web content into the mother-tongue of your target readers – even if those readers do speak English as their second language.

But that's not to say that it's best to only use their mother language. In some cases, they might want to also read content in the second language. My co-worker Samantha is a native Chinese speaker with a very high level of English. She says "If I were looking at studying abroad, I'd like to read the Chinese content first and then move on to the English content. This way I can learn about the opportunity quickly, and, if I'm interested, I can read the details in English. I trust the English details more because sometimes the Chinese content on sites like this isn't complete or isn't accurate."

With this in mind, I think the takeaway for marketers that are wondering if/how to localize their website into Chinese is this:

  1. Always localize the landing page. You want to get readers hooked right away, and the easiest way to do that is with clear, persuasive language written in their native tongue.
  2. There are some cases in which you do not have to localize the entire website.

Note that I will usually advise localizing the whole website, but it may be cost-prohibitive in some cases. So the expense and benefits of a major localization project have to be carefully weighed.

Do you speak a second language? What are your experiences when it comes to reading websites in your second language?




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