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Don DePalma Have you ever been on the “wrong” side of a conversation in another country, where your language skills stopped at “where’s the bathroom?” Or while searching online, have you found the perfect website, only to realize you couldn’t read the text? In the former scenario, you likely would seek out the concierge or anybody who might help you communicate. On the Web, however, you are more likely to skip to the next website in your search results.

Now, think about your own website and your CEO’s plans to increase the amount of revenue coming from international visitors. What kind of financial return do you expect when you globalize your website? If you translate the e-commerce pages, will more people purchase from your site? Or is English enough for the (still) English-saturated Web? Will those global surfers see that their language is missing from your drop-down menus and head to a website that they can read?

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To quantify the actual benefits that companies get from tailoring their marketing and sales material to national audiences, Common Sense Advisory surveyed over 2,400 consumers in eight non-English-speaking countries about their online buying habits and preferences.

But this survey wasn’t just about English. We used English as a proxy for any language in which a company chooses to market to people who speak a different tongue. For example, Western Europeans and Asians regularly target US audiences, and most of them smartly do so in English. Thus, we believe that our survey findings represent best practices for doing business in any language in any foreign market—such as Japanese selling to Germans, for example, or Czechs selling to Thailand.


Our goal in conducting this research was to help a marketing executive make that airtight business case for website globalization. We sought to establish correlations among language, visitation to English- language sites, and the likelihood to purchase various goods and services from these sites. We surveyed over 2,400 consumers from eight non-Anglophone countries: Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Turkey.

At least 300 people completed the online surveys conducted in each of eight languages for a grand total of 2,430 consumer responses. And we included data only from consumers who had bought something on the internet.

We focused our analysis on the biggest determinant of behavior across the entire sample—competence in English. We asked participants to characterize their ability to read and understand English. As a subjective assessment, their answer to this question indicated their confidence in using English to make purchasing decisions.

Worldwide, this subjective rating included respondents with no English (6.5%), a little English (34.7%), fairly good English (27.7%), good (17.9%), and fluent (13.3%). We boiled these five groups down to two categories, “none or low” (for no English or a little) versus “proficient” ability in English (for those who say it’s fairly good, good, or fluent).


Anglophone websites attract visitors from around the world. We asked our respondents how often they visit sites where the content is mainly English. The frequency choices included “more than three times per week,” “once a week,” “monthly,” “less than once per month,” and “never.” For this analysis, we compressed these five options into two groups: (1) those who visit English-language sites at least monthly and (2) people who rarely or never drop by such sites (see Figure 1).

English sites draw visitors, regardless of linguistic competence

Figure 1: English sites draw visitors, regardless of linguistic competence.
Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

Visits to English-language sites remain high

Over two-thirds (67.4%) of our eight-nation sample fell into the first category, “more than three times per week.” Nearly one-third (32.6%) of our respondents seldom or never visit English-language sites. Why do so many people visit websites not offered in their mother tongue? Most of the world’s best known brands focus their online spending on their English-language properties, and many heavily trafficked websites show their best face to Anglophones.

People with limited English skills stop by, but less frequently

We questioned whether consumer confidence in English as a second language factored into a consumer’s decision to visit an Anglophone site. We found that 45 percent of the participants with no-or-low confidence in their English were regular visitors, while 83 percent of those who felt more competent in their language skills made at least monthly visits to English- language sites.

Nationality affects visitation to English-language sites

Figure 2: Nationality affects visitation to English-language sites.
Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

Some nationalities are less inclined to visit than others

Country of origin determined the frequency of visits to English-language destinations (see Figure 2). Disregarding the language confidence variable, we found that 59 percent of our French respondents avoid English-language sites, while 87.6 percent of the Turks show up at least once per month. We conjectured that the scarcity of in-language content was a determinant for Turkey and China, until we factored in the high visitation rates of Spain and Germany. (see Figure 3 below)


Once we found out that our survey respondents were indeed visiting English-language sites, we clocked how much time they spent there compared to destinations offered in their own languages (see Figure 3). We gave them four choices equating to “most of my time is spent on English-language websites,” “I spend about an equal amount of time on sites in my own language and English,” “I spend most of my time on sites in my own language,” and “I visit only sites in my own language.”

Most people favor quality Web time in their mother tongue

Across the eight countries, nearly three-quarters (72.1%) of the respondents spend most or all of their time on sites in their own languages. Less than one-fifth (17.6%) split their visitations equally between natal-language and Anglophone sites, while just one out of 10 respondents (10.4%) favors English properties.

Language competence ups the ante

We found that survey participants with no-or-low confidence in their English skills were six times more likely to avoid English sites; 89.3 percent spend most or all of their time on sites in their native languages. For those with more linguistic skills at their command, 60.6 percent said they devote more of their Web visiting time to natal-language addresses. While we did not ask which English-language sites attracted those with little or no competence, we suspect they would be media-heavy and search sites, for which linguistic competence would be less of an issue.

Consumers prefer spending time on sites in their own languages

Figure 3: Consumers prefer spending time on sites in their own languages. Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

Brazilians are more likely than most to spend lots of time at English sites

With the language proficiency variable removed, we found that Brazilians had the greatest tolerance for English- language sites—just 32.5 percent of them spend most or all of their time on Portuguese sites, which is less than the 40.8 percent who dedicated most of their visits to Anglophone properties. The French (89.9%) and Japanese (87.1%) tend to spend more time on mother-tongue sites than any of the other nationalities.

Even for those respondents comfortable using English, most people favor time at sites published in their own languages. Without a compelling need, they won’t find a reason to spend very much time at your site. Over time, English-language sites should expect fewer foreign visitors, as more information resources come online in local languages.


We also asked our respondents about how often they purchased goods or services from English-language sites. The choices paralleled the site visitation question: “most of my purchases are from English-language websites,” “some are from English-language websites,” “I rarely buy from English-language websites,” and “I never buy from English-language websites.”

Across the worldwide sample, only one-quarter (25.5%) of our respondents do most or at least some of their shopping from English-language sites—compared with the 67.4 percent who visit these sites regularly (see Figure 4). Just 10 percent of the respondents with limited English told us that they make most or all of their online purchases from Anglophone websites.

Here’s the number that you’ve been waiting for: International visitors who had little or no English were six times less likely to buy from English sites than those who had more confidence in their English. The fact that some users with no or low competence buy at all from English sites indicates some unmet need—typically a product or service that is not available from sites in their own languages. English-language confidence raises that purchasing percentage to 37 percent.

Most foreign visitors do not buy on english-language websites

Figure 4: Most foreign visitors do not buy on english-language websites. Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

There is a strong correlation between the time people spend on a website (Figure 3) and their propensity to buy (Figure 4). Thus, the more someone browses, the more likely that person is to buy. Language becomes a stickiness factor, but it is not the only thing that limits buying. For example, some sites prevent foreign consumers from purchasing because the sites do not support foreign currencies and postal codes.

Nationality also enters into the buying equation; French and Russian consumers are much less likely than Spaniards to buy from an English-language site. Even with transactional limitations, this disparity between visitation and buying rates offers compelling evidence that purchasing sets a higher bar for language than for mere browsing.


This article only scratches the surface of our full study, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters on Global Websites” The full report reviews buying preferences and behaviors across a range of consumer services and goods; it discusses the hierarchy of brand, language, and cost; it outlines the increasing weight of language over a buyer’s evolving relationship with your company; and it demonstrates the critical importance of translation and localization in converting lookers to buyers.

Our conclusion: Yes, language does matter, but that’s not all. Even for consumers who feel comfortable with English, many of them prefer buying in their own languages. Most want customer support that is similarly accessible. And with websites lacking local currency or transaction support, many non-native speakers discover that buying from English-language sites is literally an impossible undertaking.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We weren’t. Then again, we never fail to be taken aback when a naïve decision maker thinks his company can survive by selling in just English, “for another year, until the business case is really solid.” Or he decides to limit foreign-languages to a small part of the company website, because, “If they can see how to contact us in German, that may be enough for now.”


Don DePalma is the founder and chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory. Don also is the author of the premier book on business globalization, Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.


Wordbank, Lionbridge, and Idiom underwrote the data collection effort but they did not participate in the selection of panelists or in the analysis of the data we collected.

“Design Practices for Global Gateways” by Donald A. DePalma and Renato S. Beninatto (Common Sense Advisory, Inc., September 2003).

“Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing” by Donald A. DePalma (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002).


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