English-Only Web Sites Can Still Be Successful Internationally

Think you can’t successfully sell your product in foreign markets with an English-only website? There is a way you can reach across the seas without reaching deep into your pockets to pay for site translation. Thomas J. Judge, Jr. shares the perfect strategy to help you reach further than you thought possible with your English website.

[Editor’s Note: Thomas Judge proposes a strategy of using English-language websites to attract distributors and marketing partners abroad. Obviously, he is not suggesting that web sites should never be translated–but that if the goal is to reach a business partner rather than an end user, it may not be necessary–and that this strategy, furthermore, can open up your products to far larger world markets, because the distributors will reach segments of the population that aren’t on the Net. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Internet Sales Digest
–Shel Horowitz]

Translatiing Web sites is often suggested as an inroad to international sales. But that solution doesn’t always make sense.

For a model of successful international marketing via the Internet I can think of none better suited than Dell Computers, one of the Internet’s biggest success stories, that made over $1 billion in online sales in 1997. CEO Michael Dell explained that having websites in 43 different countries accounted for international commerce growing to 17 percent of the company’s internet business in just six months. While Dell’s example represents the ultimate fulfillment of the “Field of Dreams” paradigm, it requires deep pockets to achieve such levels of success.

Relatively few businesses are able to support such an ambitious online marketing campaign. Fortunately, that’s not required to tap into the enormous potential of international markets via the Internet.

For companies attempting to sell general merchandise online, the most universal (and self-defeating) misconception of Internet marketing is that it provides ready access to a consumer base of 100.5 million (Nua Ltd.’s January ’98 estimate). That perspective conceals a glass that’s 98.3 percent empty. How so? First, that consumer base is elusive, and extremely difficult to target and then cultivate. It also conceals the greatest potential of Internet marketing, which is to gain indirect access (through distributors) to the world’s markets and their 5.9 billion consumers (the 98.3 percent that’s not online)!

Though I consider it vital for real world in-market product promotion to be conducted in the language(s) most appropriate to the indigenous population of a given market; there are enough English-speaking business people involved in international commerce to establish market entry contacts throughout the world based on an English-only Internet presence. Effectively exploiting this fact is a strategy that will not only outperform more traditional Internet marketing, but also is far less capital intensive!

It’s possible for a distributor, through licensing, to assume all responsibility for packaging, labeling, distribution, and market promotion of a product. Such an agreement establishes one means (there are others) of gaining access to the full potential of a market, even the segments beyond the reach of an English language approach. It could also conceivably relieve a product manufacturer from having any significant dealings in a language other than English.

The following list and tables represent an attempt to quantify the potential (relative to U.S. trade) of the English language in international markets. Though admittedly subjective, it contains the U.S. and *most of its export markets in which the English language is considered either an official language, an associate language, or is widely used throughout governmental/educational institutions, business sectors and in commercial communications (based on U.S. Department of State, Department of Commerce and CIA publications):

American Samoa, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, The Gambia, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong S.A.R., India, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Federated States of Micronesia, Montserrat, Namibia, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Philippines, Qatar, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, British Virgin Islands, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. * There were 13 other small markets, but current population statistics were not available for them. The 82 markets above are sufficient to make the point.

Below is the potential of “English Appropriate” markets expressed in total population size: Mid-Year 1998 Population Projections World Population 5,925,770,871
Aggregate Population of “EA” Markets 2,564,288,625
Percentage of World Pop. in “EA” Markets 43.27%

Aggregate Pop. of “EA” Markets Excluding U.S. 2,293,976,894
% of World Pop. in “EA” Markets Excluding U.S. 38.71%
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base
The potential of “English Appropriate” markets relative to 1997 U.S. Exports of Merchandise: FAS Value ($ Millions) Total 1997 U.S. Exports of Merchandise $678,348.0
U.S. Exports to “EA” Markets in 1997 $374,667.2
% of 1997 U.S. Exports of Merchandise to “EA” Markets 55.23%
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census

For a better understanding of “English Appropriate” market potential, let’s examine two extremes on the above list in terms of U.S. trade. India, the largest by far based on its population of 983 million; and Singapore, a small trade dynamo of 3.5 million whose 1997 bilateral trade with the U.S. makes it a top ten trade partner!

Country Population U.S. Exports (Millions) Rank U.S. Imports (Millions) Rank
India 983,376,520 $3,616 32 $7,711 22

Singapore 3,490,356 $17,724 9 $20,368 10


India: Excerpt from 1998 Country Commercial Guides: India Chapter IX: Business Travel “Language: The official language of the Indian union is Hindi, the language spoken by the largest number of people, but with 18 other major languages and 700 dialects, English has become a sort of lingua franca and is the accepted language for business and government.”

While some will be wont to dismiss a statement like “sort of lingua franca,” I would point out that Country Commercial Guides are important Department of Commerce publications, from which market generalizations are reliable.

Singapore: Malay is an official and the national language of Singapore, but Chinese, English, and Tamil also are official languages. English is widely used in professions, businesses, and schools. Since 1987, by government mandate, English has been the primary language used throughout all levels of Singapore’s educational system.

I can only speculate as to why the Singaporean government would establish English as the official language of its educational system; but Singapore’s economic survival is almost totally dependent on international commerce. I suspect that decision was made because English is, by usage, the unofficial language of commerce. Excerpt from 1998 Country Commercial Guides: Singapore Chapter IX: Business Travel “Business discussions are straightforward and no-nonsense. English is widely spoken and most business people are skilled and technically knowledgeable.”

With the use of English officially institutionalized in Singapore, this can be no surprise.

A primary purpose of this article is to establish that there are no absolutes regarding the use of language in online marketing to international markets. While it includes an attempt to quantify the market value of English where it is recognized as having potential value, English can actually be used effectively (at least to the extent suggested here) in all markets of the world.

If your company’s online marketing efforts are directed toward the consumer, employing the language most appropriate for carefully targeted markets will yield the greatest degree of success. However, if establishing an international distribution network is a company goal, in most instances English can serve to get things started– but the process is not always intuitively obvious and just wanting it does not make it so.

International Trade Consultant Thomas J. Judge Jr. can help you use the Internet as a trade route to 228 global markets, enabling access to commerce valued over $5.4 trillion this year. He can also be reached by e-mail or phone: tjudge@earthcorp.com, +1 (504) 895-1866