Our Analysts' Insights


Need It or Want It? English May Be the Only Way to Get It

For our report “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy – B2C” report on consumer language preferences, CSA Research analyzed data from a representative sample of 8,709 consumers in 29 locales. To ensure data validity, we used Kantar, a global company specializing in consumer panels, to run the survey in countries with active internet markets, and to verify the respondents. All told, 31,933 people started the survey, and more than 23,000 were excluded by our filters and trap questions, and by Kantar’s patented Honesty Detector. 

What we found in the third edition of this series’ survey responses was that consumers still prefer accessing information, making online purchases, and getting technical support in their own language. That’s not a big surprise, but the survey — combined with our other research on website language support — highlights the fact that many consumers don’t have access to sites in their language, that localized websites often have major flaws, and that many must rely on English to get things they want or need. 

Limited Language Choice Results from Economic Realities

Economic reality ultimately determines what information appears in which languages for which countries. Strategists factor their investment against population, GDP per capita, and other variables that CSA Research tracks in our annual analysis and our Global Revenue Forecaster™. 

Since we started our website localization research in 2007, English has consistently outscored all other languages. It accounts for nearly 44% of the world’s online GDP and appears as a choice on approximately 90% of sites that support two or more languages in our most recent assessment of 2,817 prominent websites (see Figure). 


Underinvestment in Localization Leads to Less Satisfying CX  

On average, our research shows that multilingual sites support six languages – but that number is misleading. The depth and local relevance of content shrinks at many localized sites as consumers step through the customer journey. Why? Our analysis show just between five and 15% of that content is available for the top-tier languages (those with the most potential revenue) and much less for lower-ranked languages.What that means is a localized site with less content becomes a CX-deprived site that could lose up to 80% of its total addressable market (TAM) across the customer journey.

In our CRWB-B2C survey we found other issues in response to the question, “Which problems have you encountered when you use a site or application that’s been translated into your native languages?” (Figure). We categorized their responses as: 

  • Exit immediately. Nearly one-half (48%) leave the site when they encounter a problem. The balance look for support from the provider, a friend or colleague, or online search, social media, or video platform. 
  • Language problems. Three linguistic reasons account for 45% of all responses – the “quality of the content” issue (34%) means that the translation is bad or not on target, there’s no localized help (33%), and the site or app has been incompletely translated (26%). This problem extends into checkoutwith issues like not supporting local address fields in transaction forms (16%).
  • Failure to meet online purchase expectations. Forty-one percent of respondents cited shipping speed or cost. Customs and taxes factor into this cross-border issue as well. Incidentally, our survey sample deliberately excluded countries such as Algeria with limited ecommerce and problems with shipping and credit cards. 
  • Checking out. Respondents who get to the buy screen find limited payment options (22%), such as not allowing Girocards (Germany), Line Pay (Japan), or Weibo (China). They also cite the lack of attention to privacy regulations and expectations (19%). 

While buyers might overlook one or two flaws early in their journey, they’re much less likely to ignore them when they’re paying – or trying to pay – for something they’d like to buy. If you lose people right as they’re ready to open their wallets, it’s tough to convert them to customers.


Reliance on English for Other Markets Remains the Default

When we were finalizing the 2014 “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” survey for its launch to thousands of consumers, I asked our statistician to verify input into SAS, output formats, and suitability for planned correlations such as the odds ratio (“A is 5x more likely to be the case than B”) and analysis of variants. He reviewed the survey and said that, “It looks like you’re trying to establish that people prefer consuming information and buying stuff in their own language. Do you really need a 50-question survey with 3,000 responses to prove that?”  

That’s a great question – do we really need to run a survey to show that people prefer consuming information in their own language? Linguists and savvy global executives view this question as rhetorical, if not laughable. We could reasonably say without a survey that 90% of people will immediately leave a website that is not in a language that they understand. But there is one big exception to that anecdotal fact – they won’t leave if there is something they really want or need from that foreign-language website. Our survey probed consumers on  preferences and problems, while our analysis focuses on the likelihood that they’ll do what they need to get the information, product, service, or support they need or want. 

  • What do consumers want that they can’t get in their own language? Many factors drive people to English-language sites even if their English isn’t that good – such as marketplaces, deeper content, the choice of goods and services, more sophisticated customer experiences, product reviews, and more customer support. There is an enormous amount of information and things available only in English – and a lot of global demand. 
  • How well do people succeed in getting what they want or need in another language? What if they partially understand it or can’t read it all? In our survey we asked respondents about their confidence in understanding English content online – but we also drilled down into the likelihood of them taking certain actions while actually reading that language online. 

“Likelihood” is an important word here – while the survey results show preference, our correlations demonstrate the probability of someone buying something based on a correlation such as confidence in their English-language skills. The results show a marked difference between their self-assessed confidence in understanding English-language content and their lower level of comfort in undertaking those activities in another language. Throughout the report are correlations such as non-native speakers of English who are confident in their English-language skills 7.45 times more likely to visit English sites than those without that level of proficiency. 

How Companies Use This Data

Not surprisingly, we found that people are best able to communicate in their most frequently used language (that is, their native language), but their behavior shows less English-language competency than what they profess for activities. What that means is that if you sell something people want or need but don’t offer it in their language, you’re less likely to get their business as 75% or more of them drop out at some point along the customer journey. 

Companies and government agencies have long used “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” data as part of business planning: “Should we localize? Which countries demand translation the most? Where in the customer journey is essential? They use this data in conjunction with our digital opportunity research as a starting point in their analysis to: 1) Get top-line figures for the total online-accessible economic potential (eGDP) and audience for the world’s 100 most valuable language; 2) benchmark against competitors for international language support; and 3) forecast revenue and supporting functions such as set sales targets, prioritize markets, and build business cases. 

Find out more about CRWB-B2C, the upcoming “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy – B2B” report on business users and localization, and related research from our Global Growth Research Series. For specific datacuts such as all data by country, by gender, or by age, email crwb@csa-research.com.  

About the Author

Donald A. DePalma

Donald A. DePalma

Chief Research Officer

Focuses on market trends, business models, and business strategy


The Science Behind Consumer Market Research

The Science Behind Consumer Market Research

Recently CSA Research launched the third edition of our oft cited “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” resear...

Read More >
Arabic: To Localize or Not to Localize, That Is the Question

Arabic: To Localize or Not to Localize, That Is the Question

With over 222 million Arabic-speaking web users, and an online economic opportunity of 2.5 trillion ...

Read More >
Budget Cuts Versus the Four Rs

Budget Cuts Versus the Four Rs

With no country’s economy able to predict accurately whether it’s entering a recession or cautious...

Read More >
Language Access for Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

Language Access for Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

One of the most heartbreaking results of COVID-19 pandemic has been hearing about people falling ill...

Read More >
Does Language Matter?  The Impact of Language on the Customer Journey

Does Language Matter? The Impact of Language on the Customer Journey

Marketers strive to create the ultimate customer experience (CX), but we find that few spare more th...

Read More >
How Teams Can Prepare for Post-COVID-19: Enterprise Survey Data

How Teams Can Prepare for Post-COVID-19: Enterprise Survey Data

No one can predict when the ripple effects of COVID-19 will end. However, the results of our survey ...

Read More >




Follow Us on Twitter