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Could under-represented online languages be an opportunity for businesses?

Image: wit88_ via iStock
in Retail and Ecommerce

One of the big challenges for many ecommerce businesses is finding an effective way to tap into new, lucrative markets. Use of language often plays a critical part in this mission, since the way companies communicate and express their brand message is central to how they retain existing customers and win new ones.

As far as use of global languages online is concerned, English and Chinese are by far the most commonly spoken languages among internet users, with more than one billion and 800 million speakers, respectively.

Looking at the top ten languages based on the number of web users, ranked by Internet World Stats, one of the most notable takeaways is the lack of certain languages. Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi, for example, are among the ten most commonly spoken languages around the world, yet none feature among the internet top ten.

In this article, we'll look at how the current under-representation of languages such as these could open up opportunities for businesses targeting online growth, particularly in India.

Connecting through language

The most likely reason for the fact that widely spoken languages such as Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi are under-represented online is that people who speak them are also conversant in English. Hindi, for example, is the most commonly spoken language in India, with more than 422 million speakers, but English is also recognised as one of the country's official languages.

Being able to speak English is particularly important for regions and individual businesses that are reliant on international trade or tourism. For foreign firms looking to gain a foothold in emerging and potentially lucrative markets such as India, there could be benefits to be gained from applying the same principle – engaging with customers by communicating in their native tongue.

In countries where people have become accustomed to online businesses – particularly those with foreign roots – using English by default, encountering brand messages and marketing material conveyed naturally in their mother tongue could make for a refreshing change.

This could prove an effective strategy in cities and regions where consumers have money to spend. There are large gaps between India's wealthier and poorer regions, with states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka likely to offer the most opportunities for businesses.

Mumbai, for example, the capital of Maharashtra and the wealthiest and most populous city in India, could be a key starting point for any firm targeting expansion in India. English is widely spoken there, but your company could get local customer relations off to a good start by making the effort to communicate in Marathi, Mumbai's official language, or Hindi.

It's important to remember that engaging with a foreign audience is not simply about translating your existing marketing material directly into another language. Content must be tailored and presented in a way that reflects the local culture, traditions and customer expectations. This is where specialist language services such as localisation can prove invaluable.

Opportunities in a burgeoning market

It has become abundantly clear in recent years that, for any business able to establish an online presence and begin to build a loyal customer base there, India holds huge potential as an ecommerce market.

Recent research has indicated that the Indian ecommerce sector could be worth US$188 billion (£134.7 billion) by 2025. Increasing smartphone penetration, the launch of 4G networks and rising consumer wealth are among the key factors in this growth trend.

More online consumer activity is originating from India's tier II and tier III cities, such as Lucknow and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Nashik and Nagpur in Maharashtra, and Surat and Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

Many people in locations such as these have high aspirations, but limited access to brands. Businesses that are able to make a meaningful engagement by providing content in Hindi and other local languages could set themselves up for long-term success in these rapidly growing markets.

This could also be an effective approach for smaller brands that want to set themselves apart from global conglomerates. Recent reports have indicated that the likes of Amazon and Walmart are planning to step up their operations in India, going as far as to say that the future of ecommerce in the country could be an "all-American affair".

While smaller businesses might not be able to rival these giants in terms of financial clout, they could distinguish themselves from the competition by focusing on personalised, relevant communication with local populations and mutually rewarding customer relationships.

Image: wit88_ via iStock

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