Web Globalization ROI

What’s the ROI of Web Globalization?

by John Yunker

A few months ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook, at an investor meeting, was quoted as saying:

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”

I love this quote.

And I love any CEO who knows when the ROI argument is an irrelevant argument.

That’s because sometimes the ROI just isn’t there — maybe not initially, maybe not ever. And sometimes not doing something is far worse than worrying about the ROI of actually doing it.

When the iPhone first debuted, most analysts said it stood little chance of succeeding in Japan, a country with powerful incumbents and an affinity for flip phones. Indeed, a number of Japanese technology executives I spoke with at the time agreed. They believed the iPhone would be little more than a passing novelty.

Today, the iPhone is far and away the leading smartphone in Japan, blowing away all competitors.


The ROI of the iPhone in Japan took several years to materialize, but when it did, it paid off spectacularly well.

Which leads me to the ROI of web globalization.

I have helped companies calculate the ROI of website translation for numerous markets. And I’ve been privy to extremely complex ROI models that look at factors such as:

  • Internet connectivity
  • Purchasing power and currency exchange rates
  • Demographic trends
  • Cultural similarities and differences
  • Legal and regulatory challenges
  • Political stability
  • Ecommerce acceptance
  • In-country partners/distributors
  • Local competition

I don’t want to suggest that these ROI analyses aren’t worth the effort. They usually are worth the effort.

But I also hate to see ROI used as a convenient excuse for saying no.

More often than not, the ROI of web localization is all too obvious — or it should be to those at the top of the org chart.


Actions speak louder than spreadsheets

Let’s go back to 2005. At the time, a leading global website supported, on average, 13 languages. Most websites supported between one and five languages.

Hertz supported just nine languages, not including English. Shown here is the global gateway from 2005:


Today, Hertz supports 22 languages, more than doubling its linguistic reach. The global gateway today, shown here, lists more than 100 countries.


And here is the Hotels.com global gateway in 2005:


I love comparing the global gateway from then, when it supported 11 languages, to the today’s global gateway, which supports 38 languages and considerably more markets:


Hotels.com has, over the past decade, added languages at the pace of roughly three languages per year.

Even companies that were widely considered web globalization leaders in 2005 have not rested on their laurels. In 2005, Philips supported 22 languages, not including English, which was impressive even then. Today, the company supports 37 languages, proving that web globalization is a never-ending journey. And the sooner you begin, the better.

I can guarantee that many of the companies supporting 30 or more languages today got there by looking past any short-term ROI concerns. They pushed ahead because, in the long term, they knew they could not afford not to be in these countries.


Moving past ROI

If you’re in a position of arguing for greater localization investment, I suggest you ask anyone who objects: What’s the ROI of creating an English-language website?

“Isn’t it obvious that we need an English-language website?” would be the likely response from an English speaker.

Using that logic, isn’t it equally as obvious to speakers of other languages that you need to support their languages if you ever hope to sell to them?

Seems obvious to me.

So if you have your eyes on expanding into a given market, the question really shouldn’t be if you should localize but how to do so effectively, making the best use of resources and managing user expectations as you expand. And ROI has a role to play in these discussions, but a much more nuanced role.


Don’t let ROI hamper success

So go ahead and calculate ROI. But before you make a final decision on global expansion, be sure to also ask these questions:

  • Is lack of apparent ROI being used to justify our low investment in web localization?
  • Is ROI being used to “kick the can” down the road of making a decision on web globalization?
  • Will we look back five years from now and regret not investing in such-and-such language/locale?

ROI is not the answer. It’s just a tool to help you arrive at an answer.

Sometimes, when the answer is obvious, it’s not a very effective tool at all. It can in fact be short-sighted. And more often than not, global expansion, once begun, rarely ends.


About the Author

John YunkerJohn Yunker (@johnyunker), co-founder of Byte Level Research (www.bytelevel.com), consults with many of the world’s leading global companies, providing web globalization training and benchmark services. He has authored 10 annual editions of The Web Globalization Report Card, an analysis of the world’s best global websites. He is author of The Art of the Global Gateway, The Savvy Client’s Guide to Translation Agencies, and Beyond Borders: Web Globalization.