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Facebook Buys WhatsApp: The Multilingual Challenge to Reach the Next Five Billion
Posted by Rebecca Ray on April 2, 2014  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Global Marketing
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Even as politicians around the world struggle to figure out new ways to contain the internet, the engineers and businesspeople in Silicon Valley uncover ways to extend coverage to more potential customers across the globe. 

Facebook’s recent acquisition of mobile messaging startup WhatsApp is a case in point. Many pundits agonized over the perceived high price for the acquisition: US$19 billion. However, Common Sense Advisory believes it to be a very sound investment in Facebook’s increasingly multilingual future as it continues its global expansion via mobile:

Figure: WhatsApp Community Translation Opportunities
Source: WhatsApp.com

  • Facebook is buying growth in emerging mobile markets, home to many of its future customers. In the nine months prior to its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp’s worldwide usage more than doubled to 450 million people. 
  • Non-U.S. chatterboxes depend on instant messaging services. Most mobile phone users outside of the U.S. do not enjoy free, unlimited texting within their own country or across borders. Applications like WhatsApp allow them to avoid the charges imposed by their telephone carriers. Many of WhatsApp’s almost half billion users are young people in Europe, Latin America, and India. 
  • To many users in emerging markets, Facebook is a trusted brand and perceived as the internet itself. What our readers outside of emerging markets may not realize is that Facebook also services more than 100 million users – or around 10% of its 1.2 billion users – on feature phones. Texting at no cost or very low rates is an absolute requirement for this market segment. 
  • The China factor. Banned since the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, Facebook maintains a watchful eye on Chinese social platforms. These include Tencent with its Wechat and QQ instant messaging services, with approximately 1.1 billion users. As long as Facebook is shut out of this market, it needs to keep adding as many users as it can in other regions of the world. 
To ensure that buying growth in emerging mobile markets pays off, Facebook must stay ahead of the translation curve. It has other initiatives on the table, such as internet.org, that increase the pressure to execute its language strategy flawlessly. The stated goal of internet.org, which Facebook has launched in partnership with several other companies is to extend the internet to the two-thirds of the people on earth who don’t yet have access. Provisioning content – including Facebook ads – to people in their own languages will eventually become a principal success factor. Translation of this content and the localization of the interfaces on the cheaper mobile devices will drive adoption in these markets.

But even with the help of the crowd, financial and human resources aren’t unlimited for either Facebook or WhatsApp. At Common Sense Advisory, we have been fielding many more requests than usual about how to prioritize additional languages for support. Companies that depend on international revenue to spur their growth are discovering that they must refine their multilingual content strategies to handle the reality that no one market accounts for more than 22% of the world economy nowadays. Online, the situation is much the same, with the largest market – the United States – making up 26% of the World Online Wallet (WOW).

English-speaking countries represent 36% of the combined online and offline spending power of web users. The relative value of English as a natively preferred language is experiencing an extended, historical decline as more people around the world come online and emerging markets grow more rapidly than industrialized economies.

These new consumers – and future ones – generally won’t buy what they can’t read, though. Common Sense Advisory recently polled 3,000 consumers in 10 countries in their languages to test the hypothesis that companies can increase their sales by localizing their products and websites. We confirmed that more local language content throughout the customer experience leads to a greater likelihood of purchase.

Food for thought as Facebook – and your company – attempt to prioritize new markets and the languages they represent for the next five billion people on the planet.


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