The Spanish language comes in many variants, deeply entrenched in their regional cultures. Too many variations exist for companies to tackle them all. As a result, organizations often resort to using one or a few Spanish versions — which they characterize as universal or neutral — for their product literature and websites. Yet that trend shows signs of breaking down as digital experience becomes hyperlocal. Marketing and content managers seeking the next logical step along the path to greater engagement with Spanish speakers should consider a mix of regional and national Spanish variants.
Universal Spanish emerged in the 1990s when companies such as Microsoft and Apple started to release software and hardware products with a common user interface and documentation set for all Spanish-speaking markets. Other translation buyers tended to focus more on the country (such as Spain or Argentina) or region (such as Latin America). “US Spanish” attempted to blend the needs of Cubano Miami, Puerto Rican New York and Mexican El Paso.
Language service providers (LSPs) make efforts to deliver these made-up languages to generic audiences. They often work with linguists who are more sensitive to Spanish variants issues and mix and match the language background of linguists working on projects. So for example, they pick an Argentinian translator and a Mexican editor. Yet the wildcard in translation is the client reviewer whose linguistic background may not match the intended target audience. Inevitably, the LSP must prioritize satisfying the client reviewer over the end user in order to deliver on time and avoid costly rework.
Fast-forward to 2015 and technology has progressed to the point where idiomatic and local language is resurgent in digital experience. Hyper-localization is possible because the geolocation attributes from web browsers — and user account metadata for mobile phones — allow content providers to tailor content to the location or preferences of an individual user.
The proliferation of social media and mobile applications has also changed user expectations. In the past, people mostly interacted with digital content at work and functional applications at home, like spreadsheets or mass-produced games. Now we spend considerable amounts of our free time talking to family and friends on social media and interacting with our local environments via our mobile devices. While artificial constructs like Universal Spanish are easily tolerated in the workplace and functional applications, in our personal life we want our accessories and interactions to reflect our personal style and local characteristics. When we are interacting via digital channels we may be talking to a friend or ordering takeout — many of our digital experiences are now hyperlocal.
Advertising plays a role in hyper-localization as well. Local ad delivery on web and mobile networks means that technology users see more and more advertising from local businesses. Unlike brand advertisers chasing a mass audience, local shops address customers in their regional or even communal dialects. The trend toward localization can be seen in Spain with the growth of Basque, Catalan, Galician and Valencian. In Central and South America, each country has unique flavors of Spanish due to interactions with local indigenous languages. However, these indigenous languages do not follow the borders of today’s countries. The Spanish spoken in the western part of Venezuela and southern Colombia can be considered Andean Spanish, sharing more commonalities with Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian Spanish than with the Caribbean-oriented Spanish of northern Colombia and coastal Venezuela.
Most companies still think in terms of countries, rather than online language populations, both for distribution or logistics and for campaign management. Also, the data available to market planners — such as population figures, web and mobile internet penetration, and gross domestic product (GDP) — always pertains to countries, rather than natural linguistic groups. Thus, going below the country level to calculate the value of dialects gets very tricky. The data provided here quantifies dialects at the country level, to match the campaign management needs of global marketers.
Budgeting for spend
Spanish now ranks third for both online audience and online GDP, behind only English and Simplified Chinese — Spanish now surpasses French, German and Japanese in total opportunity. However, multiple variants are required to unlock the full potential of this widely dispersed population. In Common Sense Advisory (CSA’s) 2015 update of online audience and online GDP figures for 100 languages, we peg the world audience for Spanish at 261,504,238 internet users, combining data from 24 countries including the United States. We also calculate the Spanish share of online GDP in all these countries, which amounts to almost $4.4 trillion. The numbers in Figure 1 for online GDP represent the share of the GDP associated with the number of Spanish speakers online. CSA Research calculates this number based on the per capita GPD of the countries where those individuals live. Since offline spending is directly influenced by online participation, online GDP measures how much of the world’s economic activity is being influenced by digital experience — not just ecommerce, but all commerce.
The numbers in Figure 1 are meant to provide a guideline for decision-making, based on the best numbers available. CSA Research believes this data is both more accurate and more useful than any other data available. By combining audience and GDP figures across multiple countries, users gain critical insight into the relative value of providing products, services and customer experiences in each language or dialect. Here are the Spanish-language variants found in the table:
Universal Spanish. For companies that can only afford a single Spanish, this figure includes all Spanish speakers in 24 countries. There is no such language, so each company must decide what its version of Universal Spanish will be.
Neutral variants. Many companies now use two or more Spanish variants, and this is the place to start when your company is ready. Neutral Spanish variants avoid the colloquialisms of national-level idioms, but exert a greater degree of focus than attempts at a universal language. For example, Castellano or Castilian Spanish for Spain and Africa, and Latin American Spanish for the Americas. US Spanish, another chimeric language, also qualifies as a neutral variant, in that it seeks to minimize idiomatic expressions — except for those that would be recognizable from US popular culture.
Regional variants. A number of well-known global brands are now moving to a regional focus in their Spanish language strategy. Few companies can afford to manage localization for 24 variations of Spanish, yet no Spanish speaker uses a universal or neutral dialect in real life. Adopting a regional language strategy will help brands to better connect with their customers. So far, there is no consensus in the industry about how to combine multiple markets into a manageable set of regional variants. What we’ve done in the table is to create six variants based on physical and linguistic proximity.
National variants. Using national numbers and assumptions about regional dialects, expert readers can create their own population and economic data mashups. Consider the regional clusters shown in Figure 1 as examples of how to assemble a medium-focus Spanish variant, rather than as a definitive cut. For instance, we’ve included Chilean Spanish with the Rioplatense group, which is not perfect. But it doesn’t quite fit with the Andean group either. Can you afford to go to the national language level for Chilean Spanish? For mobile content only, or for all content? Every company must decide. Use the national numbers to build your own model.