Localizing for India

Being an 80s kid and growing up as part of the first “digital native” generation of India was a disconcerting yet exciting experience, full of social and personal dichotomy. On one hand, thanks to home computers and access to the internet (in the age of dial-up!), a whole new world opened up for me and my peers. On the other hand, this somehow worked to further widen the social disparity between the have and the have-nots in India. Before I continue, I feel the need to warrant that statement with a bit of background information about the sheer diversity of the Indian population.

When I mention the difference between the have and the have-nots, I use the term a bit loosely. I am not only talking about the poor and the rich, but also of the difference between the English-speaking, educated “elite” population and the (sometimes) public-school educated population, who speak little to no English. With a rapid increase in the use of the internet in India, a lot of information, new technology and a wider shopping experience became available to the population. Businesses took advantage of this and began to use the internet to sell their products. But money and language remained, and still remains, a barrier for most people.

Recalling my own experience as a Millennial internet user and shopper in India, I believe there are a few inherent challenges that businesses need to address and overcome before they can reap the full benefit of setting up shop in a diverse, multicultural and multilingual nation like India.

One of the biggest challenges that the modern Indian shopper faces is lack of transparency. Skepticism can arise from a number of factors including an apparent lack of accountability in payment methods as well as insufficient information on websites and lack of understanding of the product. As intensely diverse as India is, businesses often make the fatal error of not understanding the demographic of their customers and fail to cater to their needs. One classic example of this is how companies feed into the stereotypical belief that English is spoken by the Indian population en masse and hence there’s no need for localizing content in local Indian languages. The fact that India has become the leading business process outsourcing (BPO) hub for Western countries tends to feed into this stereotype.

However, evidence shows that less than 30% of the Indian population can proficiently speak English, and perhaps even fewer feel completely at home with the language. In a market like this, localization is absolutely essential in most places, if not everywhere. While the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 Indian languages apart from English (which is the official language of the country along with Hindi), this is meaningless in the face of the fact that the lion’s share of information online is in English. This means that not only are a major number of Indians unable to enjoy the online shopping experience, but it also means that there is a serious gap in information dissemination in government websites as well. This gaping hole in information dissemination, and what I believe to be a somewhat unjust attitude toward non-English speaking Indians, can only be addressed through localization.

While there are miles to go before the Indian government can even begin to put a successful localization strategy in place, most major online businesses have the minimum means to plan and execute a successful and rewarding translation and localization strategy. In fact, it is to their benefit to do so. Companies should begin localizing now if they want to reap the full benefit of carrying out business in an enticingly populated country like India.

How the internet changed Indian shopping habits 

I was lucky to see the internet boom at work in India. By the time I was in college, I was regularly buying books from Flipkart and would occasionally purchase more expensive electronics from Infibeam. I would check out perfume and eau de cologne in the sprawling malls, but then uneasily slink back home to place an online order for my product. Not only was I saving money (as a college student, this was a definite plus), but I was also able to find books and other products more easily online than in physical stores. The internet made the world more accessible.

The internet has changed the economic and social geography of India in a very big way, especially in the past decade. Businesses have begun to find new ways of reaching customers, and customers can now afford to be choosier about who they buy from simply because they have more options.

India is currently the second most populated nation with 1.26 billion people, closely following China, which has a population of 1.37 billion people. Not surprisingly, almost 50% of internet users are from Asia.

Historically, China has seen the highest number of internet users. In 2013, India was one of the top 20 internet using countries, with the lowest penetration rate (19%) and the highest yearly growth rate.

However, things have changed drastically for India over the past few years. According to a 2015 Internet and Mobile Association of India report, India will surpass the United States with 402 million internet users by 2016. Indeed, as of June 2016, the internet-using population of India had already surpassed this projected number with more than 460 million internet users. For 41% of Indians, however, the mobile phone is the only possible way to access the internet. India has emerged as the second largest base of mobile-only internet generation, after South Africa.

What’s even more telling is that of the millions of internet users in India, 38% of those who use the internet at home or at work come from the 25-34 age bracket. In other words, the biggest internet users in India are the ones with enough disposable income to be extremely enticing to global online sellers and eRetailers. However, selling online in India is not without its challenges. Some of these challenges have already been faced and overcome by our close neighbor, China. It remains to be seen if the Indian online retail scene can implement their learnings from the ecommerce success of China.

The ecommerce boom

The Chinese ecommerce boom could offer online businesses in India a number of valuable lessons. However, the Indian market is quite different from that of China, with the former having a somewhat poorer population, lower infrastructure, a huge difference in ecommerce liberalization policies and, most importantly, a major difference in languages spoken and read throughout the country.

While poverty in India is not going to be wiped away overnight, it is projected that Indian incomes will almost triple over the next 20 years, with the country becoming the fifth-largest consumer market by 2025 according to McKinsey&Company. With more innovative and powerful delivery models like the famous dabbawala system of Mumbai, the economical and infrastructural impediments of India can easily be overcome by online businesses with the right technology.

Language, however, remains a problem. English remains the language of the elite and the urban in India. As the North Indian proverb goes, in India, every two miles the water changes, and every four miles the speech. Yet not only are the lesser known languages completely ignored by the greater population, but the 22 most commonly spoken and read Indian languages are also frequently disregarded by online sellers.

Going back to the social dichotomy I spoke about at the beginning of this article, there’s anecdotal evidence of how a multilingual and multicultural nation like India will require special handling when it comes to customer service. My grandmother, who is proficient in reading and speaking English, always comes to me when she needs to buy something that the local grocer or pharmacy does not stock. This is because she cannot use the home computer and has no idea how online shopping works. On the other hand, her caregiver has a modern Android phone with the latest user interface and 3G internet access. She can use popular social apps like WhatsApp and Viber (with the Bengali typewriter). Yet she also has a tough time navigating the world of online shopping because she is uncomfortable reading the product descriptions and reviews in English.

We do not trust something that we can’t completely understand. For a very large percentage of the smartphone-using Indian population, English-language based online shopping is an impediment. More often than not, this means that they will either not buy online, or will have to approach their more proficient English educated acquaintances for help. Companies carrying out business in India are doing themselves a disservice by not tapping into the non-English speaking Indian market and by not offering their products in multiple local languages.

Respect your customers

Growing up in India I have always felt that there is a certain disconnect between people from different states or different socioeconomic backgrounds because India is a nation where non-English speaking people can often be relegated to the position of a nonentity when it comes to better jobs or education. This discrimination seems to have permeated into the way we do our business in India as well. However, this attitude needs to change if we want online commerce in India to reach its fullest potential.

In 2014, Snapdeal began offering multilingual content for their products. Today, their products are available in nine popular local Indian languages. While this may fail to reflect immediate results in sales, most Tier 2 and Tier 3 regions will be using the regional language settings more extensively, especially with introduction of cheap smartphones and the 3G data services beginning to spread to every remote part of India. The fact is, the rural population with limited English has both the means to access the internet and also the money to spend on products they want.

Also, what’s very important to keep in mind is that in India, not knowing English is not akin to being illiterate and poor. Many successful scientists, educationists and entrepreneurs are educated in public schools and while they would have working proficiency of English, most would prefer their content to be in a language that they are comfortable with.  Online businesses in India need to wake up to this fact and begin translating and localizing their products in more local languages with priority toward more common languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil. 

Asking the right questions

While I have gone in-depth about why only English language content is not going to work for the Indian consumer, it is not to say that all content needs to be translated and localized. Before beginning to plan the localization strategy, it would be worth answering a few questions that will help companies come up with a solid game plan.

Who are you targeting and what’s the most common language spoken by the majority of your buyers? Research the demographic before selecting the languages you want to translate your content into. Localization can be somewhat expensive for the businesses initially, but by cherry picking the languages, you can create a more focused localization plan.

Are you alienating a certain section of the potential customers by using a language they are uncomfortable with? For instance, for very high-end products, which tend to lend a certain social prestige to the Indian buyer, you could do away with translating in Indian languages. However, for most products used by the mass, you should be localizing your content to ensure that your English-only website does not drive away potential buyers.

Which solution should you choose? Once you have decided to localize, start slow. Begin with a few languages first (either choose the most commonly spoken Indian languages, or select according to the demography of your customers). Then select the translation solution that best suits your product and service. You may choose a language service provider (LSP), a custom machine translation solution, develop a localization solution in-house or pay freelance translators to translate your content. It all depends on your product, your budget and the goal of your localization strategy.

What localization strategy works in India? 

There is no single answer to the question. Just like the diversity of the country, the selection process for a localization strategy can vary depending on various factors: localization budget, the goal for localization, in-house expertise, availability of resources in terms of translators and knowledge of local culture, to name just a few.

Choosing a local LSP that will take care of the overall localization process may be ideal. However, some of the biggest online retailers in India are using machine translation to translate content on their website. Direct web publishing of custom machine translated content can become a cost-effective means of reaching new customers in India.

Building an in-house localization team can be beneficial for some companies. However, very often, online businesses are better off letting the experts handle the localization process, while they can focus on selling their products to the right customers, especially when a company is new to localization.

Finally, knowing the local Indian language is not the same as being a professional translator. With a small amount of online content, hiring professional translators with knowledge of the local language and customs can prove to be very effective when it comes to localizing for small online businesses.

Once again, it is very important to set goals for your localization strategy and this in turn will help choose the right localization solution.

Embrace the change

Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon, India’s top three ecommerce sites, have sales surpassing that of a number of traditional brick-and-mortar retailers in India. This is indicative of a sea change in the way Indians are shopping. The market in India is rife with challenges, mirroring the country’s very makeup itself. But few markets in the world are richer than India when it comes to hidden potential and an undeniable tenacity to excel, in spite of challenges. It is time companies across the globe wake up to the benefits of investing in and localizing for the Indian market, before it is too late to make a mark on the country’s already hypercompetitive atmosphere. Embrace the diversity that India offers, respect the languages and cultures that make India such a vibrant, exciting and dynamic nation; and within no time you will secure a large and loyal customer base.