More language outsourcing on the horizon

Whenever I sit down to write an article or speech about the importance of language on websites or mobile apps, I have to turn off that part of my brain that incessantly whispers, “Shouldn’t it be obvious to everyone? Most people prefer speaking, reading, and doing most things in their own language.” Nonetheless, executives responsible for their company’s global presence regularly ask us for data showing the return on investment of translation as they struggle to justify their localization budgets. Many language service and translation software suppliers hear the same demand, so they sprinkle their websites with statistics about consumer preferences for content in their own language.

These suppliers have a big stake in proving the importance of language in every aspect of human life. According to Common Sense Advisory’s annual report on the market, the work of the roughly 18,000 language service providers around the world will account for $37 billion dollars in outsourced revenue this year. This estimate is based on a comprehensive survey of 831 suppliers in which we capture revenue, service and vertical industry data from past years. Our 2014 survey, the fifth thus far in this annual exercise, calculated market growth from 2013 to 2014 at 6.23%. While that’s a healthy percentage, it is lower than it has been at times over the last decade — 12.17% in 2012, for example.

However, that’s only part of the story. These numbers are misleading in that they show changes to revenue but not the demand that we see now and on the horizon. First, let’s consider why revenue growth is declining. In our report on the state of the market, we identified a variety of industry-specific and macroeconomic forces that put pressure on prices, and thus on revenue. These factors include static demand-side budgets, competition from low-wage providers around the globe, growing buyer requirements for a broader range of linguistic quality options priced to suit, the expanding volume of post-edited machine translation, and swelling amounts of translation automation that remove some human interactions — and thus expense — from the cost of producing translations. These forces have conspired across the entire market to limit revenue growth.

On the other hand, we see much demand and untapped opportunity in the market. Common Sense Advisory’s latest research on website globalization found that 60% of the 2,787 sites in our sample — consisting of the most powerful brands and heavily trafficked sites in the world — support two or more languages, while the remainder is monolingual. Across the entire dataset, the average website supports five languages. Organizations that want to reach 80% of the connected world’s economic spending power will have to support at least English, Japanese, German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Italian, Portuguese and Arabic (listed in the order of online economic activity).

Consumers and business buyers alike expect that products, websites, mobile apps and entertainment will be available in their languages. In our 2014 survey of 3,002 consumers in ten countries, we found an unmistakable preference for local-language content across the entire customer experience. Even people proficient in reading English preferred information in their own language over the same content on English-language websites.

Meanwhile, the volume of content created every day steadily increases, and enterprises around the world would like to translate a bigger percentage of it into more languages. Our research shows the most globalized companies translate their websites into 20 or more languages to maximize their marketing reach and economic return, but they are in the minority. Many companies only dream of following the lead of multilingual sites such as Facebook in growing to a billion-plus users.

What does all this mean for providers of language services? More revenue opportunities. Most companies and governments outsource the majority of such work because it’s not among their core competencies to produce translations into dozens of languages on an as-needed basis. Instead, they hand the job off to third parties who have created businesses and optimized their practices to manage this kind of activity.

These providers have traditionally catered to buyers in localization departments who know what it takes to deliver a good translation. However, these specialists are being joined by new buyers with differing viewpoints and requirements on language purchasing within enterprises. To many of them, translation is a business process to be outsourced. Procurement departments expect low price, accountability and adherence to standard business process outsourcing (BPO) management practices. IT departments want a plug-in utility to “solve” the translation problem. Marketing doesn’t want to exclude any potential buyers, so its goal is to make content automatically appear in the language of the customer.

Successful providers will adopt the practices of a mainstream BPO such as third-party suppliers of IT, financial, or supply chain services. They will become more professional in their dealings with their clients, managing their operations to the same BPO standards as those other corporate functions. They will scale their operations to meet their clients’ need to do more with less, using a mix of low-cost production centers, machine translation, proxy servers and expert systems to increase efficiency and productivity. In all cases, their goal must be to provide clients with the local-language content that their customers expect — and to help them out with the business case.