Underserved Asian markets

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country by population (250 million), spread across 13,466 islands. Its inhabitants speak over 700 languages. Java, the largest and most populous island in the world, is home to the country capitol, Jakarta, as well as several widely spoken indigenous languages: Javanese (84 million speakers), Sundanese (34 million) and Madurese (13 million). Madurese is spoken on the island of Madura, part of East Java, and also on the main island. Sixteen other languages represent between one and ten million speakers.

In our ranking of the world’s most-globalized websites (In “The Top 100 Global Websites for 2014” and “Assessing the World’s Most Prominent Websites”), Common Sense Advisory examined language coverage. Among other things, we measured the number of top 100 global websites that offered local language versions, broken down per country.

We discovered that Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino are underrepresented in global websites compared to to Korean, Traditional Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. Part of this has to do with lower per capita incomes, but the other reason is higher tolerance for English.

Based on our survey of more than 3,000 global consumers from ten non-Anglophone countries in Europe, Asia and South America, Indonesians self-assess their English language acumen as very high — over 50% visit English-language sites on a regular basis. When we asked in our “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” study why they shop at English-language websites, respondents from Indonesia answered “To buy products and services not available in my language” more than any other country we studied. So we know the online population is accustomed to interacting with English-language sites.

Compared to other big economies in the region, Indonesia appears to suffer from lower internet penetration, reaching only 22% of the population at the end of 2012. However, calculating that percentage is notoriously difficult, as a single internet connection or mobile phone may have multiple users. Internet World Stats (IWS) reported only 55 million users as of December 31, 2012 (Figure 1), while Facebook alone reportedly had 63 million accounts in Indonesia as of April 2013. The bottom line is that Indonesia is notably underserved.

How should global brand websites address this sprawling market? There are three possible language strategies: first, stick with English; second, adopt the national language; or third, go local all the way.

As for the first option, the language of Shakespeare and Isaac Newton is alive and well in Malaysia, for example, though the country recently backed off from its formal policy of dual language education. Originally intending to teach math and science in English, the government still makes English a mandatory subject. Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, English is used extensively in the media and education. While comprehension tends to be lower in Indonesia, the global lingua franca still gets used here, too. In the absence of high-quality translation, many internet users prefer English for global brand content.

In each case, the second option of adopting the national language is the best choice for broad acceptance in these markets. Because they are the languages of education and media, most people are comfortable reading and writing in them. Even so, the majority of these populations speak a different language or dialect in the home, which undermines the localization ideal of language intimacy, or what we call the “pajama effect” — the language people speak when they’re in their pajamas.

Going all the way local may be tricky. However, while approaching these markets with the hundreds and hundreds of distinct ethnic languages won’t be feasible, there are major sub-groups in these countries. For example, Javanese has 60 million native speakers in Indonesia alone. That’s roughly the population of France or the United Kingdom. Using local languages can work for businesses with a strong physical presence in particular cities or islands. For online services with a relatively low cost for product localization, there are dozens of populations in these countries with a million or more speakers.

In the final analysis, we recommend that global brands and websites looking to penetrate the market in Indonesia use Indonesian rather than English, but only if there is a commitment to high-quality translation or locally written content. English-language content is preferable to poor-quality Indonesian. Use of local languages for global brands, for the most part, will be useful in point-of-sale and offline advertising. Social networkers may use their home language chatting with family and neighbors online, but expect the interface itself to be in Indonesian. If your goal is to maximize the number of people who can read what you publish and interact with your websites, good content in the local language is always the best solution.