English is a global language, right?
So all that companies from Timbuktu to Murmansk have to do in order to open up vast new business horizons is to plonk it on their websites?
It may seem self-evident that if you employ English in your content, wherever you are, you gain access to a new world of commercial opportunities. Otherwise, how else will the planet’s richest consumer markets find out about Timbuktu’s glittering tourism provision or Murmansk’s nuclear auxiliary industry?
The problem is, the opposite is the case.
Unless the English that overseas sites employ is competitive – that is, it meets the standards set by mainstream English-language markets – they are doing more harm than good.
Consumers globally – and particularly in English-language markets – are mercilessly unforgiving. They are bombarded with content. They can see the cracks and the sticking tape. They will make precious few exceptions for what they see as unsophisticated one-upmanship.
All the evidence suggests that poor use of language on websites scares the majority of readers away. Poor English will not only damage a brand, but also its neighbours: it can fuel broader mistrust about standards in an entire sector or region.
We’ve all seen it, the well-meaning outreach attempted on websites in exotic places that quickly trip up the reader with bad grammar and bizarre vocabulary. In some markets, such as France, the lofty assumption that anyone can pen anglais parfait has become a chauvinistic reflex. As a result, the English content of French company websites can be replete with clunky, awkward phrases.
But here’s a better example, from … Murmansk, and the home page of FSUE Atomflot, a Russian shipping company:
Federal State Unitary Enterprise «Atomflot»
Based on the advanced technology of using nuclear energy to power maritime vessels Rosatomflot aims to support the intensification of Arctic shipping as the key factor of rise and development of the Russian North.
Provision of stable reliability level, safety and effectiveness of atomic icebreaking fleet operations based on professional use of modern technologies which are achieved due to high qualification of personnel and regular training, management enhancement to meet home and international standards and successfully face challenges of time.
Try telling me that the above a great advertisement for their services. Try telling me that it will win them business.
So why are so many non-English providers convinced that because a member of staff has a smattering of the language it’s perfectly fine to put them to work generating DIY content full of daft errors?
The first, obvious, reason is that content marketing has, by definition, been less of a priority in such markets. The skills and qualities required to produce credible, targeted content are absent.
A second reason is cost: small companies in exotic places with flaky exchange rates do not want to pay western dollars for quality content that they are utterly convinced they can write themselves.
A final reason is access. Content-marketing professionals – from copywriters to community and seo managers – are simply nowhere to be found in these markets. Why should they be? They are species that have evolved and survive in a very different ecosystem.
The best advice anyone can give the courageous but foolhardy DIY content pioneers, wherever they may be, is to see copy as a hard asset and hence an essential investment. If the business model is sturdy, investing in quality content generated by native providers will pay its way.
A second piece of advice, however, is that they consider all the elements that comprise communication through language.
Language is both receptive (listening and reading) and expressive (speaking and writing), and five separate domains determine the skills required for each of these components.
Writing alone requires accurate spelling (phonology); the appropriate use of grammar (morphology); use of the correct sentence structure (syntax); use of vocabulary (semantics); and conveying the intended message (pragmatics).
Furthermore, higher-order language skills – the kind needed to write, and understand, slick content – include inference, comprehension and interpretation, and these in turn require metalinguistic awareness, “the ability to reflect upon language”.
Clearly, it is in no one’s interest to pretend that this is simple.