Stories about international travel often contain amusing anecdotes about people accidentally saying phrases such as, “Your outfit looks really disgusting!” or “I’d like hair with the sandwich”, when they intended to communicate something entirely different. These accidental missteps can be a great source of humor in our personal lives, but having something lost in translation may be far more costly when conducting market research.
Much of the value of doing qualitative research lies in uncovering subtle clues or insights about how consumers think and feel. Poor translations during market research can ultimately lead to missed opportunities for growth or misguided strategies and wasted resources.
Yet today’s marketing researchers work in a world where the demand for multi-language research is only increasing despite its many challenges. Cross-border investment, trade, communication, and physical movement continue to accelerate as technology advances and new markets open. Companies and organizations are continually compelled to think more globally.
In this guide we will explore multiple facets of translation and language services within market research:
Globalization has been a buzzword for decades but its importance has not faded. The cross-border flow of information, goods and services, capital, technology, and culture has continued unabated. Companies build international brands to access new markets, resources, and alternate sources of revenue, tap a more diverse talent pool, create economies of scale, and save on costs.
Even as the world has become more integrated through a global economy, local culture still informs and affects a significant portion of decision-making. It is essential for marketers to grasp how geographic location, cultural norms, assumptions, education, and other factors affect how consumers think, feel, and behave. To expand internationally and develop brand recognition and loyalty in new markets, companies need a deeper understanding of how consumer preferences vary geographically. This often requires market research in multiple countries and/or continents where there is often not a shared language.
English tends to be the de facto universal language in the business world. For instance, a German executive might communicate to his Chinese counterpart in English. However, market research often requires understanding the habits and preferences of non-English speakers or those with limited English proficiency. In order to assess Chinese demand for a German car, marketing researchers will likely need translation services.
Multicultural and pluralistic societies can also require researchers to use language services when conducting market research within a single country. For instance, within the United States, there are millions of people who do not speak English or who have limited English proficiency (LEP). According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 data, the LEP population was composed of 16.4 million people who primarily spoke Spanish, 1.8 million who primarily spoke Chinese, followed by hundreds of thousands of others who primarily spoke Vietnamese, Korean, and other languages.1 Researchers are likely to miss important sources of new insights if they ignore these groups, rely on poor translations, or attempt to communicate using a language respondents are not fluent in.
In short, marketing researchers rely on gathering nuanced insights from respondents in order to provide value to their clients. Poor translations can significantly reduce or eliminate the value of conducting research in the first place. As translation improves, so do the odds of gathering deeper insights.
Conducting market research within multiple countries presents a wide range of challenges. Logistically speaking, researchers can face a variety of roadblocks. When phone or web-enabled in-depth interviews (IDIs) or focus groups are needed, researchers need a clear and reliable real-time connection between a moderator, one or more translators, and one or more respondents. Scheduling IDIs and focus groups among people in different time zones can also be challenging and may slow the speed of research.
Technically speaking, differences in access to and types of technology across borders may demand alternate or unique solutions. For instance, in some regions of Africa mobile phones are more reliable and prevalent than desktop computers with webcams and consistent Internet access. Undertaking a web-enabled focus group may create bias and omit respondents from important consumer groups. In contrast, a mobile qualitative study can be more accessible and potentially easier to translate asynchronously, or not in real time.
Translation presents challenges throughout all stages of the research process. Materials such as surveys, instructions, stimuli, questions, and videos need to be accurately translated. The process of translation does not present purely technical and grammatical challenges. Tone, idiomatic expressions, social norms and assumptions of respondents also need to be accounted for. Material that is not localized can leave respondents confused about the intent of stimuli or questions. Poor technical and cultural translations also mislead moderators and researchers, potentially creating false confidence about business strategy.
The best translators also make an emotional connection and help establish trust between a moderator and respondent despite the language barrier. Translators need to have a good cultural understanding of what emotions and opinions are associated with what they are discussing with respondents, particularly when discussing sensitive issues. For instance, when trying to understand patients’ healthcare journeys with a particular pharmaceutical or assessing how to market a type of birth control, linguists need to be aware of any social stigmas or cultural faux pas that might exist in order to create an environment that encourages participation and open discussion.
Taken together, the above challenges make it difficult to perform research with a fast turnaround time. Speed is important in an environment where businesses are competing to be the first to understand or anticipate customers’ demands. Marketing researchers face pressure not only to deliver results that are insightful but to do so quickly.
To summarize, the challenges of multi-country market research have not diminished even as demand for them has increased. Far more people worldwide have access to the technologies that enable easier, faster, and more thorough market research than a decade ago. However, addressing the logistical, language, and cultural barriers among multinational researchers, moderators, translators, and respondents remains far more complex than when participants are more linguistically and culturally homogenous.
Phone and internet-based virtual technology now enables marketing researchers to gather respondents, moderators, clients, and other stakeholders to participate in or observe research from nearly anywhere in the world. Despite some of the logistical and technical challenges it presents, real-time translation for market research is always an attractive option for researchers. Within a web room, moderators and researchers can see respondents’ real time non-verbal cues and create an emotional connection more easily. This is particularly helpful in research studies that use stimuli and ask multiple respondents to react to them.
The live translation of focus groups is particularly helpful when more than two languages are involved. For instance, a client seeking feedback on common customer issues may have customers in four different countries that only speak their local languages. A focus group using webcams and simultaneous multi-language translation enables participants in each country to respond to stimuli and build off of one another’s responses.
Even in the absence of visual cues, real-time phone IDIs or focus groups help build trust more readily than asynchronous interactions where respondents cannot hear or see the individual interviewing them. Language translation for market research interviews can be done over the phone with two-channel audio. This allows for simultaneous translation from the local language to English. Some marketing research services enable clients who are listening to the English translation to then type in questions for the moderator to ask in real time.
Language services also become important during asynchronous research, or research not conducted in real time. In asynchronous focus groups, respondents can participate in a variety of discussions, activities, polls, questionnaires, games, or more via an online community bulletin board. This type of social platform often allows users to upload insights via text, images, or videos. Researchers can choose to allow participants to interact with one another or only with the researcher.
When conducting multi-country research, identical boards can be created in several languages simultaneously. Multi-language customization of online communities also allows researchers to cater to immigrant or multilingual communities who are not at all fluent in one language. This localization of market research online communities is necessary for respondents to feel comfortable posting and interacting on the boards. Localization is especially important when clients are researching niche categories within retail shopping, food or when their jargon is highly localized as with medicine.
Multimedia stimuli such as video or audio can be essential components of market research and multi-language research should not be a reason to forgo them. One type of market research multimedia translation uses automated video transcription to facilitate respondents’ viewing and activities. This tool automatically detects the language spoken in the uploaded media and then transcribes it. Both respondents and moderators can view a speech-to-text conversion when a video is uploaded for an activity. The transcript appears below the uploaded video so that the viewer can listen and follow the transcript simultaneously. A key feature of automated video transcription allows researchers, translators, and moderators to directly edit the transcript if necessary to improve its accuracy. Excerpts of the transcription can also be selected and saved for further interviewing and reporting.
Alternatively, an audio recording can be created in respondents’ native language or languages. A marketing research service can then merge the translated audio recordings with the video so that respondents can simply view the video while listening in their native language.
Researchers can also engage respondents more indirectly and remotely through a mobile qualitative study. This avoids the intrusion of an interview and the potential for real time mistranslation between a moderator and respondents. In contrast, mobile qual studies often use an app or phone number for respondents to journal, upload, or record activities. Examples include shopper insights, audio diaries, and patient journeys.
A mobile qual study is an extremely flexible format and can be conducted in almost any language using asynchronous translation. Welcome messages, project guidelines, and in-app materials can be translated and recorded in respondents’ local language. Respondents can dial in with a phone number or upload video, audio, or text to an app just as they would if they shared a common language with researchers. These insights can be subsequently translated and transcribed for researchers to review.
Multi-language transcriptions are important to the entire research process and can accompany any of the above market research services. This may be a transcript of an IDI or focus group, text from an online bulletin board discussion, responses from a mobile qualitative study, excerpts from multimedia or other stimuli, or translated text derived from virtually any market research tool. Transcripts are important sources for analysis, further research, sharing among stakeholders, and reporting to clients.
Translation of market research transcripts is also important when clients use a language that is different from both respondents and researchers. For instance, transcripts from a study done by an American market research company with Spanish-speaking respondents could then be translated into Portuguese for a Brazilian company. Multi-language transcriptions give researchers a great deal of flexibility.
To fully understand the complexity and necessity of language services in market research, it can be helpful to consider an example. Translation for healthcare market research is one area where demand is high and multiple languages are often in play. Significant developments and important breakthroughs in medical equipment and pharmaceuticals are rarely confined to a single country. Translation becomes extremely important not only because of necessary market expansion but also because people’s healthcare journeys can be extremely personal and cultural norms around health and medicine can vary a great deal among countries.
Consider one medical equipment manufacturer specializing in laser technology that wanted to better understand customers and potential customers in Brazil, Israel, and China. The client was an English-speaking company but needed to interview respondents who spoke Portuguese, Hebrew, and Chinese. To do this, a separate web room was set up in each local language. Local language translators were hired to translate the interviews simultaneously. Two-channel audio was then used to facilitate real-time translation between the moderator and respondents. At the same time, the client could hear an English language version in real time via its audio lines. Recordings of all the interviews were then subsequently transcribed in English so that the researcher and client could review them further. When thinking about a specific research example such as this, it becomes easier to appreciate how varied and important a role translation plays in market research.
As you pursue multi-language market research, remember that language is more than a means of explaining or conversing. Social science journalist Shankar Vedantam reminds his podcast listeners that, “Languages are not just tools to describe the world. They are ways of seeing the world.”2 For instance, English or French speakers view time as flowing from left to right in a way that parallels how their language is written while speakers of Hebrew or Arabic do the opposite. The language we speak influences our assumptions, biases, preferences, and decisions in ways we rarely think about.
In market research, this means that it is important to remember that it is not just the importance of technically translating between multiple languages that matters, but also capturing what is embedded within researchers’ questions and respondents’ replies. In your search for high-quality translation resources for market research, focus on IPSOS’ “4S” criteria3: