By Joseph Reaney, editor-in-chief at Melt Content
The best travel content writers will harness the power of words – dynamic details, tempting turns of phrase and, ahem, alluring alliteration – to whisk their audience far from home to a distant destination.
Yet good travel writers will also focus on keeping the style and structure of the language rooted in the home comforts of the readers. That’s because they understand the importance of localising English-language travel content.
Localisation (or should that be localization?)
When an American travel company decides to open a new office in Japan, there is no question that it must ‘localise’ its content.
It may do this in many ways, from creating a Japanese-language website to ensuring all its content has real local relevance.
Yet when an American company decides to extend its reach into the UK, Belize, South Africa or any other English-speaking country, there’s often far less focus on ‘localising’ content.
The logic seems sound: we all speak fundamentally the same language. Even with our varied accents, slang terms and dialects, we understand each other the vast majority of the time.
How important can it really be to ensure that we only write in Irish English for Irish audiences, or Jamaican English for Jamaican audiences?
The answer, in short, is very.
The biggest, yet most easily avoidable, linguistic differences – spelling and grammar – can have a disastrous impact on the success of online content. T
ake, for example, a case where American spelling and grammar is used in travel content designed for the UK market. This is likely to garner one of two (equally bad) reactions.
The first is that the reader will be irritated and insulted by the brazenly ‘Americanized’ version of the text – an apparently common reaction, considering the mass of angry comments found in newspapers and online – and therefore disengage.
The second is that the reader will not realise it is a cross-Atlantic inconsistency at all, and will just see a spelling mistake.
This is perhaps the worse outcome, as a 2011 experiment conducted by online entrepreneur Charles Duncombe claims spelling mistakes on a website can more than halve online sales, and claims that “millions of pounds worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes.”
This is backed up by William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the city’s university, who says “On a homepage or commercial offering, [a spelling mistake] can raise concerns over trust and credibility… when a consumer is wary of spam or phishing efforts, a mis-spelt word can be a killer.”
Some may argue there is a third option – the audience doesn’t even notice the errors. But a 2013 study by Disruptive Communications reveals that customers do pick up on a brand’s poor spelling and grammar, and it tops the list of pet marketing peeves, high above the text being too ‘salesy’ or trying too hard to be funny.
But if being annoyed by the content is one thing; not understanding it is even worse. And sometimes subtle differences between ways of writing English can lead to mass confusion.
One example is dates, as discussed by Simona Lazarovici on her Booking.com blog. “When formatting information, the primary aim is that our users understand the information presented,” says Lazarovici.
“03/04 for Americans is the 4th of March; but most Europeans (such as English-speaking Brits) would understand the same date as being the 3rd of April.”
There are also formatting issues when it comes to writing times, addresses and phone numbers, as well as national abbreviations and even variations in punctuation that can breed misunderstandings and confusion.
But the biggest issue are the words themselves. There are terms regularly used in UK travel content that will often fail to translate in other English-speaking territories (including “camper van”, “candy floss”, “Boxing Day”, “entrée” and even “holiday”), while there are Aussie travel-related turns of phrase that will leave everyone else checking their phrase books (“Crack open the amber fluid, hit the turps and she’ll be apples.”)
“Causing your website users to stop and ask themselves what they’re actually reading is unacceptable,” says Lazarovici. If you “make users second-guess and double-check constantly,” you’re not going to engage them.
Humility or hyperbole?
It’s not just about the words you use, but what you say. While advertising a travel company with the use of understatement (“We think we’re pretty good at…”) or litotes (“We’re not bad at…”) will go down generally well with a UK audience – usually better than a poster screaming “We are the best!” – it rarely works with audiences across the pond: Why use someone who’s pretty good or not bad when we can just use the best?
Similarly, Britons are likely to respond to a company that uses self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek humour and gets its message across without being too sentimental. Subtlety is king. This isn’t always the case elsewhere.
There are also cultural considerations. International marketers are likely to be highly sensitive to cultural differences between Western and non-Western cultures (they will avoid using the colour white in China, for example, as it is associated with death), but are less likely to be worried about the cultural clashes between English-language markets.
Yet the differences are there. Just think about how a simple V gesture, made with the index and middle fingers, will be interpreted in the US compared to New Zealand, or how the use of Christian messages and biblical quotes will be variously greeted in Ireland, Australia and India.
There are also seasonal considerations: writing about spending your tax return on a holiday will be relevant in October in the US but April in the UK, while writing about winter during December will not be too relevant in Samoa.
And there’s also the matter of simple terminology. Take ‘football’: an incredibly popular sport in the US, the UK and Australia, but also a completely contrary sport in each of these places. ‘Public schools’ are different things across various English-speaking countries, as are ‘puddings’, ‘pants’, ‘gas’, ‘biscuits’, ‘bums’ and ‘jelly’.
Most importantly of all, it has been proven time and time again that customers respond more to tailored regional content than generic global content. According to the Facebook IQ 2012 report, locally-targeted content performs significantly better than general global content, and that localised Facebook pages grow at twice the rate of global ones (and register 50 percent higher engagement).
Meanwhile, AdNear has found more than half of users are willing to share their location on mobile devices for more relevant content, and that 49% of marketers see their highest return on investments (ROI) through the use of geo-targeting. And Nieman Journalism Lab have found that localised posts are six times more successful than global ones!
But perhaps the most damning statistic is that almost 60% of consumers have ceased engagement with brands because of poorly-targeted communications. This means that not only is targeted content more successful, but non-targeted content can actually have a detrimental effect on your business.
Statistics like this make it abundantly clear that localised content is essential for a global travel company – even when the same language is involved. Joburgers are a different breed to New Yorkers; and Singaporeans do not speak the same way as Aucklanders. Even within nations there are notable differences – Mancunians certainly don’t speak like Glaswegians. So why would you write travel content for them all in the same way?