I still remember entering the US in Miami when I first came to study at Texas A&M in 1998. At Miami’s International Airport, you needed English to buy food at the concessions. My Texas experience was an excellent way to immerse myself in American culture. I had to force myself not to have Spanish speaking friends as I intended to improve my English skills. Not interacting with Spanish speakers was challenging to do living 2 hours away from the border.

A few years later, I found myself working in retail in Florida, and communicating in Spanish was somehow expected. Then I had the opportunity to travel to Colorado to help open new stores for my employer. To my surprise, speaking Spanish became a competitive advantage, and the best salespeople were bilingual.

Fast forward to 2008, when I got involved in the website localization industry. Right there, I had the opportunity to see, experience, and confirm a hypothesis that I had from my days in retail and later as a failed business owner. There’s a huge underserved market, the US Hispanic.

The numbers of the US Hispanic market are impressive. For instance, The Instituto Cervantes estimates about 57 million people who speak different Spanish levels in the US. This estimate puts the US as the second country with the most Spanish speakers globally, second only to Mexico.

Hispanic culture growth is getting ingrained into the American way of living. Supermarkets are growing isles of “ethnic” food, and nutritional, behavioral apps have a robust database of Latin based dishes and brands.

In addition to the US Hispanic market, businesses selling in the US should also pay attention to other important secondary markets to increase market share and, ultimately, sales.

This estimate puts the US as the second country with the most Spanish speakers globally, second only to Mexico.

Top 5 Spoken Languages in the US:

  1. Spanish - 43,200,000 native speakers
  2. Different versions of Chinese – 2,900,000 native speakers
  3. Tagalog – 1,610,000 native speakers
  4. Vietnamese – 1,400,000 native speakers
  5. French and French Creole – 1,281,300 native speakers

Insights from managing Global Multicultural websites

For close to a decade, my team and I were responsible for driving traffic and improving conversions to multilingual websites worldwide. Here are five learnings about the multicultural web in the US from my experience.

  1. The US might be the only market where Universal Spanish is acceptable. Spanish speakers in the US come from different backgrounds making it almost impossible to find a common language that fits everyone. Universal Spanish is the closest approximation to a Spanish experience for everyone.
  2. Immigration trends affect the way the market behaves and buys. A major bank decided to add Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese to their US website. When reviewing the two website's metrics, we found that visitors to the Traditional-Chinese website engaged more with investment and portfolio management products. The visitors to the Simplified Chinese version were looking for ways to open checking accounts. It's worth mentioning that Traditional Chinese is preferred by the Taiwanese and Hong Kong markets.
  3. By adding Spanish and French, US companies expand to North America. Most websites that added these 2 languages received a significant amount of traffic from Canada and Mexico. The traffic from these 2 countries usually has lower conversion rates, mostly due to the checkout's complexities, but with a significantly higher average order value. Dig into your website analytics data to find new market opportunities.
  4. Be proud of offering alternate experiences, but be smart when promoting it. One of the biggest problems of multilingual websites is how difficult it is to find the other local languages. Find ways to promote your website's multilingual capabilities. It will pay back big time as users will feel more comfortable doing business in their own language.
  5. Bring an experienced multilingual SEO person. When adding languages to a website, companies start seeing a different set of problems and needs. Most SEO would have no idea on how to tackle them and may even create problems. For example, keyword research becomes more complex and requires teamwork with linguists. One additional factor is the need to use hreflang, an attribute used by Google to understand a website's intended language and target market. The hreflang attribute requires planning and expertise that most SEOs managing single language websites won't have. Learn more about multilingual SEO consulting.

Should a local business translate the website?

As with most website recommendations, it depends.

  • Are you serving a community with a strong multicultural influence?
  • Are you able to provide a good customer experience offline in a different language?
  • Do you have customers doing business with you because you offer a good customer experience offline in a different language?

    Suppose you answer yes to at least one of these questions. In that case, you should consider offering an alternate language experience for your website.

The US is a market that is in constant flux, and we will have new surprises with the results of the 2020 census. The only thing that isn’t going to change is that multiculturality is part of the market. It’s time for businesses to embrace it.