Mark Zuckerberg’s remarkable display of language facility during his recent Q&A in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing impressed many people around the planet. But Zuckerberg’s linguistic feat clearly has much more significance than just dazzling us and his in-laws.
First, there’s the obvious. Facebook enjoys 1.23 billion active monthly users as of February, but Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, one of several prominent social-media sites blacklisted by the Chinese government. Could Zuckerberg still be fantasizing about the day when Chinese authorities bring down their “Great Wall,” allowing Facebook access to its more than 1.3 billion citizens? You don’t need Alibaba to illustrate the economic potential.
Zuckerberg hinted at this himself, as the NYTimes wrote: “Asked at the Tsinghua talk about Facebook’s plans in the country, Mr. Zuckerberg took two big gulps from his water bottle to laughter, and then said, ‘We’re already in China,’ to more laughs. ‘We help Chinese companies increase foreign customers.’”
The CEO reminded the international community of one very basic lesson: in today’s global market, effective communication functions as the starting point for successful business growth. As any good salesperson knows, speak their language and you’re halfway there — getting your message across in a local language is an essential way to foster market entry.
Amid China’s growing position as an economic superpower — it will, by some accounts, overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the very near future — there’s no surprise that more and more businesses around the world are voicing their desire to break into the Chinese economic ecosystem, with Facebook no exception.
The lessons here are profound for businesses large and small trying to tap into the mind-boggling potential of the Chinese market, and which get the importance, like Zuckerberg seems to, of language localization to their business strategy. This means everything from translating company websites (and making them culturally appropriate) to localizing mobile apps, marketing material and yes, having your sales team and top execs learn a new language. These lessons are true for China as much as they are for Russia, Brazil, India and beyond.
Businesses are seeming to get it more and more though: resistance to localization is simply bad business.