One of the most important tenants of content marketing is to understand your audience and their needs. Not only does this mean getting in touch with your customer and feeding them the appropriate information as they dance down your sales funnel; it also means making sure that your target audience understand your information.

There are many things to be considered when targeting your customer. If you’re not sure where to start at all, check out my post on The Ultimate Voice Document. Whether you’re a B2B business or a B2C, there are few things more important than identifying your clients, their pain points, and how to content market at them like a boss.

However, another thing to consider is where your audience is located. If your prime targets are within the US or Canada and you are or US or Canadian (or if your primary targets are within the European sphere of influence and you’re a European company) you might as well stop reading now and check out something a little more useful. You won’t have to work to make your writing any more comprehensible than what comes naturally. Congrats—you’ve caught a break.

But if your audience is more international in scope, it’s an entirely different ballgame. Even if you’re not planning your articles or blogs for translation, you’ll need to pay attention to certain things in order to make sure that your message gets across; and also to make sure that you don’t accidentally offend somebody or sound ridiculous in the process.

Welcome to the game of internationalization. As the world gets smaller thanks to the ever-increasing pace of communication, it’s more important than ever to learn how to reach out to your neighbors; whether that neighbor is right next door to you, whether that neighbor considers themselves your “neighbour,” or whether that neighbor grew up speaking a different language entirely.

Let’s Get Linguistic

The first thing is to figure out where the majority of your audience is. If you’re looking to reach out to several different language groups, you might want to consider the virtues of translation. Now, if you want to translate in the easiest way possible, you’re going to want to get involved with Basic English.

If you check out the Wikipedia article on the subject, Basic English is actually very similar in idea to Simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese requires characters with a lot of strokes, so Chairman Mao attempted to make the language easier to read by introducing a set of characters that require much less art mastery to read. (There’s your history lesson for the day. You’re welcome.)

In the same vein, using Basic English is like constraining your language use to a certain vocabulary. If you’ve ever tried to learn another language (I have), you appreciate it when people speak to you at a slower speed than they might normally and also use simpler words (I did). This is not the time to show off your five dollar words. In the traditional Basic English list, there are 850 words total and only 18 verbs.

Now, you don’t necessarily have to get this simplistic; many people who know English as a Foreign Language are quite sophisticated, particularly when it comes to reading. However, in order to facilitate greater understanding among your international readers, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Remove idioms and slang. Consider the phrase “the whole nine yards.” If you’re a native English speaker, you probably know what that means. However, if you’re learning another language, this would be incredibly confusing. You’ll be surprised how many idioms you use in every day speech. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Sells like hotcakes.” “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Of course, there are some idioms that international readers could probably discern from the surrounding text, but why make people work for it?
  2. Use small paragraphs and shorter sentences. The semicolon is a confusing piece of punctuation to a lot of native speakers. It’s not any easier for those who are reading English as a second language. Short, easy sentences are best.
  3. Pay attention to color. Did you know that green is considered the color of Islam? But in China it indicates infidelity. In Western cultures, white is a symbol of purity and marriage, but in India and Japan it’s a color of mourning. In Western colors red is generally associated with anger, violence and the idea of “stop,” but in China it’s a color of good luck. While color doesn’t necessarily have to do with writing itself, make sure that you aren’t implying messages that you don’t wish to convey with it. Check out this site on color, culture, and web design for some more interesting information.
  4. Pay attention to your pictures. Lots of us use stock photos in order to break up text or even add additional meaning. But if you’re working with an international audience… you might want to watch out for what pictures you choose. A “thumbs up” might indicate “good job” in Western culture, but in Sicily, for instance, it’s actually the middle finger. The symbol where thumb presses to forefinger in a circle and the other three fingers are extended means “a-ok” in the United States, but in certain parts of the world is a rude gesture for, well, the sphincter. Want to learn more? Check this great Telegraph article about rude hand gestures of the world.
  5. Pay attention to gender! Again with the stock photos – in some cultures, it’s offensive for men and women to touch at all. Even something a simple as a high-five can cause people to look asunder, so you might want to consider something like faceless figures if you need to indicate touch. Additionally, remember that Western female dress can be seen as offensive by some cultures, so keep that in mind when choosing stock photos!

This is essentially a jumping off point of things to consider when you’re writing for the world. Of course, at the end of the day, keep in mind that no matter what your audience, don’t write down to anybody. Readers around the world are going to be able to tell if you’re treating them like they’re dumb. They’re not dumb – it actually requires quite a bit of intellectual felicity in order to be able to operate in a second—or third, or fourth, or fifth, or even more—language. Keep in simple, but keep it smart!

What tips do you have when it comes to working with international audiences?