Gain an edge in your website localization strategy: Understanding high-context and low-context cultures

Does your website localization strategy account for the differences between high-context and low-context cultures? Ensure your website design resonates with your global audiences.

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How does your website localization strategy measure up?  When a company’s website is well catered to its audiences’ linguistic and cultural preferences, it’s like a gold-paved, four-star experience that grandly ushers in customers.

Of course, no one wants the opposite effect resulting from content that’s not in your audience’s native language, graphics that are confusing or even offensive, or an organizational arrangement that just doesn’t resonate. Any of these website localization missteps show you don’t understand the customer. Or worse, that you don’t care about them.

There’s no quicker way to quash a deal before it even starts.

The better you understand your audience, the more effective your website localization strategy will resonate with your global customers—and cultivate that all-important business relationship.

So, we want to address an aspect of intercultural communication that fosters good design and website localization best practices: the difference between high-context and low-context cultures.

Understanding cultures: High context versus low context

American anthropologist Edward T. Hall was known, in part, for identifying this notion of high-context and low-context cultural communications. As a founding father of intercultural communication studies, Hall established a framework of culture-based communication styles, explaining how people in different countries decode messages based on their cultural expectations.

What does all of this mean for you and your website localization strategy and digital marketing initiatives? Simply that knowing the key differences between high-context and low-context cultures can give you an edge in effectively designing your website so it strikes a chord with your global audience.

High-context cultures:
  • Japan, Arab nations and Greece, among others.
  • Emphasize cultural values; this may be geared to family life or working as part of a group (collectivism over individualism).
  • Value visuals over text.
  • More heavily weights a message’s context over words.
  • View communication as an art form that’s meant to be engaged with; communication may require more time to process and decode, which the audience expects and responds to.
  • Learns through demonstration and group work.
  • Slow to adopt change and see messages as being rooted in the past.
Low-context cultures:
  • The United States, Germany and Scandinavian nations, among others.
  • Believe a person’s identity tends to come from one’s own accomplishments rather than from group effort (individualism over collectivism).
  • Emphasize words and text.
  • Prefer clear, direct and unambiguous communication.
  • Highly value privacy, personal space and individuality.
  • Learn through instructions and one’s attempts to perform the action.
  • Prize speed and change quickly.

Learning by example: Coca Cola and website localization strategy

Websites localized for other countries often show glimmers of the target audience’s cultural expectations and accommodate the difference between high-context and low-context cultures. Coca Cola’s multinational website and its country-specific webpages are a good example of this.

Below is a screen shot of the Japanese Coca Cola homepage. Let’s conduct a mini-assessment, shall we?

Japanese Coca-Cola Homepage
  • Heavy use of graphics; light on copy.
  • Rotating graphics “slideshow.”
  • Various stories to engage with depending on what resonates.
  • Bright, colorful and “active.”
  • Visually more on the artistic side.
  • Use of people/faces showing emotion.

Due to these features, we can see hints of why this might resonate with a high-context culture. The use of multiple people evoke a communal or group sense. It’s also fun and colorful, and it’s generally light on text. Visitors must also engage with a click to navigate to the “story” they want to see next.

Now let’s consider the German Coca Cola homepage. As you’ll recall, Germany falls into the category of a low-context culture. The differences may at first seem very subtle—for instance the use of scrolling graphics in the header—but the web designers made a few key design and layout choices that point to the nature of the target audience and culture.

  • More copy in general, almost every image has accompanying text.

  • Person featured in main header image is engaged in a solitary activity (no other individuals in the shot).

  • While there are plenty of images included, the homepage is still slightly more sedate.

  • Visually orderly: stacked graphics and boxes.

  • No need to engage to see more by navigating “deeper” into the site, you can just scroll down to see snippets of all the “stories.”

Compared to the Japanese Coca Cola website, the localized German version does show some noticeable differences. The site has a very different navigation structure and we see more text throughout. Plus, the person who appears on the homepage is shown by himself. While there are scrolling graphics in both versions, the images are culturally specific in their use of colors, text and subject matter choices.

Differences in design for website localization

Click to expand

High-context cultures have been shown to respond well to websites that include a lot of animations, sounds, graphics and other interactive  elements.

Why? There are interesting theories around this based on research (such as in this older, but still relevant, scholarly article). One theory is people in high-context cultures generally appreciate interactivity because it makes them feel as though they are being drawn into an experience.

Communicating to consumers in their native language and exhibiting thorough knowledge of their values is required to carry out a successful website localization strategy. When we help clients with website localization projects, we always account for the audiences’ cultural preferences.

For a Chinese website, for example, we may recommend music, Flash animations or perhaps a video of an individual speaking to and welcoming the user.

In general, it’s also a good practice to think about what your target audience favors with regard to web design elements, such as hierarchical structure, menu and navigation buttons and even mobile responsiveness now that mobile usage has officially tipped the scale to beat out—or at least equally compete with—desktop usage.

Of course, one thing every culture can agree on in this day and age of digital prowess is that page-loading speeds must be up to snuff, or you’re going to lose that user in as little as three seconds.

Once you understand your target audience’s cultural expectations for visual communication and web design, you can employ an effective website localization strategy—much like those we’ve explored here.

Your task, as a global marketer or website localization specialist, is always to create materials that engage the end user, preferably by appealing to their values or pain points.

A large part of that is making sure your message resonates with your target audience’s cultural preferences and expectations. It is also important to maintain high-quality customer service as part of an all-embracing website localization best practice.

What do you think? Is the notion of high-context and low-context cultures useful to you in conceiving of and executing your targeted marketing materials or localized website?


Published on    Last updated on 01/10/2019

#Globalization, #Website Translation, #Global Marketing, #Translation & Localization

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