There's no doubt social media is a global phenomenon. Like "OK" and "Coca-Cola", the words "Twitter" and "Facebook" are understood throughout the (computer-literate) world. One in nine people on Earth now has a Facebook profile, and an estimated 190 million tweets are sent each day.
For most international companies, a social media presence is seen as an essential way of communicating with customers. Yet while they're pouring resources into tweeting at their English-speaking audience, most still neglect speakers of other languages. Econsultancy's '2010 Social Media and Online PR' report found only a quarter of marketers would plan social media campaigns in multiple languages.
It's easy to assume that most people speak English. But this is far from the case - even in the digital world. In fact, the number of Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Portuguese internet users is growing much faster than English speakers. Chinese is soon set to be the dominant language of the internet. And users overwhelmingly prefer to browse in their native language.
Going multilingual in social media might seem a daunting prospect at first. As with all marketing, it's vital to do your homework, understand the audience and get the cultural references and tone right. It's important to tailor messages to each audience - Korean users might not care about a product launch in London. But it can also be simpler than many people think. With a little research and local knowledge, going global can have huge benefits in reaching a much wider audience.
Choose your languages
The first step is deciding which countries and markets to target. Of course, you should be targeting countries where you'll either have an ecommerce or on-the-ground presence. There are plenty of tools, such as Google's Global Market Finder, that can help identify possible marketing opportunities.
It's best to have separate Facebook or Twitter accounts for each country, not each language. After all, there are huge differences between French spoken in Quebec and France. And don't forget non-English speakers closer to home. Spanish speakers in the United States have an estimated $1 trillion spending power.
Know your networks
The "big three" of social media - Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin - don't have the same dominance in every country. For example, Mixi is the most popular social network in Japan, and Cyworld rules in South Korea. Qzone and Renren are massively popular in China. In much of Northern Europe, Xing is popular among business users as an alternative to LinkedIn. Of course, if you're unsure whether to go for Google+, Yandex or Facebook, the ideal answer is all three!
Different cultures use social media differently
One study found German users tend to use Twitter to share information and news, while Indonesians are more likely to have conversations with followers. Brazilians love to blog, while many Indian users access the internet from their mobile phones. Anyone marketing in China should be aware of censorship laws and lists of banned keywords.
Keep it local - and personal
Separate Twitter or Facebook accounts mean you can tailor your message to your audience. Don't just translate hashtags - research local trends and keywords. Dropping in cultural references and commenting on local news and events will keep followers interested. It's worth employing a native-speaking translator or social media manager, based in the country, to give it a truly local feel. And remember, social media is meant to be interactive. Taking time to respond to comments and questions engages users and is the best way to keep them.