This is further complicated in online marketing, where search engines and social media platforms impose distinct rules on the length of copy, the use of particular terms, punctuation etc. All things that copywriters need to factor into their work.

If that wasn’t enough, moving into new territories adds a third dimension of complexity – language. A phrase in English may take far fewer characters to express in another language, so how should you use the extra space afforded?

A single word in English may translate into three different words in another language, all of which are linguistically correct. So how do you pick which one to use?

When somebody in the UK reads “pants” do they scroll past your ad, because they are looking for “trousers” and read your ad as selling underwear?! How do you know if the words you are investing in are worth it?

Offline advertising struggled with a similar question for many years.

Online marketing then revolutionised the industry by using data to track the effectiveness of campaigns. Brands can easily see how increased media spend, new campaign build outs and bid optimisation impacts the return on their initial investment by tracking the impressions, clicks and conversions generated by specific online campaigns.

By applying this approach to online content, brands can also understand the effectiveness of the copywriting and translation services they use.

Back to pants v.s. trousers though… Putting my digital marketer’s hat on, I can easily identify that there are more searches for “trousers” than for “pants” in the UK. So changing the copy from “pants” to “trousers” will increase engagement and ultimately sales, simple.

However the copywriter in me still feels that “pants” is right. It feels more luxe and exotic, which is exactly the brand positioning I want.

Delving back into the data, I then see that “pants” drive higher order values on my site, and the cost of advertising for “pants” is lower than “trousers”, so removing “pants” could have a negative effect on ROI.

The answer is therefore to create two versions of the ad (one with “trousers”, the other with “pants”), capture all the demand and manage the ad spend based on the relative performance of each.

Then I start to wonder which word the translator used for my “pants” campaign in China. It turns out that they used the most common word for “trousers”, which has plenty of search volume – phew!

The word for “trousers” is only two characters in Chinese, which left space to mention that we offer three leg lengths. However as they either didn’t know that or were focusing too explicitly on being a “translator” rather than a “marketer”, the space was left blank.

Translation Vs. Origination

The concerns identified above are often not fully considered when businesses enter new markets and campaigns or local language websites are launched using basic translations of existing English language content.

Origination (creating or recreating content from scratch) can perhaps be a more costly investment, but it’s also a far more effective one in terms of marketing performance because it allows for a far more thorough consideration of platform, region and language-specific requirements.

Chinese language considerations

Chinese in particular always poses a challenge for international companies.

Firstly, many people forget that you cannot use one version of written Chinese to target all Chinese-speaking territories. While the spoken standard Chinese, called Mandarin, is largely the same between China and Taiwan, the written versions vary significantly. Taiwan uses traditional characters, but Mainland China uses simplified characters.

Hong Kong uses an entirely different spoken Chinese, called Cantonese, but also writes with traditional characters and uses the same grammatical structures as Mandarin in most cases. Similarly, there are also differences in the syntax and specific terminology between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Our performance linguistics tests on different Chinese language variations have proven that it is imperative to understand the linguistic complexities of Chinese and utilise the right version per market for optimal performance.

English vs. Traditional Chinese in Hong Kong vs. Traditional Chinese in Taiwan

Many customers in Hong Kong are bilingual and commonly use English when searching online, even if their browser language setting is set to Traditional Chinese.

This raises the question for many advertisers whether or not they should even bother having Traditional Chinese ads.

A number of A/B tests over a six-month period across different industry verticals has shown that for Hong Kong users PPC ads written in Hong Kong Traditional Chinese perform on average at a CTR of 32% higher than English ads. CVR after clicking on Hong Kong Traditional Chinese ads is about 7% higher than when using English ads.

Further testing on Hong Kong Traditional Chinese vs Taiwan Traditional Chinese variations has shown that using fully originated Traditional Chinese PPC ads strictly written using Hong Kong terminology brings a CTR improvement of about 5% as compared to using generalized Traditional Chinese ads as used in Taiwan.

We are often asked to test whether simplified Chinese could be used to target all three countries. Due to political and cultural reasons, however, we strongly recommend against using Simplified Chinese to target users in Hong Kong and Taiwan or traditional Chinese to target users in Mainland China.

People across Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan feel very strongly about the unique characteristics of their language and testing the acceptance of other Chinese variations may well have a considerably negative impact on the perception of your brand.


Language subtleties can often appear as tiny minutiae in many ways, but even the slightest nuances noticed only by native speakers might trigger the wrong understanding of a message. Therefore, thorough knowledge of the linguistic landscape, language correlations and the expectations of the online platform and target audience is required to make the right decision on what version to use in what context.

Combining native language expertise with online marketing knowledge ensures that brands deliver an international content strategy which is both linguistically accurate and commercially effective. We call this performance linguistics.

If you’re interested in learning more about marketing in the APAC region, attend our Digital Cream event in Singapore on 19 November. 

The event is free, but is invitation only so please request your place as soon as possible.