Revisiting the Use of Spanish in Digital Outreach
A collaboration of Equis Research and Equis Institute.
The need to reach and engage Spanish-dominant Latinos couldn’t be clearer. In survey after survey, we see evidence of Spanish-speakers being under-engaged: much more likely than the English-dominant, for example, to say they are undecided in contested elections, or to report they are less motivated vote, or to not be able to rate the performance of their local elected officials.
But the use of Spanish-language communications is often limited by conventional wisdom that dictates who should be engaged in Spanish or not. We designed a two-part experiment to answer some key questions about how we use Spanish-language messaging in our outreach to Latino audiences.
The full deck is HERE. Some takeaways are below.
Does Spanish-language digital backlash among English speakers?
Convention holds that Spanish communication could backlash if it reaches those who speak English– whether they are bilingual or, especially, English-dominant.
Is that fear of a backlash well-founded?
We didn’t find any evidence of backlash when showing Spanish digital content to English-dominant Latinos. In fact, on both vote intent and motivation, Spanish creative causes significant positive effects.
Is there additional benefit from communicating in Spanish with more than just Spanish-dominant Latinos?
We didn’t stop at disproving the negative side-effects of communicating online in Spanish; we wanted to see if we could find additional positive effects. Language, after all, isn’t just about what is being communicated but about how. Is communicating in Spanish a cultural signifier? Does the use of Spanish in a digital ad impact the way a particular message is received by Latino audiences, whether or not Spanish is their primary language?
What we found: Spanish creative is the only approach that significantly moves bilingual audiences on vote intent and motivation.
Language also seems to speak to identity. We asked respondents how much they agree or disagree with the statement “What happens generally to Latino/Hispanic people in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life.” The question is intended to measure how connected the respondents feel to other Latinos or Hispanics in the country in general.
For both bilinguals and English-dominants, Spanish creative was the best at increasing agreement with this “linked fate” statement, moving bilinguals 8 points and English-dominant Latinos by 9 points.
In other words: in addition to moving bilinguals on political measures, Spanish-language content also primed voters’ Latino identity– a potentially powerful tool for campaigns and organizations to have at their disposal as a set-up for identity-based appeals.
Can you get the best of both worlds by making content in both languages?
We asked ourselves if a bilingual approach to the creative would result in the same benefits of communicating in Spanish while also ensuring English-dominant audiences could understand our messaging in English.
We found that, in fact, bilingual approaches were the least effective for both bilingual audiences and Spanish-dominant audiences. In other words, we don’t get the same benefits from a bilingual style (at least in the way we tried it here) as we do with creative that is 100% in Spanish.
What about using Spanish as a thumb-stopper?
We also wondered whether, in a digital environment, the use of Spanish can be a tool for attention-grabbing.
Here the answer was: not really.
We worked with Somos Votantes and Rising Tide Interactive to run an engagement test on Facebook. To measure engagement, we focused primarily on data that told us how much of our videos folks were watching. Unfortunately, we did not see significant differences in engagement between language approaches. The data suggests that any language approach could lead to similar engagement rates for a particular language subgroup.
Implications & Recommendations
Using language more strategically can help boost the scale of Latino political engagement.
While only about 16% of registered Latino voters are Spanish-dominant, according to Pew Research, a much larger share (39%) are bilingual. When we ask about political news consumption in Equis polling, a small share (10%) say they prefer to get their information about politics in Spanish, but an additional 47% say they prefer a mix of English and Spanish. All in all, we know a majority of Latino voters speak some Spanish.
This data suggests that we can take a tactic that currently applies to about 3 million people (the Spanish-dominant) and consider ways to use it with 18 million people (all those Latinos who speak Spanish).
We’re not suggesting that campaigns and organizations communicate only in Spanish with all Latinos, or even with bilingual Latinos. Sharing information about a candidate, issue, or election in a language people understand and are comfortable in continues to be important.
What we’re recommending is that campaigns and organizations invest in more resources to develop Spanish content and target it with fewer restrictions. Consider the ways someone seeing a Spanish ad from a brand or candidate could affect how they perceive who that brand or candidate cares about and is trying to engage.
And remember, all Spanish content is not created equally. Spanish content that is directly or incorrectly translated can signal a lack of care.
We hope the results of this test encourage campaigns and organizations to invest more resources in Spanish outreach, and to prioritize coverage of all Spanish speakers over concerns about backlash with English-dominant audiences.