In some ways the business world has never seemed smaller. High speed transport links mean people and products can physically traverse long distances with relative speed and ease. Perhaps more importantly, the advent of the internet and improvements in communication technology put more and more of the world quite literally at our fingertips. Videoconferencing and other systems allow virtual face-to-face meetings wherever we are in the world, while the internet makes it much easier to reach new potential markets.
Physical distances might not present the same challenges, but linguistic and cultural divides remain. It can take a great deal of forethought and planning to successfully penetrate foreign markets.
Do your market research
It should almost go without saying that no new venture or expansion should be undertaken without a period of extensive market research. This can be even more important when reaching out to new foreign markets. Good market research should give you an idea of which markets to target. Even if you think you have a product or service with worldwide appeal, it can sometimes be better to focus your efforts on one or two markets at first.
Localize your websites
Just as it does in the business world, English remains to some extent the lingua franca or bridging language of the Internet. According to the latest figures from Internet World Stats English is the single most widely used language online but it still represents only around a quarter of total usage. As internet penetration continues to rise in emerging markets such as South America and Asia, this proportion looks set to continue falling.
A number of studies have also shown that multilingual users put more trust in websites written in their own native language, especially when it comes to spending money online.
Localization can help you to reach new customers and can also help engender a sense of trust in your brand. If you only expect to do a minimal amount of business in a certain market, or want to test the water, you might consider it adequate to have a number of microsites. These can be translated versions of a few of your main pages, which can be clearly navigable from your main website. Google’s Webmaster Central blog advises that you should stick to a single language per page and avoid side-by-side translations.
A fully localized website will avoid navigation issues and allow you to invest in a country-code Top Level Domain such as .de for Germany or .fr for France. This will help boost your SEO (although Google’s geographic targeting tool allows you to specify geographic areas for generic domain names) and may also help win customers’ trust by giving your site a more local feel.
A localized site can also go beyond a straight translation to include content and design elements specifically tailored for a particular target market.
Tailor your message
There are a number of options available when it comes to translating your content. It’s best to avoid automatic translation programs such as Yahoo! Babel Fish or Google Translate, since they are prone to contextual errors. They often do not deal well with colloquialisms, abbreviations and other linguistic variations and even when technically accurate, a straight dictionary translation can still sound stilted and unnatural.
Using native speaking translators reduces the risk of mistakes and cultural faux pas, giving your content a fluent, natural feel. Localization is all about getting your message across effectively and this does not just apply to static website content. Updates and announcements, blogs, social media posts and any other forms of direct communication will all benefit from good quality translation.
Go global, think local
Going global can open up numerous new markets but a one-size-fits-all approach to expansion and marketing is rarely the most effective. An over-arching global strategy can be important but each individual market is likely to have its own requirements and to pose its own challenges.
It can often be beneficial to recruit local talent for ‘on-the-ground’ operations. If a business is expanding into a market with a common language (such as from the US to the UK or Australia), linguistic issues might not be your biggest concern. But a little local knowledge can still be invaluable when it comes to dealing with common working practices, laws and regulations, as well as market trends and preferences.
Similarly, successful web marketing will often call for more than just the localization of a main company website. More and more businesses are using social media sites as marketing aides for example. Big sites like Facebook and Twitter have international audiences and different language settings but other competitors might be market leaders within certain markets. Sites like like QQ, Vkontakte and Mixi are huge in China, Russia and Japan respectively and, depending on your target markets, it may be worth establishing a number of separate (though linked) profiles.