Think Globally, Act Locally

By: Dylan Tweney
Issue: November 2001
Adding foreign language versions of your website can easily pay for itself in fresh leads and revenues.


Most websites take a Model T approach to overseas marketing: You can access them in any language you want, as long as it’s English. Eighty-five percent of the Web’s pages are in English, but only 45 percent of the Web’s users are native speakers of that language, according to research firm IDC, and the percentage is dropping year by year.

Many non-native speakers can read English, sure, but making potential customers speak your language — instead of soliciting them in theirs — is a backward way of doing business. English-only might suffice for routine transactions between established business partners (or for American tourists in Paris), but if you really want to sell something to someone, you’d better speak that person’s language.

At Otis Elevator, based in Farmington, Conn., monthly online sales leads shot up from 130 to more than 1,000 after the company launched local-language versions of its website — with 70 percent of those leads coming from new customers. Even simple gestures help: Travelocity (TVLY) vice president Ned Booth says that whenever his company adds country-specific travel services or information to its site (such as a local customer-service phone number), sales in that country typically double. As for Travelocity’s new online operation in Germany, Booth says, “We couldn’t market at all if we didn’t do it in German. We’ve really got to be able to communicate clearly and make the experience comfortable enough that they buy.”

Such successes are little surprise, but what inhibits many companies is the price of developing a multilingual presence online. It involves translating webpages (which can cost 25 cents per word), maintaining several different sites (one for each country or language), coordinating content and branding between the sites, building business systems that are capable of handling international e-commerce, and so forth. According to IT research company Aberdeen Group, the typical cost of producing a website in another language is $50,000 to $100,000, and large projects can run as much as $2 million per language.

It is possible to keep the costs under control. My advice: Think globally (when it comes to setting up site infrastructure and online branding) and act locally (when it comes to content, prices, fulfillment, and customer service). In other words, build a centralized Web infrastructure that’s capable of delivering websites in a variety of languages. That way you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each new site, and you can make sure that your company’s core branding remains consistent. Then you can leave it to your employees in local markets to produce and oversee content suitable for their respective regions.

The key to making this work smoothly and trimming costs is globalization technology — specialized content management software that will let you run a multilingual and multinational website with relative ease. Using globalization software, webmasters and site designers at company headquarters create templates that control the overall appearance for a variety of sites in different languages. With the templates in place, content managers publish information on the site using simple webpage forms. Globalization systems also typically include work-flow tools that allow documents created in one language to be sent electronically to translators. When the translations are done, they are delivered to local content managers for approval and then publication — again, all using Web forms.

When Nintendo of America (NTDOY) created a “micro-site” to promote its new handheld gaming platform, the Gameboy Advance, it was with an eye toward internationalization. The site’s designers — Blast Radius, a Web design firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia — used a proprietary content management system that would be capable of handling multiple versions of the site down the road.

Blast Radius estimates that Nintendo’s international-minded approach added about 10 percent to the initial development cost but figures that the investment paid off when Nintendo of Europe decided to launch four localized versions of the Gameboy Advance site. Instead of re-creating the whole site, the company simply translated the content and deployed it on country-specific sites using the existing content management system. The European sites are now garnering about a million hits per week, says Nintendo of Europe online coordinator Marcus Brown, and were launched faster — in a few weeks — and at a much lower cost than would otherwise have been possible. Even so, the complexity of launching four websites at once was considerable, Brown says: “When you look at the site, it doesn’t appear to be that big, but to get it off the ground required an enormous amount of work and coordination.”

The leaders in selling globalization software are Idiom, GlobalSight, and Uniscape, but the overall market for their products is still small, and no vendor dominates. The software typically costs $80,000 to $500,000 per license, depending on how many versions of a site you want to create. Mainstream content management vendors like Vignette (VIGN) have also begun to add multinational and multilingual capabilities to their products. Service providers like Bowne Global Solutions, Berlitz GlobalNet, and Glides offer globalization services on an outsourced, or application service provider (ASP), model.

Ultimately, the biggest value of website globalization is that it can turn foreign browsers into buyers, says IDC analyst Rob Rosenthal. “[It] can have an enormous effect on top-line revenue,” he says. Add to that the burgeoning market of non-English speakers online — and the fact that fewer than 20 percent of websites today offer multiple languages — and you have a massive opportunity waiting to be tapped.

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Think Globally, Act Locally