Using the Internet to Reach Customers Around the World

Article Summary: While the U.S. market for e-commerce may not be growing like it used to, much of the world is still seeing a surge in Web users and e-commerce revenues. To take advantage of these markets, companies need to globalize their sites by making sure they support international commerce. Then they need to localize by creating customized sites for each national market, taking both language and culture into account. Finally, they need to maintain consistency across their international sites and avoid unneeded redundancies. It’s a tall order, but for companies that are up to the challenge, the potential payoffs are huge.

Given the current economy, companies with a strong online presence might be forgiven for casting a longing eye toward 1999, when well-heeled early adopters flocked to e-commerce sites, making their first, adrenaline-inducing purchases of CDs, books, plane tickets, and stocks, and causing Internet revenues to surge. Where can companies find that kind of heart-pumping revenue growth now?

Try overseas. Already, the United States accounts for less than half of the world’s Internet users. Market research firm IDC estimates that non-U.S. markets accounted for 51% of worldwide e-commerce revenues in 2000, with that share predicted to reach 62% in 2004.

During the next two years, the number of online consumers will at least double in Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese-speaking countries, according to research compiled by Global Reach, a company that specializes in international Web marketing. Meanwhile, relatively established online markets such as France, Germany, and Japan will continue to see rapid growth as well, with double-digit growth rates for their online populations.

Yet despite these attractive growth rates, most companies are doing a pretty poor job on the international e-commerce front. IDC found that only 20% of all Web sites currently offer more than one language–and fewer than 10% offer support for local currencies or localized shipping options.

That spells opportunity for the companies that can get it right. In short, emerging markets overseas can put some juice in your Web site’s top-line revenues–if you can reach them.

Finding a Balance

The keys are globalization and localization.

Globalization is the process of enabling your site to support international commerce. “Globalization pays off by converting browsers into customers,” says IDC analyst Rob Rosenthal. “Since globalized and nonglobalized companies have roughly the same percentage of foreign visitors, the benefit of globalization is to increase the conversion rate of foreign customers by several percentage points.” That, in turn, can boost revenue significantly.

Localization–creating specific versions of your Web site aimed at local markets–goes hand-in-glove with globalization. Localization can affect a Web site’s language, of course, but it may also extend to reworking the site’s graphics, colors, and design, as well as making sure e-commerce elements such as taxes and shipping options are tailored to the region.

“If you just think of it as translation you’re going to underestimate the problem,” says Joe Ruck, senior vice president of marketing for Interwoven. Ruck cites the example of graphics used on Interwoven’s intranet to promote a new employee incentive program. The promotional pages showed a whitewater rafting scene, which had to be changed for the German version of the site, because Germans generally aren’t familiar with the sport. Similarly, red text–used for highlighting or to indicate links on many Web pages–is considered rude by Chinese speakers, so it’s prudent to use another color for highlighting on Chinese-language pages.

Another potential problem: text in English tends to be shorter than the equivalent text in other languages, so the designers of toolbars and navigation buttons need to leave room for foreign-language text. (For example, if your design only allows room for the word “speed limit,” you will have problems when you try to insert the German translation “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung” in the same space.)

When Nintendo of America built a new microsite to promote the company’s new Gameboy Advance product, the site’s designers–Web design firm Blast Radius–made sure navigation bars, buttons, and text boxes could accommodate longer text. As a rule of thumb, says Blast Radius project manager Klaus Schoenwandt, allow three times the usual space for big blocks of text, and double the usual space allotted to simple phrases or taglines.

Globalization Technology

The trick is to produce localized sites while maintaining a consistent corporate brand–and while keeping some degree of central corporate control over the localized sites. “The acid test is, can you visit a Web site and choose the language you want?” says Tom Dwyer, an analyst at IT research firm Aberdeen Group. “And then, whatever language you choose, are you getting a consistent brand message?”

“We want the user to be able to go to a single site and choose either location or language,” agrees Steve Lau, engagement project manager for Cisco.com and a manager of the Cisco Web site globalization effort. To accomplish that goal, Cisco is building a centralized technical infrastructure that will be used by all of the company’s 69 country-specific sites, while keeping responsibility for content production with local managers.

Of the companies that have dipped their toes into international e-commerce, the majority are creating separate Web sites for each country, with each site maintained by a local brand manager or sales office. No wonder CEOs and chief technology officers are often leery of Web globalization: with this kind of cottage industry approach, global content production will inevitably be expensive, laborious, and error-prone. Dwyer estimates that large multinational corporations can spend millions of dollars on their globalization efforts, although smaller companies can get away with more modest budgets.

For companies of all sizes, globalization technology can help make the process more manageable. Using globalization software, site designers in a central location can control the overall site’s branding, its look and feel, and its technical infrastructure. Meanwhile, a content manager in, say, France would be responsible for the French site–using Web-based templates to review translated content, post special offers tailored to the region, and manage price lists in French francs.

With the addition of workflow features, content can be reviewed and approved by a chain of managers before publication–allowing corporate headquarters to have oversight over all localized content. At Cisco, says Lau, such workflow features will include a notification system, so that foreign business managers can be notified whenever the San Jose, California, office publishes a new Web document that they might be interested in translating for their own regional sites.

The market leaders in selling globalization software are Idiom, GlobalSight, Uniscape, and eTranslate. Vendors of content management software such as Vignette and Documentum have also begun adding globalization support to their products. Don’t want to buy a globalization package of your own? Turn to a service provider such as Bowne Global Solutions, Berlitz GlobalNet, or Glides Inc.

Reducing Redundancy

If your company has already committed to an international strategy, a centralized globalization project can also help cut costs by reducing redundancies among local sites. Translation may be expensive (20 to 35 cents per translated word), but creating content from scratch can cost ten times as much, according to a recent study of the return on investment for globalization efforts by Gartner Group. With globalization software, it’s easier to manage translation projects from a central location and ensure that content is being efficiently reused.

“In general, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of localized content targeted for the Web, and this is a trend that will likely continue,” says Suzanne Hamlin, manager of translation and localization services at Cisco. The sprawling Cisco Web presence already encompasses 69 separate localized Web sites, most of which are created and maintained by regional teams. With the global offices working in disparate systems, redundancies can be hard to avoid. For example, Cisco France might request that particular content on the corporate site be translated into French, without realizing that a French translation has already been done for Cisco Canada.

All that will change in early 2002, when Cisco rolls out a new, more centralized content management system based on Documentum. According to Lau, the new system will be rolled out in two phases. The first phase, which will debut in January 2002, entails getting all of the localized sites to use a common design and to organize Web site information similarly. In the second phase, which Lau estimates will take eight to twelve months, the localized sites will gradually migrate their content into the centralized publishing system. The phased rollout is essential, given the scope of the project: “It would be fairly unrealistic to roll out 69 different countries and 29 different languages all at the same time,” Lau says.

Hamlin says capturing the entire Cisco Web presence in one system will foster easier communication of content updates, increased localization efficiencies, and a more consistent experience for customers. “Our objective is to create a robust infrastructure, one that offers more visibility and leveragability in the localization process, while still allowing a high degree of control at the local level,” she says.

Keep an Eye on Costs

Whichever product you use, it’s important that globalization software be well integrated with your existing content management system–not always an easy task. And globalization isn’t cheap. Glides offers an entry-level globalization service for about $15,000, but most solutions cost $250,000 or more. On top of that, you’ll have translation and other localization costs, plus consulting fees for integration work. You may also need to pony up additional money for local Web site hosting or content caching (to speed up your site for local users). If you do significant business overseas, you’ll eventually need local customer service centers and local fulfillment facilities, too.

Interwoven uses globalization software from eTranslate, integrated with Interwoven’s own content management software, to serve up content for 18 different localized intranet and public sites. The software lets Interwoven’s site managers track content assets, see which items have been translated, send specified items to a translation service, and then integrate the translations into the local sites. The company spent more than $100,000 for the initial localization project, but Ruck considers it money well spent, since localized sites are such an essential part of doing business overseas. “It’s kind of like, could we run the German office without telephones?” Ruck quips.

Because of the costs, strong commitment from executive management is essential before embarking on a globalization project. And the economic opportunity overseas has to be fairly well established: “You really have to have a certain base of business before it becomes economically feasible to consider expanding abroad,” says Ned Booth, international vice president for Travelocity.

Targeted Marketing

If you are prepared to take advantage of it, an internationalized Web site can give you a valuable competitive edge overseas. It can also open up new revenue streams by giving you access to foreign markets, and can reduce your dependence on one country’s economy. When you create your site, it is critical that you balance localized content with central control of your site’s technical infrastructure and branding.

Ultimately, however, successful globalization comes down to how well you can reach consumers in their own language and in a manner that they’re comfortable with. “It’s a mistake to think you can market the exact same product on the Web in the United States, Canada, and Europe,” says Travelocity.com’s Booth. “The Net’s no different than marketing to consumers in the physical world: every market is different.”

About the Author
D. F. Tweney is an award-winning writer with more than 10 years’ experience covering business technology, computers, and the Internet.

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Using the Internet to Reach Customers Around the World