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Optimizing Websites for Global Commerce

By Sep 29, 2011

Around the world, people want to buy American products. Of course, not surprisingly, buyers prefer buying products in their own language, so it’s critical for companies to put their best foot forward online and provide a customer experience tailored to local market needs.

How important is the web as a source of information? In 2011, an estimated two billion people regularly frequent the Internet to find information, buy goods and interact with family and friends. That number represents more than one in four living people, a ratio that continues to swiftly grow. No language accounts for more than 25% of the total online population, so it’s time for U.S. companies that want to sell globally to improve their worldwide web presence.

The Web Experience Should Be Global
U.S. companies seeking to sell to a global audience need to understand the unique requirements of international visitors, most of whom won’t speak English natively, if at all. To optimize the global, multilingual and multicultural user experience, American executives should push their website and global marketing teams to maximize language coverage. They should also urge them to minimize the obstacles to usage for users visiting from another country or speaking a different language.

Prioritizing language selection. Most organizations cannot financially justify adding 470 languages as champion localizer Wikipedia has done. For global brand companies and others promoting products and services, the amount of online spending in a given country (or in a single language such as Spanish across multiple countries) provides a critical input for decision-makers. Language selection for destination sites, with the primary aim of monetization through advertising revenue, should take the number of online viewers in each country into account.

Removing common language obstacles. Our research shows that untranslated content is a big turn-off to non-Anglophone visitors to American sites. At each stage of an online customer experience—from registering to buying—adding appropriate content and site logic elements helps alleviate confusion and improves the likelihood of success for visitors speaking other languages.

Eliminating transactional impediments. It’s not just language that keeps foreigners away. The absence of localized shipping capabilities, forms that accept only U.S. addresses and phone numbers, and the inability to accept local payment kills the transaction for many non-U.S. visitors.

Improving global engagement. Culture-based learning styles, social interaction norms, and literacy profiles all affect how users engage with information, services, and brands online. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and yet there is a limit to how much a website or service can customize its offering before losing efficiency and brand integrity. Use of apps, video, social media integration, and on-site participation requires a nuanced approach in dozens of markets to achieve relevance.

However, too much localization can sap the power of a brand. Balancing these needs requires flexibility and open-mindedness—and a willingness to experiment.

A Global Web Marketing Checklist
The global web continues to evolve. Besides making sure that your company makes it easier for visitors to read and interact with your website, the best sites will keep pushing the envelope on usability and simplicity for visitors arriving via computer, mobile phones, tablets, game stations, auto dashboards, and other access-lowering devices:

1. Sites will automatically recognize the language and location of the visitor. Why make anyone explicitly pick a language or country? The majority of sites will use capabilities built into the device browsers to identify where the visitor is coming from and what language he or she prefers. This automatic “geolocation” and “language negotiation” will improve the user experience for all visitors and reduce “bounce”—where a visitor clicks away before engaging with the content.

2. Sites will become much more social. Even stodgy financial services firms and insurance companies will add social media links in the next year. For global site operators, the race is on to discover and take advantage of country- and culture-specific social networking platforms to help levitate their brands among these growing middle classes.

3. More sites will offer video. It’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, and on today’s web, a video is worth a thousand pictures. Non-text elements continue to grow in value and use. Our research shows that visual and spoken media communicate to audiences more quickly, and are more likely to be shared. Companies will leverage more corporate video assets for local markets by repurposing with subtitles or local language voiceovers.

4. Smarter sites will come online. We expect to see more sites experiment with global-local filters for user-generated content areas, such as online forums and product reviews. This will help the burgeoning middle classes more quickly find the information that will help them choose the Cadillac over the BMW.

The growing middle class around the world in developing economies creates many new selling opportunities for American companies. Successful firms will globalize their websites to meet the needs of these new buyers. Executives looking to improve their company’s international brand credibility and market share need to look carefully in order to discern good practices from bad. By studying best practices of top global websites, such as Blackberry.com or Philips.com, companies that hope to be world-class practitioners can prepare for tomorrow and get ahead of the herd.

Don DePalma is the founder and chief strategy officer of research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory. Ben Sargent is a senior analyst at Common Sense Advisory.