Creating a Multilingual Web Strategy

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Selling products globally is expensive and problematic. Long sales cycles, security concerns and unpredictable markets daunt Fortune 500 companies, let alone smaller exporters. But foreign markets represent the greatest growth opportunities for a range of U.S. products, from information technology to agriculture.


The Web is becoming a viable global marketing vehicle as well as a revolutionary sales channel. By the end of 2002 there will be 490 million Internet users, and only one-third will be native-English speakers. This proportion will decline further to 27 percent by 2005, when more than 765 million people will be online.


In this era of digital trade, businesses must think globally and act locally, starting with engaging the user in his primary language. However, using the Web to sell products abroad involves much more than just translating an English-language site into Spanish, Chinese or Urdu. The most important element is localization, which requires a sophisticated understanding of foreign cultures as well as market sensitivities.


Colors and images may need to be altered as they can convey different implications or simply work better in some countries than in others. Black is seen as a somber color of mourning in many cultures, but white conveys the same in other countries. Slogans or captions that contain plays on words might make no sense after the translation.


For example, a German ad for a bank shows mice sitting on some coins. The text reads, "Hier konnen Sie Ihre Mause anlegen," which translates as "Here you can bring your mice." In German, Mause (mice) is slang for money. This graphic and text would have to be changed for different readerships.


Culture also influences the design and operation of a Web site. In Japan, where people are uneasy about giving their credit card details over the Web, Internet sales processes have to be changed to let customers order online and pay for the goods at a local store or collection point. In Switzerland and South Korea, putting an "X" in a box suggests that the items should be excluded rather than included.


Building and managing a global Web site is a complex task involving the needs of the marketing, IT, regulatory and sales departments. However, companies with global ambition have little choice but to adapt their Web sites to local customs..


Before taking the plunge, a company must articulate its rationale for introducing a multiple-language site. Is the goal to generate international sales and develop new markets? Is it part of a global marketing and branding effort? How important is it to offer support to international users?


Also important is who will pay for Web localization. Depending on the amount of material, an initial translation can cost $50 to $100 per page and per language. As a result, it is advisable to view every Web page on a cost-benefit basis.


Web localization efforts are complicated, especially the first time around. Few companies have this in-house capability. Many find it cost-effective to outsource to global marketing specialists who take on the role of managing translators, technology vendors and foreign marketing agencies.


The marketing team must keep senior management motivated by evangelizing the benefits of Web localization. It is important to include in-country offices in the process from the start and to obtain their support.


However, beware the temptation to have in-country offices write market-specific, local-language content or use affiliates or distributors to handle the actual translation of your multilingual Web site. Take into account issues such as lack of control, long turnaround times, linguistic inconsistencies and prolonged absences and vacation.


Liabilities could be ruinous. A typographical error in a translation could be inconsequential in some industries but a matter of life and death if your product is a medical device.


A 200-page Web site translated into six languages can easily require 1,200 pages of content. Never has content management software been more important. While some major vendors provide support for managing English content, these systems are not designed to manage multiple-language sites or translation workflow.


Fortunately, a growing number of tools for managing multilingual sites are becoming available. These tools allow for the synchronization of foreign-language content by providing rules that manage content authoring and maintenance workflow across multiple languages.


Companies also must consider where local-language sites will be hosted and whether they will have their own domains. Users benefit from better response times if the site is hosted in-country. However, a distributed hosting model is more complex and expensive.


There are no hard and fast rules regarding domain names, but e-commerce sites typically register local domains while sites that translate for marketing purposes usually include them as a subset of the parent, such as www.ibm.com/fr.


When translating a Web site for the first time, some companies find that they need to adapt their existing multilingual publishing processes. These processes are usually print-focused and geared to translating instructions for use, labeling and print collateral. Moving to the Web requires a different skill set and tools.


Usability testing is important for any Web site, regardless of the language. Yet a surprising number of companies skip this crucial step. Testing does not have to be cumbersome. Some organizations rely on in-country offices for this work while others outsource to their translation vendor or to a specialized testing service.


Often overlooked is how to promote localized sites abroad. To meet stated objectives, foreign sites usually need to be supported by marketing budgets. Expenses may include site registration, direct marketing, content creation, public relations and updating existing printed marketing collateral.


A multilingual Web site tells the world that the organization is also multilingual. International customers typically require assistance in their native languages during local business hours.


To facilitate maintenance, translated Web sites should be planned with international markets in mind. Review features, graphics and content with an eye toward easing translation work. Some sites may need only a few minor design changes while others may require a new look for each target market.


Many companies are investing in sites that are too showy or technically complicated to be useful, especially in the global marketplace. Localized sites should be as simple as possible. Content should be straightforward and easily translatable. Avoid flash graphics that are slow to download; many foreign users lack access to high-speed Internet connections.


When entering foreign markets, you first must speak your customer's language and understand the culture. A multilingual Web site represents a critical step toward making your company a force in the global marketplace.


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