Creating a Multilingual/Multicultural Site

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In the evolution of the Internet, 1999 is a watershed year. For the first time ever, more than 50 percent of all people online live outside the United States, according to research conducted by International Data Corp., Framingham, MA. The firm projects that this diverse market of non-U.S. Web users - currently 86 million people - will grow to 332 million by 2003, when it will account for 65 percent of the global online community.


As Figure 1 indicates, U.S. Web users are declining as a percentage of the total global online population. While growth will continue in the United States, it will not match the rate of expansion in Asia and Europe; in fact, the total online population of Europe will surpass that of the United States by 2003.


As the number of people online grows, the opportunity for cost-effective international marketing and commerce via the Web is increasingly significantly. In the United States, establishing an early lead in the online markets has proven to be a key factor in achieving success in the Web's hyper-competitive environment. Applying this principle to worldwide markets, companies with strong, global brand recognition can use this advantage to capitalize on their opportunity to establish an early lead in the emerging global online markets. This window of opportunity is closing quickly, however, as the Internet lowers the barrier to market entry.


More local and regional companies, as well as new firms, are moving swiftly into the global marketplace to establish an early leadership position in the online markets of Asia, Europe and South America. Market trends indicate that the meteoric rise of industry newcomers like Amazon.com will repeat in other traditional bricks-and-mortar industries.


Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, projects that e-commerce may reach $3.2 trillion in worldwide revenue by 2003, accounting for 5 percent of the global economy. Projections by other analysts vary, but all agree the growth will be astounding. Trends show that the e-commerce boom is no longer a U.S.-only phenomenon. IDC predicts that by 2002, the emerging online markets outside the United States will account for roughly 40 percent of the total e-commerce revenues worldwide, up from 14 percent in 1997.


Among the biggest mistakes a company can make in implementing its international Web strategy is addressing the global online community as a homogeneous market. To do so would be to vastly underestimate the importance of language and culture. There is no such thing as a typical European, for instance. Understanding what may appear to be insignificant cultural subtleties can make the difference between success and failure.


Once a firm has accepted the necessity of a multilingual Web site, it will begin to realize benefits associated with the conversion. Besides effectively selling online in nondomestic markets, a multilingual Web presence can provide significant operational cost savings, even for those companies that are not actively pursuing a global e-commerce strategy. According to Giga Information Group, while e-commerce could reach nearly $1 trillion by 2002, other types of Internet interactions will provide an even greater source of cost savings and profitability for firms.


Many companies buy into the persistent myth that English will remain the de facto language of the Web. As cited earlier, studies counter this belief - already, the majority of Web users live outside the Unites States. Additional statistics further refute it: Today, more than 35 percent of all Web users do not understand English; by 2005, the number of non-English Web users will grow to 700 million of the 1 billion worldwide, according to Techserver 1999. With the proliferation of Internet use outside the United States, it is not surprising that by 2003, non-English content will account for 50 percent of all material published on the Web, up from 20 percent today, Techserver reports.


A firm's handling of language and culture issues on the Web can make a dramatic impact on its business. According to Forrester, firms that localize their Web sites report the following benefits: business users are three times more likely to buy when addressed in their native language; visitors linger twice as long on URLs in their own languages; and customer service costs drop when instructions are displayed in the user's language.


Jorden Woods is CEO of Global Sight Corp., San Jose, CA. His e-mail address is Jwoods@globalsight.com.
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