Global Web Sites Need Localization

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In an industry of buzzwords, globalization is becoming a favorite. Though the term is broadly used, it represents a concept of critical importance -- know your customers intimately and give them the products, information and services that are right for them wherever they are.


But given the obvious benefits of this approach, it is amazing how often companies still ignore basic aspects of a customer's personality and buying habits -- language, culture and national identity.


The Web is emblematic of this larger problem. Today, fewer than half of Web users are native English speakers, yet nearly 80 percent of Web sites are presented in English only. As global barriers fall and companies look to international markets for growth, this type of closed-minded approach to business needs rethinking.


Though the solution -- e-business globalization -- can appear frighteningly complex at first, there are a few basic elements to consider when designing your globalization marketing strategy.


Think beyond translation. When most people think of global marketing on the Web, a single word leaps to mind -- translation. But translation is only a small part of the challenge of adapting and managing your company's brand on a global basis. Providing the appropriate information to your customers, partners and employees around the world requires addressing not only linguistic barriers but cultural and national boundaries as well. For instance, a banner ad or Web page that works in Quebec won't necessarily work in Paris just because customers in both markets speak French. And as for that great chart that shows how you stack up against your competitors? Don't use it on your German site; it's illegal to do comparative advertising there. In both of these cases, the simple translation fix is a red herring.


The solution is localization. Localization goes beyond simple translation and takes all of your site's content -- including words, images, colors and icon -- adapting them to the tastes, preferences and laws of your target market. For instance, the classic shopping cart icon that is nearly ubiquitous on U.S. consumer e-commerce sites may not be recognizable in countries where people are used to carrying baskets when they shop. A good localized site would take this into account and present those users with an icon that resonates in that market.


The need for speed. Of course, localization is nothing new, and companies have been doing it successfully for centuries (the infamous case of Chevrolet's launch in Mexico of the Nova, which means "it doesn't go" in Spanish, being one of the well-known exceptions). What the Internet brings to the equation are exponentially faster changes to content and instant global distribution. Companies used to roll out products into new markets every three to six months. No longer.


The Internet has made every company instantly global, so when you launch a new product in the United States, customers around the world immediately begin wondering when it will be offered to them. The opportunity cost of delaying an international launch creates enormous pressure to simultaneously roll out your products, services, messaging and support in all markets. To make matters worse, huge amounts of content change constantly, all of which has to be updated for each of your international markets.


The result of these dual drivers is that the volume of content and the speed with which it needs to be updated strains even the largest of the traditional localization services companies. This challenge of quickly localizing and updating large amounts of content is often termed global content management.


The way to deal with it is to make global content management a strategic part of your company's global Web strategy. Too often businesses merely call in translators at the end of the process, only to find out that there's not enough time to localize all of the content and that the existing technology was never designed to handle international customers.


By aligning your global business objective with your Web strategy and creating a plan that takes into account localization needs, you can ensure that all of your customers receive equal treatment on your site.


Centralized versus decentralized control. One of the classic challenges of managing a global brand is how much autonomy you give to local marketing managers. Until recently, only very large or inherently global companies had this problem. Today it's an issue every executive with a Web site needs to address, even if the local marketing manager for Asia-Pacific sits in the cube next to you.


Until recently there were two main ways companies approached this problem in their Web strategies. The first is a centralized model, in which all content is developed in the home country, then pushed out to the regional sites. With a centralized approach come the benefits of lower costs through economies of scale, the potential for increased global awareness and the advantage of having a single set of messages that consumers will see anywhere in the world. The risk is that this one-size-fits-all approach will not appeal to -- or may even offend -- certain customers by creating inappropriate associations.


The alternative approach is to cede control over the international sites to local marketing managers who are fully responsible for developing the look and feel, content and offers on the site. This allows the people in-country who know the market best to adapt the message and create the type of personal relationship with consumers that can lead to increased market share. The downside to this approach is that production costs rise, brand management becomes more fragmented and there is the potential for the core brand values to become diluted as the message is presented differently in each country.


The best approach is a hybrid, or distributed model. Companies using this approach design their sites with localization in mind, building on a globalized Web infrastructure and creating areas for global branding, regional messaging and locally developed content. In this way they can control the global brand, while giving local managers the ability to tailor content to their particular market's needs.


Choosing this course gives companies the options of publishing content out from the corporate site to the international sites, producing some content locally or enabling a local site to use content that is drawn from other regional sites around the world. This approach, while enormously effective, can be more difficult to manage. For this reason, many companies turn to technology solutions designed to make the process work efficiently.


As you can see, the challenges of Web globalization go far beyond translation, but the benefits are well worth it. Studies have found that users stay twice as long on a site and are three times as likely to buy when the information is presented in their own language. And that can take you a long way toward the most popular buzzword of all: profitability.


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