It's Called the World Wide Web for a Reason

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Last month, I sang the praises of the Web's instantaneous nature and promised to discuss two other things I love about the Web - its international scope and interactive nature - in my next columns. Well, it's time to look at the Net's international scope.


Americans are still awfully U.S.-focused. And on the Internet, that's not just impolite - it's bad business. After all, it's the World Wide Web.


Only half of the world's Internet users live in the United States, according to Nua Ltd., an Irish consulting company. And International Data Corp., Framingham, MA, reported that almost one-quarter of e-commerce was conducted outside the U.S. last year.


As the Web continues to make our world smaller and communications more fluid, it will be harder to remain isolated. At the same time, e-commerce allows businesses to establish an international presence quickly and cheaply. Even a service-oriented business can develop a product that people far away will buy.


Are you a local dry-cleaning chain? Maybe you will invent a cleaning solution that can be marketed internationally.


Upward of 30 percent of visitors to U.S.-based sites may be from other countries. This creates opportunity, but site publishers still need to ask themselves if pursuing a global impact makes sense for their companies.


The main pitfalls of international commerce are monetary, cultural and linguistic.


Monetary differences matter. Case in point: U.S. customers are usually only liable for the first $50 in fraudulent charges if someone illegally obtains their credit card numbers. This is not necessarily the case in other countries. Liability and credit regulations vary throughout the world. Changes in foreign currency valuations can lead to misunderstandings regarding billing and pricing agreements. Carefully written contracts and awareness of fluctuations in the international market can remedy these problems.


Language was a challenge for us in representing Cyberian Outpost (www.outpost.com), a one-time brick-and-mortar computer seller that now sells exclusively online. When the company decided it wanted to attract an international audience, we secured an expert to translate the site - and corresponding advertising - into German and Japanese.


Cyberian's site now appears in 12 languages, and, before the company's recent U.S. portal deal, half of its business came from overseas.


Translation is only half the battle, of course. Internet terminology itself can pose a language barrier between countries and individuals at different stages of online sophistication. Demystify the lingo to give your customers in any language an edge. They'll remember you for it.


Cultural nuances are less tangible but just as important. For example, if you're selling baby food to customers in a country where the food inside is always pictured on the container - as is commonly the case in Africa - you probably don't want to put a baby on your jar. Knowledge prevents embarrassment.


As in all online advertising, ads and site content must work together. Because of the potential for communication problems, this is of paramount importance when the focus is international. Ideally, establish the customer's identity and draw them to a page that addresses them as directly as possible.


Two methods can complement one another. First, banner placement may be determined by the geographical location of the user's ISP. If your banner-serving technology allows, for example, you may be able to present visitors using a German ISP with a banner in that language.


Part two of the equation is to have your visitor make a decision (almost always the right thing to do online) right at the front door to your site. A welcome page with the flags of different nations allows users to select a language.


Your type of site and amount of international business you anticipate will determine the mix of methods you use. It will be slightly different for every business. It may be helpful to explore how other advertisers are targeting foreign markets by searching foreign links on AltaVista or Yahoo.


One final note: Don't skimp on international support staff if attracting an international visitor base is part of your business plan. A recent Forrester Research poll discovered that only 54 percent of respondents reported having staff in place to handle international requests. At a minimum, you'll want one fluent person to respond to foreign language e-mail.


Who knows? Someday, you may need a whole international support team!
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