The Do's and Don'ts of Online Retailing Abroad

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Marketing online is not an easy job. Understanding the customer quickly and adapting your message to his needs in real time leaves little room for error. For American businesses seeking to do business in international markets, the task of creating and maintaining a real-time, interactive relationship becomes doubly difficult.


Some recent studies show that marketing online to non-English speakers soon could become the lion's share of online business for American companies. Market research firm Computer Economics, Carlsbad, CA, predicts that the number of non-English speakers using the Internet will surpass English speakers in 2002. Research firm IDC, Framingham, MA, estimates that by 2003, 60 percent of Internet users will live outside the United States, and the non-U.S. share of e-commerce will reach 46 percent.


France illustrates the challenges of marketing abroad via the Internet. Though the French generally view U.S. products favorably, and consumer spending is expected to be strong in France, the French are strongly attached to their language and culture.


Yahoo pays a price. Those who do not understand their French customers risk paying a high price, as Yahoo recently did. Yahoo sold Nazi items on its auction site and was brought into court by the Paris-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) and the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF). A third French anti-racist group, MRAP, joined the suit at a later stage. Yahoo lost the case and was forced to remove those items from its French site and block access to its U.S. site to all French visitors.


The judge ruled that Yahoo's display of Nazi artifacts in France violated the law and was "an offense against the collective memory of a country profoundly wounded by the atrocities committed by and in the name of the Nazi criminal enterprise."


Yahoo's image in France suffered because the company did not communicate well with the French press and public. It was unable to successfully defend its image, not necessarily because it was right or wrong, but because it did not understand how the average French citizen might react to this issue. Yahoo's principal error was to respond to a problem placed in a French context with arguments that were perceived as coming from an American viewpoint.


When the ruling came out, Yahoo adopted a more cooperative approach.


"Yahoo supports the overall mission of the LICRA and UEJF and does not endorse anti-Semitism or racism of any sort," said Yahoo senior vice president Heather Killen. "We are open to discussing and working together with these groups, plus others within the Internet industry, to help find common solutions for these and other issues."


Had Yahoo adopted this approach from the start, instead of arguing the right to freedom of speech, it might have avoided a wave of negative press. One result of this incident is that Yahoo has dropped several positions in France's list of most-visited sites, falling behind competitor Lycos.


Amazon.fr knows what it takes. An example of a successful site development by a U.S. company in France is amazon.fr. Only three months after the site opened, amazon.fr registered 217,000 unique visitors, making it the second-most-visited cultural goods site in France. By opening its French site, the American version of the site registered an additional 23,000 new French visitors for a total of 137,000 visitors in September 2000.


Francoise Schwalbe, general manager, France for MMXI Europe, said, "The absence of a French version of a site that is so emblematic on the Net was a great [disappointment]. Local versions of Amazon already existed in other major European countries except France! The site's opening created a great deal of curiosity."


Guidelines to marketing abroad. Creating customer confidence online in France, or in other European countries, requires U.S. marketers to understand non-American audiences and localize the content of their programs. Here are suggestions to help you conduct better business online:


• Content is king. When marketing in France, speak French. Many U.S. companies do not have a French version of their sites. Some have a French version, but fail to offer content (price lists, customer lists, newsletters and case studies) that is suitable to the French context. Do not forget that Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and several African countries also have French-speaking populations. Have someone who is French and understands your business do the job. You may also wish to use local French-speaking correspondents in each of your French markets who can provide local information for your newsletter or white papers. Take the time and spend some money to identify how your French audience differs from your American one. Remember that syndicated content may be the way to go. Just make sure it is in French.


• Advertising and promotion. Make sure your French site has French advertisements to promote it. Localizing the content of your site will not make much sense unless you promote it. If you want to drive traffic to your French site, your advertising and affiliate program managers should look at how many continental French individuals will be exposed to their messages. Having French partners in your affiliate program is particularly important because it will allow you to extend your presence in the French online community. These links will help you increase your brand's visibility and reassure potential customers that you are firmly planted in France. This may require you to choose new partners that have expertise in dealing with French audiences.


• Clicks and mortar. Nothing is more frustrating to customers than spending 30 minutes choosing a product they want and discovering, at the next to last click, it cannot be delivered to Europe. Or, they discover the shipping cost is more than the product itself. Doing serious business in France means customers should receive shipments in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable price.


• Ensure a cohesiveness with your U.S. site. You never know how a customer is going to find you on the Web. Make sure that sites respect the same "charte graphique" (or identity guidelines such as logo, visuals and signature). This inspires confidence. Should you decide to let a French partner run your French business, make sure to define clearly what you expect from him on the Web.


• Customer service. Have a local address, telephone number and someone who can help French customers with their questions. These services are important in transforming prospects into customers and can be outsourced. Also, if you choose a bilingual service, you can provide additional customer service for U.S. clients who are posted overseas or traveling in Europe.


As U.S. marketers strive to extend their presence online abroad, it is increasingly important to respect the cultural context of the market you aim to enter. Being close to your customers starts with developing a Web site that makes customers feel they are at home no matter where they live.


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