Taking the leap and marketing your business overseas could be the best decision you make this year. The economic outlook might be gloomy in the United States and Europe, but that's far from true in the rest of the world. And for small to medium business owners, the internet is a relatively cheap way to tap into growing markets.
That's not to say it's foolproof. As with any marketing strategy, itÂ pays to do your homework. We're sure that Ford wishes it did a little more research before launching its Caliente car in Mexico. The name is slang for "streetwalker" — perhaps not the image most car buyers aim for!
From picking an offensive product name to falling foul of internet censorship in China, there are plenty of pitfalls waiting to trip up would-be global entrepreneurs. But the good news is, the payoffs can be huge if you get it right.
While the number of foreign language internet users is growing rapidly, most content is still in English. This means it's much easier to rise to the top of the search engine rankings in other languages, simply due to less competition. And with growing opportunities in emerging markets, such as the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) it can represent a much higher ROI.
1. Don't let your website get lost in translation
We've all heard amusing translation errors, or product names that simply don't workÂ in other languages. Anyone wondering why Clairol's hair-curling iron, the Mist Stick, sold poorly in Germany should know "Mist" means "human waste". And most users are turned off by poorly-written websites that are difficult to understand.
There's no doubt Google Translate and similar tools have their uses. But whenÂ it comes to translating your website or marketing materials, it's worth hiring native-speaking translators to ensure its word-perfect. Internet marketing or localization specialists can advise on countries to target and any potential issues with brand names or slogans.
Don't follow the example of Pepsi's Chinese advertising campaign, which claimed the drink could (literally) bring ancestors back from the dead!
2. Don't ignore local or cultural differences
It might seem cheaper to set up a single website to cover France and Quebec, or assume your European Spanish site will do for Latin America. But there are significant differences in language and culture. For example a "coche" means a car in Spain, but a "baby stroller" in much of Latin America.
It doesn't take a huge amount of effort to localize each website for a specific market. This also allows you to choose products and advertising aimed specifically at each country. Plus, adding local references helps build trust and inspire confidence in your company.
3. Keep it simple.
For small companies, setting up a foreign website is far cheaper than establishing an on-the-ground presence in a new country. But many fall flat by failing to have an easy system to deal with enquiries or take payments.
If you can't afford international sales staff, then restrict communication to email or online forms. Cut costs by using free translation tools to understand emails, then hire freelance translators to ensure the replies are accurate. And make sure you have an easy payment system — whether that's credit cards, checks or Paypal.
4. SEO doesn't always translate well
There's no point having a beautifully designed, easy to use website if no one can find it. Many companies think they just need to translate their keywords into different languages, but this isn't always the case.
Taking time to research popular keywords and commonly-used search engines in each country will pay off in generating extra traffic — and sales. For instance, did you know many Italian users often search for English words and phrases?
Tools such as Google Global Market Finder are a good place to start. But remember, Google isn't king everywhere — the Chinese prefer Baidu, while Yahoo still leads the way in Japan.
5. Don't forget non-English speakers closer to home
Around 34 million people speak Spanish at home in the United States. But if your website's only in English, they probably won't read it!
There's no doubt people prefer to browse the internet in their native tongue. A European Commission report found 82 per cent of online shoppers were reluctant to make a purchase if there was no information in their own language. This applies just as much to non-English speakers at home as abroad.
Christian Arno is the founder of professional translation services provider Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 160 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over 60 million words for businesses in every industry sector, including MTV and World Bank.