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Online, a Global Strategy Starts at Home

When attempting to reconfigure their Web sites with foreigners in mind, companies often overlook domestic minority groups

The Internet has made it easier for even the smallest companies to go global by reaching new markets all over the world. But many companies continue to overlook the opportunities that the Web creates right in their own backyards.

That's because among certain groups, like Spanish-speaking Americans, the Internet market is far from mature. Hispanic Americans are going online at 15 times the rate of Americans overall (see, 7/12/06, "How to Tap the Hispanic Market"). And although surveys show more than half of the 16.3 million Hispanics online prefer sites to offer a Spanish-language option, the U.S. Web sites of most companies are still overwhelmingly English-only.

A May, 2007, study by market-research firm Common Sense Advisory looked at the sites of 102 top online stores, including giants like Office Depot (ODP) and Target (TGT) as well as smaller companies like CafePress and Fresh Direct, and found that only 18 offered any Spanish-language content. In-language support was even harder to come by. In the study, less than half of those 18 companies were able to respond in Spanish to customer inquiries sent by the firm. Other retailers responded in English, often with an auto-responder, or not at all. Twenty-seven retailers suggested ringing their call centers for Spanish language help, but only a third of them were able to actually provide that assistance.

Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Common Sense Advisory found that many companies create localized sites for other countries before developing sites for domestic minority groups. But study author Don DePalma says many companies would benefit from the opposite approach, creating an ethnically tuned Web site for Spanish- or Chinese-speaking Americans before "jumping into the deep end" of international e-commerce.

Even at home, translation is just one component of the process, says Lee Vann of the Captura Group, a Hispanic interactive marketing firm (see, 1/29/07, "Found in Translation: Work Opportunities"). "People automatically think they have to translate their whole site and make it available in Spanish," says Vann, but it's more important that the content be culturally relevant."

The most common mistake companies make, Vann says, is jumping into a plan without doing enough market research. Before deciding on a strategy, companies should answer the same types of questions you'd ask when entering any new market: Does your product make sense for the market? How big of an opportunity is it? Can your internal systems support that audience? (See, 6/22/07, "Starting a Business in a Crowded Market")

Test the Waters

Adding foreign-language support doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposal as long as companies correctly prime their customers' expectations about how much in-language support they can offer—being explicit about, for example, which links lead to English-only content. A company could test the waters with a marketing campaign that directs users to a special landing page, or proceed in phases, translating only the terms and conditions or FAQ to start.

For small companies, outsourcing foreign-language queries to a translation agency could be more cost-effective than hiring someone in house. The bottom line, DePalma says: "If you want the business, you're going to have to invest in it."

For more features in our special report on going global, including advice on what to do before making financial commitments to overseas expansion, a slide show with profiles on 20 countries to consider, and more, click here.

Miller is a New York-based staff writer covering startups and small business. Miller is a graduate of Brown University.

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