We live in a world where affordable connectivity and instant communication mean that geographic borders have less relevance in global commerce. Many companies now operate on a worldwide stage—from existing giants like Amazon, to emergent global brands like Farfetch, the physical patch of land your business sits on no longer defines the boundary of your market.
When thinking about global reach, there is a lot to be considered: shipping, customer service, translation, and sales, to name but a few. While the exact nature of how to expand your trade will be particular to your industry and specific audience, laid out below are a few of the major considerations you should think about when building a globally focused business.
Global from the beginning
For a business at the start of their life cycle, it is easy to think about launch in your home market, and then worry about other geographies in time. There is, however, a strong argument for building global functionality from the get-go.
From a design perspective, you need to think about how other languages will affect the layout of your site. Simple navigation phrases can often require much greater space when displayed in alternate languages. As an example of this, “Contact Us” is 10 characters in English, whereas in German you need to allow 20 for “Kontaktieren Sie Uns.”
Together with the front-end considerations, make sure on the back-end, each text string is identified separately in such a way that you can easily connect to a translation API avoiding the need to refactor all your code when you’re ready to localize.
Pick tools that will grow with you
When you say globalization to most people, it instantly brings to mind huge infrastructure change and of course huge cost, but whether you are a small business selling physical products or a SaaS platform operating purely online, going global doesn’t have to cost the earth.
When you are first starting out, utilizing third-parties for payment is a must. I am a big fan of Stripe, however if you want to accept payment in multiple currencies, your options are near limitless. PayPal, Worldpay, and PayPoint are the major players, but search around and you will find many low-cost ways to accept money anywhere.
When it comes to shipping, you are equally well-catered for. For European companies, recent eBay addition Shutl can integrate shipping easily into your site. For those in the U.S., EasyPost offers a brilliant service.
Know your markets
While you might set out thinking that your home market will be your largest, sometimes consumer behavior can surprise you. At Unbabel, we found that as well as our known success areas of U.S./UK and Portugal, we suddenly saw a high number of requests coming from France, Italy, and Germany.
Analyze where traffic is coming from using Google Analytics. Consider not only where you get the most traffic, but also, which are the most profitable markets, by cross-referencing that data with your own sales data. This information will help you identify potential markets for expansion, and can help you understand where budget on localization can be best spent.
Lastly, Google or Bing Translate plug-ins for websites are fantastic for simple translations, in the beginning as you’re testing the waters and assessing where there is more interest in your products. Know, however, that all the SEO benefits of having your website in multiple languages will be lost, as machine translation is not ranked highly by search engines. Crowdin is not 100 percent free, but still a great tool to translate your website using your own crowd.
Working at scale
Once you have established your global targets and have begun operating in those regions, you will likely want to scale your efforts. This could mean opening an office to gain local knowledge, or simply making sure your digital presence is as relevant to China as it is in the U.S. and Europe.
It’s at this stage where full translation of your site, blog, social media, video, and other content is needed; this is when customer service communication needs to be done natively, and email marketing should appear naturally to any reader.
Your options here are more focused, with human translation being a great but expensive option (industry average is around $0.14 a word). There are online localization tools (of which my company, Unbabel, is one) that can bring the costs of local translation down to a few cents per word or less. When you want to localize the would brand experience, from product descriptions to notifications and emails, now is the time to optimize.
When you are at this stage, it is likely you will need to bring individuals to your team to help you scale and localize your content too. Hiring an international operations lead who will define processes, select tools, and manage vendors will save you time and money.
Listen, learn, and iterate
While you can put a great deal of effort into making content relevant for each and every user, there is a high chance you will get it wrong at the start (we have been through this ourselves!). Listen to the feedback you receive, both positive and negative, and act upon it. By hearing from your users, you are getting vital first-hand information that will help you grow and become as native as possible.
Globalization is a topic that needs more thought than can be covered in this one post, however I hope that the above helps you on your way to creating the next global company.
Communication is about more than language
Language is only one part of going global. The final consideration covered here pertains to culture. As HSBC succinctly put it in many of its ads, what is acceptable or beneficial in many countries can be deeply offensive or confusing in others. You need to understand your audience before trying to sell to them, or else you could alienate customers without even knowing it.
This can be done through relationship with your target geography. Learn about local culture through conversation with expats in your own territory, or better still, visit the countries you are expanding to before you launch. This requires effort and of course cost, but it will pay dividends in the long-term.