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How to Optimize Your Website for International Business

By Brett Bruen
Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Go global. Read this article to learn simple steps and strategies to reach 95 percent of the world's consumers.

We don’t do global. It’s a statement I hear a lot. Most companies I meet say they aren’t currently engaged in international trade. 

Indeed, just five percent of American small and mid-sized businesses export, compared to 50 percent in the United Kingdom.

My reply’s always the same. Do you have a website? Then you are doing global but you just aren’t doing it very well.

Even if you aren’t going out on trade missions or actively marketing your company abroad, your website and social media properties are speaking to a global audience.

These are thousands of potential consumers and clients.  

Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside of the United States and most are online. Why not present your company to them in a way that increases the chance they’ll contact you? Effectively communicating with international customers online only requires a few simple steps and strategies, yet can deliver significant returns.

Related Article:Going Global: Building an International Footprint as a SMB

Don’t Translate

Taking your content and putting it directly into another language generally doesn’t work. Yes, it may literally convey what you said in English. Nonetheless, that’s likely not the way your products or services are discussed in other languages and cultures. An American company may emphasize how its machines can cut down on labor costs and therefore merit a higher initial investment.

If I’m working in a country where labor is cheap, that’s not the argument to convince me to purchase your product. Talking about how fast your food can be prepared isn’t appealing in most countries in the world where life revolves around time spent together in the kitchen.  

Select the Right Images

I visited the Mexico websites of major American car companies and was surprised to see photos of trucks driving through the snow. This isn’t a relevant image for someone interested in knowing how the vehicle performs in warm weather climates. Images take on increased importance for someone overseas who has little or no other point of reference for your company.

You want to not only select photos from similar settings but use more and include ones featuring the details of your product or process. Your website ought to take them on an easy-to-follow tour, not a flashy rollercoaster. Show visitors the fundamentals such as your factory floor, production areas, or offices. Bring them inside your business.

If you’re in the service sector, include videos from your past projects, presentations, or tips and training clips. These shouldn’t be the same videos used for an American audience, the English needs to be slow, subtitled if you can, and the content must be clear for someone who won’t get the acronyms or baseball references.

Returning south of the border, I was in a business meeting in Mexico City recently and an ad for California popped up on the website. While it was in Spanish, the photo was of a family camping. I asked my Mexican colleague if families there liked to camp. “Not really and we certainly wouldn’t go to the United States to camp,” he said.

California’s tourism board had taken a message aimed at a U.S. audience and simply translated it into Spanish for Latin America, without asking if it responded to the interests of those who would see it. Similarly, the number one priority of French tourists is the walkability of a destination. Showing them the images of the American family road trip won’t be appealing.

Related Article:So International: Business Etiquette From Around the World

So What Does Work? 

Even if you’re not going to hire a market research firm, spend the time to understand the preferences of consumers in your target markets. Then write your content address broader interests and use universal imagery. Essentially, remove the American frame for your website.

Get rid of references to terms a foreigner wouldn’t easily understand.  Find a way to explain it differently or more simply. This applies to colloquial phrases in English, as well. You ideally need an international English page of your website.  

America’s impersonal, most of the world isn’t. Get rid of contact forms and generic email addresses (office@mycompany.com). Relationships are a fundamental part of doing business in other countries. Make it easy for potential foreign clients to contact a person directly. Explicitly state that you’d like them to contact you in their language.

While you may have to use an online translator, they will share much more information. Also, make sure your email response follows the same rules of adhering international English. This often requires you to rework the template you use for your FAQ and other standard replies. Again, make an effort to be as personal as possible. 

Foreign visitors are more likely to focus first on the who before they get to the what. Just posting your products doesn’t convey your story and why they can trust you. Your website is a chance to earn their trust and respect. They will often want to get a better sense of your company’s staff, operations, and stature in the American market.

Bear in mind that many of the institutions, references, and accomplishments need to be put in context. If someone told you they graduated from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, you wouldn’t necessarily know if that was a top notch school. If they said they received the Juan Alvarez award in Spain, you wouldn’t immediately recognize its importance. If you don’t clearly explain why it matters, it won’t matter to them. 

Americans Share Too Much

In the process, they can put off or just confuse foreigners. Informal images that may go over well here can be confusing or concerning (e.g. photos of your dog in the office). Business practices in many countries around the world remains a fairly formal process. A photo of your CEO in a t-shirt may be interpreted as the company being less professional.

When you’re online, you’re no longer just subject to American business perceptions and practices. While jeans and hoodie may get you a million bucks in Silicon Valley, in Seoul it may result in a company looking elsewhere.

Related Article:The Write Stuff: The What, Why and How of Content Marketing

Link Language Needs to Be Long

American web designers have grown accustomed to making a lot of assumptions. Creative word choices in the U.S. can lead a visitor to want to click through, while they will just confuse a non-American. Add an easily identifiable image to make it even easier. Also, locating them toward the top of your website is key. If I’m not a native English speaker, I can’t easily scan information.

I have to look at, take time to process, and sometimes look up the meaning of multiple words. Reduce the time they spend searching and increase the likelihood they will get to the content that will convince them to purchase your product or service.

International isn’t only for those who venture abroad. Your website’s already there. Unfortunately, too many American websites fail to clearly and convincingly communicate with potential foreign clients. Making a few minor changes and enhancements literally can make a world of difference, opening up new markets for your business around the globe.

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