The Covid-19 pandemic was a clear reminder that a fast, content-rich and easy to navigate website should be the cornerstone of brand building in your home market – especially if you’re selling goods or services online. Where nimble, digital-first businesses flourished in 2020, legacy retailers have struggled – leading some high-street brands including Debenhams, Arcadia Group and Cath Kidston facing administration.
When it comes to marketing your brand to international audiences, you might think going with English may be a prudent approach to dipping your toes into the waters of a new market. After all, English accounts for more than 50% of content on the web and spoken by a large population globally.
But multiple studies have shown that website users prefer browsing the internet and purchasing products in their own language. A Common Sense Advisory report showed that 72% of consumers spend most or all of their time on websites in their own language and would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language.
Website localisation should be a key element of your international marketing strategy. If you want to build valuable relationships with consumers online, you have to ensure that your message is clear and understandable to whoever is reading it.
In this article, we’ll discuss not only why you should localise your website, but take a deep dive into 9 key factors you need to consider, including:
Pricing, currency and payment methods
Times and dates
Numeric formats, weights and measurements
Address and telephone formats
Abbreviations and acronyms
Localised customer service
Why Localise your website?
Website localisation, the process of adapting website content to match the linguistic and cultural needs of your target market, allows brands to capture the human connection users are looking for when browsing the web in their native language. Furthermore, your brand will stand a better chance of commanding trust and authority with your target audience within the market.
Whether you’re a fashion, consumer electronics or FMCG brand, website localisation should be at the forefront of your international marketing strategy. Even if you’re not a large multinational business, you already have the potential to reach consumers from all over the world by simply selling goods, services or marketing your brand online.
Businesses are aggressively increasing their digital marketing efforts and with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, competition, locally and internationally, is at an all-time high.
Furthermore, consumer demand has increased exponentially over the last 5 years. Consumers are used to having information at their fingertips, next-day delivery is a common prerequisite and they expect to receive top-notch customer service at the click of a button. Failure to capture their attention and meet their high expectations will inevitably lead potential customers to seek out your competitors that are able to deliver the service they need.
If you’ve checked your analytics to identify where your customers are coming from, you may have noticed a significant number of users on your website coming from one or multiple markets. While it may be tempting to switch gears straight away, it’s important to take a prudent approach to your cross-border efforts to ensure you effectively target and convert customers.
Some markets, such as India, have more than one official language. In this case, you’d need to ensure that your language strategy is inclusive enough to cater to the linguistic needs of the country’s growing online audience. Then there’s the matter of language diversity to consider, particularly in Western markets, as some countries aren’t linguistically homogeneous.
Take the US for example, if you’re receiving a considerable amount of traffic from this market, you may want to localise your website to American English. But with approximately 60 million Latin Americans in the country, Spanish (adapted for US Spanish speakers) should also be considered if you really want to effectively target as many US consumers as possible.
Then there are technical challenges to consider, such as ensuring that your mobile site is sufficiently optimised, not just for SEO but for countries where mobile users make up the lion’s share of internet traffic. Where there are local bandwidth challenges, offering localised Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) or progressive web apps would help users navigate your site with as little friction as possible.
When it comes to website localisation, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. If you want to effectively communicate your brand’s values, you need to carefully consider how you localise your content.
Relationship-building content, which primarily consists of editorial, blog content and marketing emails, may need additional services such as multilingual copywriting. This type of service is used to ensure that your unique way of storytelling and tone of voice remains consistent while also optimised for local search engines.
Similarly, a reputable language service provider can provide transcreation services to adapt your marketing messages, even your brand, to meet the unique cultural expectations of your target market.
Intel, for example, adapted its successful slogan ‘Intel: Sponsors of Tomorrow’ for the Brazilian market to “Intel: Apaixonados Pelo Futuro” (“Intel: In love with the future”) as research indicated that ‘sponsor of tomorrow’ in Portuguese implied that the Silicon Valley tech company would not deliver on its promise immediately.
It’s subtle nuances like this that can make or break your introduction to a market as a new player, especially if you’re up against established local competitors.
Transactional content, such as category, product, checkout pages and even paid search ads need to be approached differently. Product descriptions and category pages need to be localised to take into account different terms used for specific products in each market. Terms that consumers use to find products through local search engines will also determine how product descriptions and paid search ads are localised.
Even local sizing conventions need to be considered. Do customers in your target market prefer metric or imperial measurements? If consumers need to leave your website to find out if the product or service is right for them, chances are they could find another brand that makes the shopping experience in their language far more convenient.
Ultimately, localised transactional content should remove barriers to purchase, minimise returns and be optimised for local search engines so you can be easily found by users searching for relevant content in their native language.
With great website localisation comes great multilingual SEO responsibility. To drive traffic to your website and increase sales in your chosen market, you’ll need to implement an effective multilingual SEO strategy.
Much like localising your website, your international search strategy will need to take into account the linguistic and technical requirements needed to serve the right pages of your website in search engine results pages to the right users in the relevant market.
First, you’ll need to partner with the right language service agency with expert knowledge of the local market, including one that employs native linguists to ensure your domain name is appropriate for the market.
When P&G launched Vicks in Germany, the multinational consumer goods company awkwardly discovered that Germans pronounce “v” as “f” turning Vicks into a German slang word for sexual intercourse. That’s definitely not the best way to introduce your brand to a new market!
Then there’s domain and URL structure to consider. Having a Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) may serve your business better if you’re taking a market-targeted approach. Domains like yourbrand.de and yourbrand.fr send signals to search engines that these sites should be served to users located in Germany and France.
Remember, ccTLDs are separate websites. As a result, they’re usually time and resource-heavy as they’ll need to be set up and managed separately from your domestic website. Furthermore, ccTLDs will require additional resources for PR, link building and content marketing for each domain in its respective market to ensure optimisation effectiveness.
Subdirectories (or subfolders), on the other hand, sit on your existing domain allowing you to target multiple languages and markets with one website. If you’re targeting Latin American users in the US, users will be directed to the URL yourbrand.com/es-us/ as opposed to yourbrand.com/en-us/.
Finally, there’s subdomains or third-level domains, for example, de.yourbrand.com, where localised content sits on a separate subdomain and can be hosted on servers in the target market. This significantly improves page load times which can have huge benefits for user experience and SEO.
It’s important to consider which domain and URL structure work best for your business given the amount of time and resources you have to manage content on your localised site in the long run.
When it comes to content such as product descriptions and blog content, you’ll need to make sure you use localised keywords and create content that’s unique to your audience’s preferences and behaviour. Using machine translation tools like Google Translate to translate your keywords will prove ineffective. These tools rarely, if ever, take into account the cultural relevance of your target market or return the most searched for target language keywords.
Working with an established language service provider armed with native, in-country linguists will help you to navigate the murky waters of technical SEO to effectively serve your localised website to users in your target market.
We’ve discussed the importance of website localisation as a way to adapt your brand culturally, but you must invest in cultural sensitivity as a standard operational practice to ensure you continue to maintain culturally relevant connections with consumers.
Cultural sensitivity is the awareness of cultural factors that can impact how you run your business, market your brand to consumers and even how you build relationships. If you want to remain relevant to international consumers and add value to your brand, identifying the cultural nuances of audiences in a particular market will be pivotal to how you navigate your online user experience, create marketing messages and develop relevant products and services for local consumers.
It’s not just slang terms and idioms that you have to look out for. Adapting your content to be culturally sensitive could take the form of adapting copy to meet the cultural needs of the market to totally adapting your entire marketing approach altogether.
Adapting images to reflect the culture of the market is a common practice when you have a localised website – for example, using Chinese models and influencers for product pages for your Chinese site can be hugely beneficial. Bespoke marketing campaigns for individual markets can also have a massive impact on how consumers engage with your brand online.
US sportswear brand, Nike, for example, created an entire collection for its Chinese customers to celebrate Chinese New Year along with a family-focused marketing campaign on its website which captured a more wholesome perspective of the Chinese holiday.
It’s best to stay clear from clichés or obvious stereotypes and invest in taking the time to truly understand the nuances of the market if you want to remain competitive.
US tech giant, Apple, historically has fierce competition in the Chinese market – hedging itself against local competitors like Huawei. Rather than lambast Chinese consumers with Western-centred ads (or even worse, stereotypical depictions of lush far-Eastern countrysides or elaborate dragons), Apple has spent several years refining its marketing efforts to create ads that genuinely reflect modern China and the way it sees itself to achieve success – grabbing more than 20% of the smartphone market.
Get cultural sensitivity right and you lay down the foundations to foster loyalty with local customers – not to mention avoiding potential marketing faux pas and the backlash that usually follows.
Pricing, currency and payment methods
Whether you’re a luxury brand or a boutique retailer, showing pricing in local currencies and offering local payment methods is vital to your success internationally.
You should provide cross-border customers with the appropriate landed costs relevant to their market including shipping, duty and taxes. Failure to communicate these additional costs can cause a friction-filled customer experience, ultimately leading to a high returns rate and negatively impact your bottom line. Ensure that you define the total final price with calculations for additional duty or taxes for a smoother purchasing experience.
For example, if a pair of shoes cost €50 and you want to add tax (€5) and the duties (€3) the final price should be €58 with the calculations easily accessible to the user. In some markets, it may be applicable by law to display additional fees separate from the price of the product. It’s best to ensure that you research the market to identify local laws and best practices.
Remember, online shoppers are savvier than ever when it comes to exchange rates and can easily spot if you’re intentionally pricing products unfairly.
Additionally, you should always display prices in the local currency and round off pricing that fits the market. According to Harvard Business School, as we read from left to right, we tend to focus on the first number we see. Over time we’ve been conditioned, to believe we’re getting a great deal, even if we’re only saving a penny. In the UK, for example, £9.99 would be the standard way to price an item – as opposed to £10. In the US, you’d probably see the price displayed as £9.95.
When it comes to displaying currencies on your website, remember not all are represented by a single character or even use the Latin character set. It’s best to make sure that when you’re designing your website you’re able to display currencies in each market correctly.
Choosing the right payment method for each market should also be high on your list of priorities. In the West, Visa, Mastercard and American Express may be the norm but cash on delivery (COD) is standard practice with online shoppers across emerging markets in the Middle East, Africa and in India. Although reports suggest that COD orders may decrease post-Covid, it’s likely there will still be a demand for this payment method in the future.
On the other hand, there are other markets that have taken to the convenience of eWallets similar to Apple Pay, PayPal and GooglePay in the West. WeChat (as part of Tencent’s TenPay) and Alipay take the lion share of the mobile payment market in China, Paytm has over 50% of the Indian market and countries in Southeast Asia have multiple contenders, with no single payment player dominating the region.
Brands including ASOS and Burberry have made significant headway in the Chinese market by optimising payment options that allow customers to purchase goods with WeChat Pay and Alipay. Zara even goes the extra mile in this market by offering a cash-on-delivery option.
With mobile payment services projected to account for 50% of global eCommerce sales by 2022, knowing which one to apply to which market will be crucial in reducing any friction during the checkout process.
Times and dates
It’s highly recommended that dates and times are displayed in the preferred local format to avoid any ambiguity or confusion. One of the most obvious examples is the difference between the US and UK date formats.
If you’re going to deliver an order to one of your eCommerce customers on 11/8/21, a UK user would expect the delivery on 11th August 2021, while a US user would expect it on 8th November 2021. In Japan, however, the date is written in year/month/day format. If we used the aforementioned delivery date, Japanese users would expect their delivery to arrive on 21st August 2011. Confusing would be an understatement in this scenario!
To avoid any confusion, be sure to localise dates on your website for each market.
Fortunately, time formatting is pretty much standardised across the world using the 24-hour format with exceptions to the UK and Thailand that use both 24 and 12-hour formats. This is mainly due to the fact that most languages don’t have a translation for AM or PM. It’s also important to know that some countries, such as Germany and Finland, use a full stop (.) as a separator rather than a colon (:).
Numeric formats, weights and measurements
You might think that dates and times are the only types of numeric formatting to consider during the localisation process. But dig a little deeper and you’ll realise the numeric formats are also presented in several different ways depending on the country, region or culture. Although the Hindu-Arabic numeral system is widely used by many countries across the globe, many cultures use a system with different characters to represent the numbers.
Take the time to understand the subtle differences. For example, the UK and the US use a comma as a separator to denote a thousand (1,000). However, in Germany and France, they use a full stop (1.000). Similarly, the UK and the US use full stop as a decimal separator while France and Germany use a comma (1,000.50 vs. 1.000,50).
Then there’s digit grouping to consider. While the three-digit group (1,000,000) is commonly used in Western cultures, Hindi uses two-digit grouping for all numbers except for hundreds, using three-digit grouping (10,00,000).
In Japan, you’ll need to factor in the native Japanese numeric system and the Sino-Japanese system – which go from 1 to 10, instead of 0 to 9. Sino-Japanese numbers are also used in combination with counter words (助数詞 josūshi) when counting things, actions and events while a different form is used for counting people. Other numeric formats, such as percentages (99%, 99 %, 99 pct, %99), can often differ between region and language which would acquire attention when you localise your website.
Finally, there’s weights and measurements. The International System of Units, or simply the metric system, has been adopted by most markets across the world, however, there are still countries that haven’t. Although the US is commonly known to still use imperial units, other countries such as Liberia and Myanmar still have not officially adopted the metric system.
Ensure that you identify the correct weight and measurement systems used for each market and convert to local formats, where applicable, taking into account local abbreviations for symbols, for example, Russia uses the Cyrillic letters кг for kg.
It may seem rather pedantic to consider these small details but it could frustrate end-users – something you don’t want to happen when they’re hovering over that all-important buy button.
Address and telephone formats
Take a look at the customer service page or footer of a commercial website in another locale and you may notice the conventions for displaying addresses and phone numbers vary by country and language.
Take the region of North America for example. The USA, Canada and Mexico all have the country code 1 for phone numbers. However, the format phone numbers are written differently depending on location.
English speakers in the US and Canada conform to (302)1234567 or international +1302 1234567. However, in the Canadian province of Quebec, where French is the first language, the Office québécois de la langue française deem phone numbers to be written with spaces first and then a hyphen for the last sequence as the official format – 1 NPA NXX-XXXX.
Similarly, Spanish-speaking Mexico has an alternative format. Fixed lines are usually written for local audiences as XXX XX XX and XXXX XXXX, depending on the length, with or without dashes between the segments. While in Europe, almost every country has its own length and format.
When it comes to addresses, the challenges to localisation are the same. Of course, there are obvious differences in terminology, such as Zip Code vs. Postcode, but there are significant differences in format and structure for physical addresses in different countries.
For example, in French, you include the company name on line one, then the street address (line two), the postal code followed by the city name (line three), and the country (line four). In Italy however, the door number is usually stated after the street name on the second line with the postcode stated first on the third line, followed by the town, then the two-letter abbreviation of the province.
In some cases, users may have very simple addresses with just two or three lines in many regions. Others could include a street name, complex name, block number, floor, suite or door numbers as well as the town, principality and zip code/postcode.
Abbreviations and acronyms
It’s a common practice to avoid abbreviations and acronyms when writing content for international audiences as most don’t translate very well. But for some industries, it’s an unavoidable practice.
A few examples include:
- Electronic Clinical Outcome Assessments (eCOA) use smartphones, tablets and personal computers to allow patients, clinicians and their caregivers to directly report outcomes
- Some companies sell Interactive Response Technology (IRT) for Clinical Trials (CT)
- A Contract Research Organisation (CRO) is an organisation that provides third-party research support on a contract basis to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical
It’s not uncommon for some larger organisations to have their own translated abbreviations. A well-known example is NATO which can be translated to OTAN for Spanish audiences. Similarly, the acronym AIDS in Spain is translated to SIDA.
However, for abbreviations or acronyms associated with your company’s products or services where there are no known local equivalents, it’s advisable to spell them out in full, in every instance, to aid translators in finding the accurate translation for your market. In most cases, when translations are found they can be added to your glossary which can help translators use the appropriate terms in future translations.
Localised customer service
If you’re selling products or services online, your customers need to be reassured that help is available when they need it most. If that help is in their language, you stand a better chance of meeting their expectations faster and increasing the lifetime value of your international customers.
In fact, 74% of customers are more likely to purchase from a company that offers customer service support in their language according to Common Sense Advisory. Furthermore, a report from the ICMI revealed over 70% of customer service leaders said “support in a customer’s native language increased their satisfaction with customer support”. Additionally, 58.4% said it increased their loyalty to the brand.
Localising your customer service approach through multilingual phone, email and live chat should be a key part of the localisation strategy.
Leading online retailer ASOS provides its international customers with support via phone (with local telephone numbers), email and live chat in Spanish, German, Italian and French. This holistic approach to multilingual customer service offers its European customers a sense of ease with the knowledge they have a variety of ways to contact the UK-based retailer to speak to someone in their own language.
You’ll also need to pay special attention to post-purchase challenges such as returns and refunds. Cross-border customers are well aware that this may take a bit longer compared to local competitors but ensuring that this process has as little friction as possible will be crucial to increasing customer satisfaction.
While some international brands, like H&M and Zara, have the capabilities of offering free returns via a local store. Smaller brands need to ensure they partner with logistics vendors with a robust local infrastructure to deliver a fast, reliable and cost-effective delivery and returns service to their international customers.
Expanding into the global marketplace can be exceptionally challenging for businesses. Reaching customers effectively in global markets requires not only time and resources but a deep cultural understanding of each market. An effective localisation strategy that takes all of these elements into account stands a much better chance of success in global expansion.