A global web presence: the best protection against extinction

If you're not already a global business with a Web presence, be aware that times they are a-changing. Peter Guthrie warns against...

If you're not already a global business with a Web presence, be aware that times they are a-changing. Peter Guthrie warns against burying your head

What has the Web ever done for us? Let us speak to our customers 24 hours a day?Okay, apart from that, what has the Web done for us? Gain customers more cost effectively?Okay, apart from letting us speak to customers whenever it suits them, and gaining new customers more cost-effectively, what has the Web done for us? How about opening up new markets?

The Monty Python rip-offs could go on all day, but the fact is that the Web has not only changed the way we do business, but also where.

Thinking back only a few years most small to medium UK businesses couldn't have considered doing business, particularly service-oriented business, with the other side of the world. The costs and logistics involved were just too impractical to make it worth considering.

By using the Internet, however, we don't have to be with our customers to provide a good service, we don't even have to have someone on the end of a phone line when they want to call. No good doing it half-heartedly, as a poor site can do more harm than good.Not communicating with customers in their language and along their cultural guidelines can lead to patronising content that results in distrust and dislike of your company.

For larger businesses there is always a headache involved with being global, yet maintaining consistency in messages. If you've got a large Web site and a wide catalogue of products, how do you balance that with numerous presences all over the world each also wanting their own Web site?

If you're not already a global business, be aware that times are changing and it soon may not be just a case of tapping new markets, but one of having to globalise to survive. As the term suggests, globalisation isn't just a phenomenon affecting your own UK backyard, but one that's happening worldwide. In a year or two it may be your competitor in Taiwan that is taking away your faithful local customers.

The potential markets are everywhere, wherever people use the products or services you sell. The Web isn't a geographically specific medium, but certain factors remain static, such as language, culture and physical distribution.The Web offers no quick fix to these problems, and they must be overcome traditionally.

Isn't the Web already global?

Surely my Web site can be accessed by anyone in the world, so I already have a global business? Well, would you shop in Amazon if it didn't have a UK presence and you had to pay more than the UK list price after it had incurred import duty? Amazon needed a local presence to target UK customers more effectively and aim its messages towards their needs, values and aspirations, but it also needed a physical outlet so that buyers didn't incur large delivery charges and import duties. You also face the problem of linguistic and cultural differences.Research from US-based research group Forrester indicates that you are three times more likely to convert a visitor to a customer if your site speaks their language. Having to translate someone's Web site as you go means it requires a good deal more effort than just reading it in your native language and as constant barrages of statistics continue to show, Web customers aren't prepared to work hard at online buying. Translation isn't all you need to operate globally as every location and market is different. People are different the world over and motivation to purchase will differ even for the same profile of consumer in each market. While localisation is a good way to reach customers on a more personal level, it does leave you open to problems in the consistency of messages and brand values. When issues develop very quickly, smaller locally run sites can find themselves being behind the corporate line, and for these reasons, an element of centralisation and centrally-managed content and structure is vital in a global Web business.

Short cuts and getting physical

We're all looking for short cuts or ways of reducing the cost of reaching customers, and as always there are a lot of options out there for companies that want to expand into new markets.

The main problem that e-commerce companies will face is getting their products from base to customer. In this piece of logistic activity, many factors are encountered, such as distribution costs, import duties, value added taxes, customer service and so on. For this reason, many companies enter into partnership with logistics and distribution companies in order to reduce shipping costs to customers and reduce congestion in main distribution outlets.

This also gives the company a small and cost effective base, though when customer service issues arise, it's important to ensure that call centre functions are also outsourced.

Globalising technically

The problem that most organisations face when localising content in Asia are the double-byte characters which are necessary for representing non-alphabet languages such as Japanese, Chinese or Korean.

Whereas in English or French you are able to create an entire character set in less than 256 characters (or one byte), some languages do not fit into that pattern and cannot store the necessary symbols in a single byte.The system used in these languages is a double-byte encoding scheme that can store more than 65,000 pieces of information.

The main stumbling block with this is that most software isn't designed to use this process and hence problems can arise.

Certain content management solutions exist to get round this and other linguistic and localisation problems, for example software from GlobalSight and Tridion can be used to create centralised architectures for localised Web sites.These software packages manage the content and delivery process to help facilitate a global Web presence.

What makes a good global Web presence?

A good global Web presence will have many facets. It will contain highly localised content. in the natural language of its visitors and will communicate using messages that will appeal to each local market's cultural identity.

It will have effective distribution, whether through partner companies operating in the same sectors, or logistic partnerships that create virtual presences in each local market. It is important that each local market has a presence of some point to give each customer a point of contact should the need arise. The presence will offer content tailored to the needs of the visitors. Whether this is through personalisation or less sophisticated means is open to debate, as the value of generic personalised content is a matter of contention among analysts.

Centralisation is a key theme in a successful global Web presence and while localisation of content is essential, so is its consistency with the central content. Centralisation can make it easier to implement business decisions and can present significant cost savings over a number of local sites, which can prove difficult to manage from a corporate standpoint.

Case Study 1: Scania

A global truck manufacturer and, until recently, a sister company of Saab, Scania is already a respected and well-known global brand. But it found itself unable to meet or justify the cost of multiple Web presences around the globe, each defining and working with its own data infrastructure.

The company decided that it had to create a 'tool-kit' for its local presences to be able to create their own sites, based on a pre-defined framework of look and feel and specific functionality.

This would give each regional operation the ability to create a presence in their language with local content, while remaining consistent to the core brand and not necessitating any large design agency costs.

Annica Ahlberg, project leader for the Internet tool-kit at Scania, explains: "We started this project as a simple way to co-ordinate the Scania brand, but soon realised that this was a good way to support the different markets with their own identities. The structure is set out centrally, but content is produced locally."

The company needed to make it easy for non-technical staff to create and maintain the sites. Ahlberg continues: "We also wanted to give [users] a usable interface to create and manage their own content. "It was very important for us that this could be done without technical experience so the infrastructure for the tool-kit is placed on the central server in Sweden and the local editors around the world are working with local content."

Scania has used content management software from Tridion called Dialog Server to centralise structure and data, while also providing a framework for local content to be created and managed quickly and easily.

Case Study 2: XILINX

Xilinx is a developer of complete programmable logic solutions such as advanced integrated circuits, software design tools and so on. Xilinx decided to globalise its Web presence by moving from an English-only corporate site to a series of multi-language sites.

It cites "respect" of users as a key motivation for making this change, with the Web strategy geared towards "communicating with them (customers) in their native languages and building sites that take into account the cultural differences of each region," says David Stieg, the company's corporate communications director.

Xilinx decided to use a product from Idiom Software called WorldServer, together with related consultancy services to assess readiness for globalisation. The company started with a Japanese language Web site and swiftly migrated to Idiom's WorldServer for scalability and manageability reasons.

The company was keen to enable content collaboration and maintenance among its staff, and globalisation manager Minko Pettersen comments that: "WorldServer's work-flow capabilities allow us to set and track the roles and responsibilities of our translators and reviewers and establish and change the steps taken through the translation process."

Case Study 2: Oracle

Oracle's case is less of a globalisation and more centralisation. Since Larry Ellison's, president of Oracle, famous speech challenging his company to cut $1bn from the bottom line, Oracle has been centralising its regional offerings.

Its local operations needed to be highly integrated with the central operation, which itself provides consistent messages that can be tailored to each local marketplace.

The centralisation was very important for Oracle from a cost perspective, but is also very important to its marketing operations, as UK marketing manager for Oracle iPlatform, Carolyn Patterson explains: "This centralisation means that we can now have a central source of information that can be accessible to everyone round the world with the same messages and the same knowledge base on the direction of products."

The company was keen not to lose the personalisation it has created within each of its local Web presences, however, and Patterson feels that a Web site "needs personality. You need to be able to offer a personal service and personal set of information."

She adds that localisation is essential in reaching any marketplace, and "linguistic and cultural differences must be understood and embraced in order for any global presence to succeed".

Oracle also points to decision-making advantages that come with centralisation, "data can be captured and analysed centrally and as a result you become much more agile as an organisation. You can gather centrally and distribute locally more effectively, turning data into knowledge.

This in turn can increase speed to market and facilitate much faster business and marketing decisions."

Let someone else translate your site for you

An e-commerce portal that can translate documents via the Web has been launched by Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products, the speech and linguistic technology provider.

L&H iTranslator Online can provide machine translation of documents of up to 5,210 words for rough quality translations for no cost. If a more polished translation is required, it provides fee-based access to L&H's network of human translation services.

L&H iTranslator Online offers 29 different language pairs for human translation and 16 different language pairs for machine translation. The machine translation language pairs covered include English to five languages and back (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) and cross-European languages including French to German, German to Italian and others.


Globalisation: The key factors

1. Localisation is essential. A market must be understood before it is exploited - this means understanding the culture within the market and the nuances of customers within that marketplace. Do not attempt to imprint a corporate UK style as this will just turn customers off.

2. Translation is essential. Forrester estimates that you have a three-times better chance of converting a visitor to a customer if you speak to them in their own language.

3. Centralisation makes the whole process much more cost-effective. By locating data centrally or providing a framework for local markets you can create a cost-effective global Web presence.

4. Consistency in messaging is paramount. Content management is crucial to attaining consistency across Web sites.

5. Delivering on promises, as with any transaction, is vital to long-term success. This can be achieved through partner companies that can help with order fulfilment or customer enquiries, but the key is to make sure delivery is not too expensive, unpredictable or time-consuming.

6. Make sure that you have representation in each market that you operate within, even if it is outsourced. If you have a customer in Australia that isn't happy, they may not want to wait until UK office hours to complain.

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