Western e-retailers naturally embrace website design aesthetics, currencies, payment platforms and user experiences that best resonate with customers in their primary markets, which are almost always based in Western countries.
But based on our research and extensive experience localizing e-commerce sites for global markets, retailers can make serious missteps when trying to woo new customers in international markets. Western-centric approaches can come off as tone deaf, and alienate users in other parts of the world.
Take customer service call centers. “(C)ustomers in some parts of the world simply don’t like talking to people who aren’t native speakers or don’t get the linguistic details right,” wrote Darren Huston, CEO of Priceline, in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. “The Japanese, for instance, can often tell the difference between a Japanese speaker from Singapore or the United States and one from Japan, and they tend to prefer the latter.”
Another example: crafting on-site promotional messages that focus on the individual—a tactic quite common in the U.S.—fall flat in other markets. For instance, “German society has a bias to moderate views and low tonality that supports more the ‘we’ than the ‘I,’” one German marketer recently said. Further, “(m)ost marketing messages need to be more reluctant and more modest in Germany compared to the U.S.”
Not catering to these unique preferences undermines a foreign company’s credibility.
So how can brands make their localized sites and offerings friendlier to international customers? We spoke with Logan Lenz and Victoria Bloyer, Global Online Strategists with our Global Growth team, for insights.
Firstly, Don’t Overthink It
Despite the missteps described above, adjusting your company's approach to engage new global customers isn't as hard as it seems. This is especially true in e-commerce, Logan says. "The World Wide Web is becoming more uniform every day," he explains, "and the most effective best practices are being adopted by all smart brands-no matter what international markets they might be targeting."
This means website templates and page designs can remain largely the same from market to market. Opportunities remain to offer customized content and adjust certain on-site aesthetics (more on this in the next section), but companies can safely reduce costs by leveraging the design templates, and most graphics, of their primary-market website in international markets.
In fact, we’ve found that microsites or sites with notably different content (such as localized product images) risk doing more harm than good. Content and product parity is important to many global consumers.
Interestingly, a global site’s URL may do more to win more local hearts and minds than many companies might think.
"One heavily-debated point is the use of ccTLD's-country code top-level domains," Logan says. "An example of a ccTLD is the '.mx' suffix, which informs users and search engines that the site is positioned for Mexico.
"There are plenty of studies suggesting that users trust these ccTLD's more in certain markets," Logan continues. "Ironically, there's also a growing sentiment that Western sites with '.com' domains represent powerful and trustworthy brands. Ultimately, companies must examine the global markets they want to enter and determine the local preference. That can inform which ccTLD to use."
Website Design Elements May Require Adjustment
As we warned above, an overreliance on customized content for localized sites can alienate customers. We've found that 10% to 20% of a primary-market website's content (often published in English, and translated to the appropriate market's preferred language) can be replaced with customized messaging or imagery. This might include local promotions, campaign messaging, social icons, and local payment support.
Anything beyond that can be a turn-off for skeptical consumers. Ultimately, any customized content should be relevant to the local market, Victoria says.
"For instance, it doesn't make sense for an airline website to feature flights departing from the U.S. if the site is meant for people in the EU," she says, "or to have a Christmas promotion on a site serving Arabic-speaking customers in a predominately Muslim market. Companies have an opportunity to authentically connect with consumers when they make an effort to understand what's genuinely important to them."
However, we've found one site-wide customization that impacts far more than 10% to 20% of a site's content, but can make a big improvement in customer engagement. It's font choice and size.
We recently recommended such a change to a client that had expanded into the Chinese online market. Based on our research and analytics, we believed increasing the site's Chinese-character font size would produce a more welcoming and reader-friendly experience.
We were right. After implementing this trivial adjustment, pages-per-visit rates increased by 25%. Bounce rates dropped. Astonishingly, conversion rates rose nearly 300%.
"Make sure intricate writing systems like Chinese, Japanese and Arabic are large enough to read," Victoria advises. "Customers will bail if they struggle to consume your content."
Support Local Payment Methods
We’ve reported in the past on how supporting local currencies and locally-preferred payment platforms can supercharge conversions. In the case of a German e-commerce site we localize and operate for a fashion retailer, conversion rates increased over 250%, and daily revenue rose by over 1,500%, after we integrated locally-preferred payment platforms.
This strategy also greatly simplifies the shopping and checkout experience, Logan says.
"Klarna, a mobile payment solution that allows customers to pay after their goods are delivered to them, has published reports stating that implementing their solution can increase checkout rates 30%," he says. "This is most noticeable in markets like the Netherlands and Germany, where pay after delivery is commonplace."
Another way to inspire trust through the local checkout experience is to display trusted e-commerce security badges—particularly the ones most relevant to local consumers, Logan says.
Ultimately, Think Like A Customer
"In the end, simplifying the buying experience means eliminating speedbumps-anything that would get in the way of a global customer deciding to buy," Victoria says. "Companies can't control every factor, but there are things they can do to reduce transactional friction. Here are a few."
- Make sure global customers have no doubt in their minds about payment options and local currency support
- Awareness of local shipping options and their cost, return policies, size guides, and customer support are also important
- Build trust by offering localized content that’s relevant or timely for the region, such as flights within Latin America (for an airline serving Latin American markets), or timely ticket promotions for Golden Week (for an EU-based railway serving Japanese customers)
Also, be aware of customer behavior in certain markets that might wreak havoc with retailer expectations. Take the unique—and disruptive—German shopping phenom called “Zalando parties.” (Zalando is the largest fashion e-retailer in Germany.) Here, teenagers buy trendy outfits, snap selfies of themselves wearing them, share the photos on social media, and then return all the items. A U.S. e-retailer operating in Germany ignorant of this unscrupulous trend could incur needless return-related costs and headaches.
"And be sure to simplify the actual buying flow," Victoria concludes. "Much like your Western e-commerce site, try to have as few steps as possible between adding to cart, checking out, entering billing and shipping options, and finalizing the order. Too many steps causes frustration and impatience, and often leads to global consumers abandoning the localized site-sometimes for good."