Building a Global Online Strategy

The World is flat. If you have a website or run an online business, it is global by definition. As a business grows it starts thinking about how to optimize their online presence to better serve customers around the world.

Photo courtesy of wilmack via Creative Commons

The way it usually works is that a subsidiary uses part of its marketing budget to create a local site and local content. Over time this problem gets bigger and bigger, often ending up with multiple websites with no coherent strategy. The result is uncoordinated infrastructure investment efforts, inconsistent experience for customers, back-end integration challenges, privacy governance problems and continued investment in localization.

What is missing is a global online strategy. While building a global online strategy must be done in a way that is relevant to your own business, I want to offer a few ideas or best practices that could help:

1. A single online infrastructure and one global user experience.

In a world of global consumers, political boundaries and languages are becoming somewhat irrelevant (not totally, of course). Customers travel, migrate, commute and deliver services globally. B2B companies have subsidiaries and regional offices in multiple countries. Privacy, compliance and user experience governance is better done centrally. With all this under consideration, it makes more sense to have a single, adaptable, global site.

This means a single global infrastructure that allows you to have a single strategy, one investment and consistency across regions on aspects such as your content delivery network strategy, PCI/HIPAA compliance, video management platform, personalization, back-end/ERP integration, privacy compliance, CRM strategy, URL shortening, social strategy, etc..

It also means having a central point of view and strategy for user experience: registration, social integration, newsletter subscriptions, profile and personalization, order history, and other preferences.

Web infrastructure is not cheap: content management systems can be expensive, especially if you are buying one for every region. Implementation and maintenance (people) costs are usually about 10x the cost of the software, which means using Open Source instead of a commercial app can have marginal cost savings benefit, sometimes negative if open source requires more customization and maintenance. Maintaining multiple content management systems can get quite complex, especially when you consider content federation, syndication, localization and content lifecycle.

2. Define your language translation strategy and priorities

The two key pieces of information you need are country (for shipping as well as to present local stores, events, promotions, etc,) and language – these should be ideally two separate preferences.

Plan your user experience to allows international visitors to find their locale (country and language) quickly and can change their preferences easily. Their current IP address should be used for suggestions only – you don’t want all your sites to switch to Japanese if you travel to Tokyo for a week.

The first decision is to decide what languages require support and in wat priorities based on your business strategy. Start by understanding the revenue contribution from each country, primary languages – and most importantly, what countries and customer profiles require a localized online experience.

It could be that your target customer in a particular country actually prefers English content. This is common for technology buyers who perceive (correctly) that English content is more compete, more up to date and more accurate (free from translation mistakes).  It could also be that your buyer is more comfortable in English but the actual end users require localized language. It could be that the culture in a particular culture requires localization as a business courtesy and a sign that you care for customers in that country and respect their nationality.

Once you understand priorities, a site map should be used to determine what content needs to be translated. Some companies translate only the top one or two levels on their website, others only pre-sales content, others a mix based on more complex decision-making. A best practice I have observed when one the top-level of content is translated is that at content that is not localized is still made available but there is a mark on the link (as simple as an asterisk) that indicates the content behind that link is in English. Once you have this, you should start forming an idea of the amount of content required to support each additional language.

The next step is to decide on your localization process. It can be as sophisticated as manual, outsourced translation by native speakers to using Google translate. A balanced approach could use assisted translation: machine translation that is reviewed by translators for accuracy. Using a standard dictionary for consistency of use of technical terms, informal language expressions and phrases is a best practice here.

A very important, and often overlooked, part of this process is to think about how will you update content. This means having a strategy not only to translate the initial set of content, but also considering ongoing process to update content based on what changes in the original site. It also means building the dependencies between localized and original content in case the original content is retired, updated or deleted (i.e. for legal reasons).

3. True internationalization requires taking into account Culture

Building a global online presence is tricky because of all the little things that change from culture to culture. Certain colors, terms or images may be offensive in a particular culture. Certain words change meaning from country to country. There are historic cultural sensitivities that impact, for example, using Spanish from Spain in Latin America. Religion, business practice, privacy and many other factors come into play.

For large organizations. it is useful to establish a central location (i.e. a Wiki) with guidelines and tips to make content more culturally sensitive. This means, what colors to avoid, what tone to use when addressing specific cultures, what type of advertising or messages could be considered inappropriate, etc.

4. Centralization with Local Empowerment

Centralizing your online presence after the local marketing team has built a country or regional site can present organizational challenges. The local team should welcome the fact they won’t have to invest time and resources maintaining online infrastructure, however there will be a concern over loss of control and a legitimate need to be able to have control over local promotions, local activities and local content.

The worst possible outcome is that the new global site becomes the excuse for poor regional financial performance. This can be avoided if you involve the regional teams from the beginning of the project, if they provide input in the requirement gatherings phase and if the site is built to enable some degree of local control.

Most modern content management systems enable delegation features that make it easy to determine what parts of the site can be changes by regional teams and which ones should not. It is important to define these rules from the beginnig. For example, for brand consistency and IP protection, the global/corporate team should be defining global logo usage, site images, colors and overall brand image.

Local teams might have the ability to create certain number of pages, control local offers, maintain the local event calendar, promote local case studies, feature local press activities and influence the SEO strategy to include keywords relevant in a particular region. In other words, they could enjoy the benefits of a global site while still maintaining some level of autonomy and power to influence their local business.

All the decisions and points above have budget and process implications. How will they affect corp/local budget distribution? Who will pay for localization? what to do with existing web-aligned people in the regions? etc. No one said this would be easy.

5. Global Site as a Service and Governance.

This brings an interesting concept: The global online team as a service. For a central/global web team to be effective there needs to be an agreed SLA with the regions/subsidiaries and a defined process for capturing feedback and allowing them to participate in the definition of future development of new features and enhancements

Reciprocally, the local team must agree to abide by a set of agreed rules, made very clear in a policy document with specific enforcement controls, for aspects such as buying and using domains, social media participation, launching and maintaining tactical regional microsites, and probably most importantly, a customer data strategy, which brings us to the last point.

6. Customer Data and Privacy Strategy

In some countries, violation of privacy laws is punished severely and could result in people going to jail. In many global companies, a violation of the policy (creating a microsite around corp guidelines that allows customers to register or sending an email with an excel file with names and email addresses) results in immediate termination of the employee.

You probably have heard of the Google execs that went to jail for allowing an end-user to upload illegal content to YouTube in Italy, even after the video was taken down quickly after it was flagged. This is an extreme case, of course, the intention is not to scare you but to make you aware of the importance of the legal aspects one must consider, starting with privacy laws.

A basic set of guidelines will define what information should be captured, what re the guidelines for allowing people under age to register and what is considered ‘under age’ in each country, clear policies for handling PII (personally identifiable information) including how it should be stored (a central repository with encryption) and deletion, credit card information handling and PCI compliance, opt-in/opt-out, global unsubscribe and customer preferences.

It is a lot of work, yes. Is it easy? absolutely not. But it is certainly worthwhile. The Web is quickly becoming the most important customer interaction channel for all types of organizations – it already is for many. The good news? once you build a global online presence based on a solid strategy your company (and hopefully you) will enjoy its benefits for many years to come. I hope this posts helps you get there.


Facebook Marketing – What Makes Sense?

This week Sucharita Mulpuru wrote a blog post about Facebook commerce that turned out to be quite controversial. Sucharita’s previous post on the topic was aptly named 500MM users.. so why can’t they show you the $$. A bold quote from the post “No one’s revenue will come from Facebook”, along with a recommendation to stop wasting time chasing F-shiny objects, and focus on fixing the basics (like search and ratings & reviews) which have proven results.

My thoughts are pretty aligned with Sucharita, in the sense that no one seems to be making money from Facebook other than Facebook, Zynga and a few agencies – in the gold rush the money was made selling picks and other mining tools. I see brands confused about how to even think about Facebook and chasing meaningless metrics such as number of fan “likes”. When marketing leaders share their goal for social marketing this year is to get to 100K or 1 million likes, I ask them what they will do with the customers that have liked the brand, usually resulting in blank stares and confusion.

So I want to share my humble opinion on the role of Facebook for marketers.

One of the principles I feel strongly about is that social media is only a set of tools to help you achieve business objectives. Then, let’s start with the basics and think about how can interactive marketers leverage Facebook to achieve business and marketing goals. “Social media goals” don’t count, unless they are leading indicators in the context of a broader strategy. Think about it: the main reason marketers care about Facebook for one simple reason: there are over half a billion potential customers using it every day. As I wrote in a previous post, you have to fish where the fish are – but you have to bring them home (your site) to cook them (make money). It was the same with video and other new tools available to marketers.

Sounds logical, yet, brands continue spending millions of dollars in media sending customers to Facebook. The traffic should flow the other way around.  Getting customers to respond to an ad is difficult enough to send them to a site where you have little control with the hopes they will “like” your brand and maybe someday somehow and up on your site or buying your product.

A couple weeks back I saw an online ad for Sierra Mist Natural, curious to learn more about the new drink I clicked on the ad, which took me to Sierra Mist’s Facebook page. Not only was this not the experience I was expecting, I was unable to learn more about the product, learn what makes it natural (is it using Stevia for sweetening, natural flavors or something else?) and landed on a Facebook page where a couple customers had quite negative comments on the product.

To sort through all the confusion it could be useful to think about Facebook as four discrete opportunities:

1. Encouraging fans to advocate your brand on Facebook

This is the most basic, but also the most powerful Facebook tactic so far and it’s free. I have blogged about this extensively. People trust recommendations from their friends. Chances are their friends are on Facebook too.

 If your brand has 50,000 fans (Sorry Facebook, “likes” does not work as well), and if you can get one of every five to tell their friends how much they like your brand, you would have 10,000 people advocating personally to an about 1.3 million potential customers about your brand. 1.3 million customers you probably can’t reach through your traditional marketing efforts. Your customers can advocate on Facebook without even having to “like” your brand. You don’t even need a brand page on Facebook – customers can advocate directly from your website.

2. Your brand’s presence on Facebook (brand page) and “Likes” associated with it

Most brand pages on Facebook are quite boring and expose visitors to customer service issues or provide irrelevant information to customers. It’s time to get creative and map a proper brand experience on Facebook. The possibilities are endless, but don’t create siloed microsites or just copy your website in the Facebook iFrame.  Do something useful like providing reviews, Q&A, links to your site and resources that will engage customers in a social context. There are so many things a brand can do here that it would be impossible for me to provide best practices, so I won’t try. This is an area where a good agency can help.

3. Facebook commerce

To clarify, with F-Commerce I mean not only adding your product catalog to your Facebook page but actually enabling transactions within it: you can complete an order without ever leaving Facebook. I think it makes sense for a few select use cases: buying tractors on Farmville, buying a song using iTunes credits, etc.  However, I am really skeptical this will be mainstream – ever. For a couple of reasons:

  • Leaving Facebook to complete the transaction on the brand’s main site is easy. It takes seconds and can be completely transparent for the user.
  • The user experience will probably be better on the main site. Brands have invested millions on content management systems, search capabilities, interactive features, social capabilities and other elements that give customers a better on-site experience than what is possible on Facebook.
  • Many consumers probably consider most brand sites to be more secure and reliable than Facebook. With the news about Facebook security and privacy issues I guess people would rather share their credit card number with an established business than with a social network that has no good track of protecting personal information.

Alvendia (now 8thBridge) shared the total sales on Facebook across all the brands they serve peaked at $100K in December. That’s less than $3 million per month, a number that is largely insignificant for their client base. Brands should still make their product catalogs available on Facebook to encourage advocacy and sharing, with an easy link to the product page on the main site.

4. Advertising on Facebook

In the end, Facebook is not a social company – it’s a media company that makes money by selling advertising. Advertising on Facebook should be evaluated like you would consider advertising on any other media outlet: based on audience profiles, advertising formats, targetability and ultimately, click-through rate. I am not an expert, but it is common knowledge that CTRs for Facebook are pretty low compared to industry averages. Maybe because when customers are in “social mode” they are not so interested in ads. The risk is that customers start mentally ignoring the ad space on the right most like most of us ignore banner ads on most web sites.

Then again, for the right reasons, with the right strategy, advertising on Facebook may be the right thing to do. Back in 2004, I was one of the first to advertise on Facebook when we were promoting the Imagine Cup. That particular campaign yielded decent results.


In conclusion, if you start with your business goals in mind (and not with “let’s do something on Facebook”) then go on to evaluate the four ways you can leverage Facebook for your business in the context of a customer experience journey, Facebook can be a really powerful tool that produces top-notch results.


eCommerce is dead

eCommerce is dead, long live eCommerce.

It’s not that eCommerce is going away any time soon, in fact Comscore reported today eCommerce sales in the US went up 9% YoY, but that number still represents about 6% of total retail sales. If you are a retailer, it could be a grave mistake to allocate 6% of your attention and resources to online commerce.

In the last few months the distinction between online commerce and the rest of commerce has been blurring. Today it does not exist anymore. This is why, at last week’s Forrester Consumer Forum, Brian Walker suggested it is time to drop the “e” from eCommerce.

Consider the following facts:

  • In the US online influenced retail sales are projected to top $1 trillion in 2010.
  • 51% of all retail sales will be made online or influenced online by 2013. 
  • While eCommerce represents 8-9% of retails sales, over 50% of all retail sales are influenced online.  
  • Multi-channel is dead. Customers expect a consistent experience across all-channels : online, in the store, mobile, etc.

There is no separation between online commerce and offline commerce. Clicks and Mortar is gone. Customers today increasingly research online and buy offline.  Online in a fundamental part of every purchase experience. There is no eCommerce anymore, online is a core part of commerce in general.

The future of eCommerce is not as a standalone channel, but as one of the many channels working together “ 
– Brian Walker, What Every Exec needs to know about the future of eCommerce Technology

We don’t talk about electronic calculators or digital phones anymore.  There is only commerce and it spans online, retail and mobile.  In the same way, social will be dead soon. Soon there won’t be social commerce, social collaboration or social CRM. Soon the world will acknowledge everything is social and social will be dead too.