Close this search box.

Guest Comment: Going global — 10 tips to take your ecommerce brand to international success

This is an archived article - we have removed images and other assets but have left the text unchanged for your reference

Yves Montand, the charming French singer and actor discovered (and loved) by Edith Piaf, once crooned a heart-wrenching rendition of the classic Australian song Waltzing Matilda. It brought tears to eyes of all who heard it and rendered women all over France helpless. It was recently resurrected on YouTube, and received more than 10,000 views, even though Montand has been dead for almost 20 years.

Despite all this, most Australians don’t even know this version exists. Even if they did hear it, the likelihood of the average Aussie making the link from Montand’s Mathilde to their very own Waltzing Matilda is low.

The point is this: No matter how good your product, if it doesn’t resonate with the locals it may as well not exist.

The same is true in ecommerce. You can have the best product the UK has even seen, but if you don’t make an effort to ‘fit in’ with the local market, you’re wasting your time and money. How much you need to make it fit in, or localise it, depends on the product or service you’re trying to flog abroad.

There is no secret recipe for success, but by following these 10 tips, you’ll give your site the best chance it has to do well (or at least you can quit while you’re ahead).

1. Strategy and planning

It is often said that whatever is online is global. To a certain extent that is true, but for any ecommerce site, you need more than a .com address to really go global.

With a weak pound, now is a great time for UK retailers to expand overseas but don’t forget that ecommerce, like any other business, requires you to have some key advantages over your competitors.

Research global markets and make sensible decisions about where your product has the best chance of success. It is often a good idea to start small. Test the waters in one market and expand gradually.

The lesson to remember is to strategise globally but market locally.

You’ll need to know the new market fairly well, have considered your pricing and fulfilment strategy and have resources in place to support the new site.

Having a sound strategy and a detailed plan before you begin goes without saying. Before you even get there however, you should consider the following nine steps.

2. Think about the platform

Chances are you already have a stable and successful ecommerce platform, most likely managed by a third party. A single platform is the preferred option for most businesses where ecommerce is not their core business. The scalability of your platform and the ability to launch new sites quickly and cost-effectively is now a major consideration for new sites, and so it should be.

Make sure you get the basics right before thinking of expansion. Are there any bottlenecks in your current system that are going to increase when you have multiple sites? Poor web analytics, manual product management and non-integrated eCRM need to be addressed before you plan your expansion.

Ensure your site adheres to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards. Having an accessible site and checkout is good for business in any country. Ensure the search mechanism works well and site navigation is clear.

3. Localisation

Localisation is the process by which a product or service — in this case a website — is adapted in accordance with linguistic, cultural, technical and other locale-specific requirements of the target market, such as consumer habits and preferences.

This covers translating all the words on the website, and also checking to ensure all the messages make sense in the new market — that phrases, links and summaries are meaningful once translated.

It also entails making sure that colours, symbols and graphic devices are appropriate for the new market. For example, while the colour blue indicates tranquillity and security in the West and it is considered a lucky to wear “something blue” at a wedding, in China it is considered deeply unlucky to have blue at a wedding. In Hindi culture, the swastika is a highly revered religious symbol of peace and well-being, but an Indian company that launched Swastika Industries in the West soon paid the price for not doing its research — by closing down!

There’s no way to know this stuff without enlisting the help of the locals, but rest assured, a good translation company will have contacts in the new market if you don’t.

There’s no firm answer for how much or how little to localise your website. It will depend on your product/s and your target market how much you need to spend on this. Apple, for example, merely translates the words on its websites. Everything else remains exactly the same and generally speaking, its customers are comfortable with the international image. Unilever’s brand websites, on the other hand, are unrecognisable from one country to another. Unilever’s household brands are highly localised to each market, with a strategy to make each product feel local to the market it is being sold in. That’s because the purchasers of products such as Persil tend to have strong cultural ties to tradition and community and are more likely to reject international products than the consumers of iPods, for example.

A good translation/localisation firm should be able to help you with this and there are some tools, such as the GOST-buster developed at Saint Louis University, that can help you determine how much you need to localise your site. Remember to check out the Globalisation and Localisation Association members too at

4. Merchandising and content

Content is king, right? How you draw your customers in is key to keeping them on the site. Are your domestic methods suitable for the new market? Or will you need different content for the new site? Or even a whole new homepage approach?

In most cases, a combination of catchy new content for the homepage combined with a good translation of the body copy works well. This is the strategy for the stock photography phenomenon, iStockphoto.

You will also need to think about your merchandising content. Descriptive language is very subjective and popular culture gives birth to new terms and phrases constantly, which you can only pick up on if you live there. It is usually advisable to brief a local writer in your new market to write merchandising copy from scratch. The cost is roughly comparable to the cost of a creative translation and you inevitably get a fresher, more original result that gels well with the locals.

Don’t oversimplify cultural differences just because the country’s language is English. Likewise, don’t think European Spanish will be suitable for a South American market. Customers can very easily sniff out when they are not the intended audience.

Good content will increase your search engine visibility, attract more visitors, and encourage them to become customers.

Make sure you pick the right products to sell per country. You may not be able to make your full product range available in the new market, so do your research to find out what is likely to sell.

Just as you would do in the UK, have a list of “recommended products” and “other customers also bought” with each item. This can be simply done in your database where you connect products together based on what customers have actually bought. This may even help to refine your product offering.

If you’re prepared to take money from purchasers outside the UK, you must ensure address and telephone numbers can be entered painlessly wherever the customer is. Make it personal — customise the drop down forms to be relevant to where you do ship to, not a default country list.

5. SEO

International search engine optimisation must be top of mind from the beginning of your expansion plans. Translating search terms directly can be a big mistake. We use ‘mobiles’ to make calls on the go in the UK and Australia; in the US, they’re called ‘cells’ and in Germany, ‘handies’. Translating ‘mobile’ and optimising your site for that keyword term in Germany would be a disaster! Instead, research must be undertaken to decipher the terms and phrases people use to refer to your particular product or service. Once you know the local lingo, you can brief your copywriter to include these terms on the new site and, most importantly, you can include them in your metadata.

Needless to say, you should optimise your site for the market leading search engine in the new market. Forget about Google in China, go for Baidu; and in Russia, it’s Yandex you’ll need to familiarise yourself with.

It is advisable to register the site locally and to host it locally, too, with the appropriate top level domain:, .de, and so on. These steps will require a local address, but a post office box will normally suffice. Doing this will help your site to load faster and will also generate good rankings for your site.

6. Marketing

You’ll probably need to use in-country specialists to help your SEM (search engine marketing) team. PPC may demand a higher dependence on generics and product type keywords while you are building awareness for your brand but your local partners will be familiar with the best local terms to use.

Ensure marketing activities match the nuances of the local area and plan around them. For example, if you’re launching in Australia, know when Australia Day is and celebrate it.

Finding one affiliate network across several countries that is going to deliver the best ROI is not possible. Pick the best networks in the relevant countries and consider hiring a third party to manage all relationships, reporting and invoicing on your behalf.

Spending on online advertising continues to grow in the face of economic uncertainty and in 2010 online advertising should account for around 13% of overall ad spending worldwide. It’s a good way to get some initial clicks through to your site, if planned well.

Social media and mobile commerce can’t be ignored. Listening to customers via social media enables you to better understand what they want from you and adapt to the local market preferences. If you don’t have local staff who can manage this for you, consider hiring a local freelancer.

7. Fulfilment

This could make or break your site and requires a great deal of research and consideration. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will you make all your stock available, or only a selection?

  • Should you find a local base, stock some products there and range products to certain warehouses?

  • What kind of delivery times will you promise customers? What will they accept?

You will need to research the new market to understand what is acceptable in terms on delivery times; how reliable is the post service; what infrastructure you will need on the ground. Be very clear up front on your site where you do ship to — do not make customers search for this information.

Once you have this sorted and have made a delivery promise to your customers, you will need to keep them informed about their order status with triggered emails or online checking functionality. If the product ships via a carrier, send an email to the customer with the tracking number with a link to the carrier to check status.

Third party international checkout and shipping solutions allow customer orders to be fulfilled from the domestic region, reducing in-country infrastructure and enabling budget to be focused on marketing activity. Be sure that this solution allows for acceptable delivery times and charges to your new customers. Hidden fees, unknown costs, and lengthy delivery times create substantial dissatisfaction for overseas shoppers.

8. Checkout and transaction processing

After conducting your market assessments (‘what is the size of the prize?’), local payment preferences are the next most important thing to do.

The checkout and transaction process is all about trust. It is here you need to make people feel safe and secure. They not only need to trust in your product and your delivery promises, they need to trust you can keep their personal details safe. To lose a sale at the transaction stage is a tragedy!

Preferred online payment methods vary from one country to the next. Bank transfers dominate in the Netherlands and Germany, for example, while in Italy prepaid cards are hugely popular. Most of these regional preferences are well understood by now and some platforms can deal with local payment methods, but make sure you understand this from the outset.

Having goods displayed in local currencies is a no-brainer, but how you set your pricing strategy is a bit trickier. How sensitive are you to fluctuations in the Pound Sterling? Do you have the capacity to manage some kind of foreign exchange exposure?

It may be that the platform you choose can handle multiple currency transactions with ease, but you will still need to ensure that the process of checking out and paying gels with each new market you enter.

Is your payment page branded or will you use a third party to handle your secure transactions? As the complexities and security issues surrounding e-payments increase, some online retailers are turning to outsourced payment processing companies to manage their e-payment solutions.

You must also protect yourself from fraud. Each new market will have its own risks and it is a well reported fact that companies going global do experience an increase in fraud. Know the risks in the local market before entering.

Make sure your site complies with the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard).

9. Legal and regulatory issues

You are entering into a legal contract with your foreign customers. Don’t offer what you can’t deliver or it may be more than just a sale you’ve lost.

Do your research into the legal and regulatory requirements around contracts, sales, data collection and data privacy in every new market. This is particularly important if you intend to add customers to your email marketing database (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?). The laws around data collection vary wildly from country to country and there may be harsh penalties for breaches. Ignorance is never a defence!

10. Resourcing

What kind of support and staffing do you need to keep your ecommerce site running successfully? Do they need to be local? If not, do you have staff that can speak the local language if help is required? Are they available in the right time zone?

What kind of online support systems do you have? If you have a forum, is every question/answer/thread translated?

In some countries, including the US, it is generally considered a necessity to have a freephone number. Have you arranged this and who is on the end of the line? Does your product require local support — installation engineers for example? Will you subcontract this work out? How will you guarantee service levels?

Again, it will depend on your product how much local support is required, but at the very least, you should have staff who are able to talk to your new customers in the right language at the right time. If not, expect many a deal to fall apart at the last moment.

You will need to set up key roles in your ecommerce team to look after the new sites — merchandising, marketing, customer services, fulfilment and IT will all have additional responsibilities. Support for this initiative has to come from the top, or near the top, to make sure it will land successfully.

• Gary Muddyman is the managing director and CEO of Conversis, a provider of globalisation, internationalisation, localisation and translation services. After 16 years at HSBC, Gary started Conversis in 2003 with the aim of advancing the understanding and use of localisation and translation as a strategic business tool. Bronwyn Laughlin is ecommerce manager at Superdrug. Prior to that she re-launched and managed the P&L for four online women’s clothing brands at Jacques Vert.

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on