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September 2002

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America Losing the International Marketing Race

by Glen Emerson Morris

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According to a report by the International Data Corporation (IDC), 70% of American e-commerce Websites sell less than 10% outside the United States. As of March 2001, only 47.5% of people surfing the Internet spoke English as their primary language. Even more alarming, by 2003, IDC projects the following sources of online spending: U.S. -- 34%, Europe and Japan -- 47% Rest of World -- 19%. These numbers add up to an unavoidable conclusion. American business is going to get killed in the International market if it doesn't change its attitude about international marketing, and soon.

There are two primary reasons most American businesses don't market their products internationally. The first reason is that they consider the American Market to be vast enough that they don't need another market. The second reason is that American businesses are not used to marketing products in languages other than English, and this rules out marketing to most of the rest of the world.

The validity of these arguments is highly questionable, especially concerning International marketing on the Internet. Most business will readily agree that the domestic market is big enough for them. However, most of these businesses will also agree that they would like to make more sales, especially a lot more sales, they just don't see any way to do it. As for the second reason, that other languages aren't worth the effort involved, the numbers just don't support it. The United States has about 6% of the world's population. Several billion people don't speak English at all, and millions of them are affluent with high disposable incomes and, especially in Europe, lots of time to spend it in. Either we, or foreign competition, will sell to them.

From the way things are going, Europe will likely dominate international marketing on the Internet. This really isn't surprising when you consider that Europe, unlike the United States, is an international market to begin with.

For instance, Belgium has a film industry, a unique language, but a very small population. From a marketing standpoint, Belgium's population is so small that it simply doesn't pay to make full-length movies in the native language, just ten-minute features like documentaries. The Belgium film industry responded to this market environment two ways. They became some of the best ten-minute documentary producers on the planet, and more importantly, they learned to dub and subtitle their movies into other languages. This opened up the world to them, and the market for Belgium films jumped from a few million to several hundred million.

In contrast, many Websites in the United States don't even allow Canadians to enter their postal code (their version of the ZIP code) in order forms, which eliminates any chance of orders from Canada. The reason for this is that the ZIP code field on the order form was set to only accept numbers, which is the correct format for American ZIP codes, but not for Canadian postal codes, which use letters as well as numbers. Some sites don't even have a "country" field on the order form.

For practical purposes, any Website that does not specifically target the International market will probably have features that drive international consumers away. It doesn't have to be that way. Internationalizing a Website isn't that difficult. It just involves doing things that aren't familiar. You could start with this five-step approach.

First, remove any barriers to international trade on your Website. Look for and remove any inflexibility in your orders forms, like having a pop-up menu for the state field that prevents entering anything else, like a Canadian province. Make sure you have a "country" field, and enough lines in the address fields to add a lengthy address.

Second, develop an international marketing strategy. A good place to start would be to research the market for your type of product in Europe, Canada, and Mexico. Market reports for most countries are available from, either through their online subscription service ($75 for three months) or through CD's sold on the Stat-USA Website. Also check out any barriers to trade that might exist with your target countries (Stat-USA also features trade barrier reports).

Third, once you know what your target markets are, translate your Website into those languages. This sounds more painful than it actually is. You may be able to get by with just three languages. The primary international languages are English, French, German, and Spanish. Add the last three of these languages to your Website and you pick up the majority of Europe, all North America, and most of South America. Translators for these languages are easy to find in most American markets. There are also translation services on the Internet that will translate Websites for a few hundred dollars per site, on up.

Fourth, register your site with search engines in the countries you are targeting. It's a simple, but often overlooked, fact that most people surf in their native language, whether for private or for commercial purposes. Let international customers know you will speak to them in their language. You will gain millions of potentially new customers when you do.

Fifth, listen to your foreign customers. A few changes to localize your products to their market could add millions to your bottom line. You may find your product's brand name literally translates into "loser" in Spanish or German, for instance, or that the only color you make your product in is considered unlucky, or has special connotations that should be avoided, like it's only associated with funerals. These, like most localization issues, are relatively easy to resolve, but can have major positive results.

If the United States is to be competitive on the Internet, American business must change its basic outlook on international marketing. Until now, the default assumption has been that a product would not be marketed internationally unless there were compelling reasons that it should. The new assumption has to be that any product should be marketed internationally unless there are compelling reasons that it shouldn't. That's the approach they're taking in Europe, and if we're going to maintain a competitive economy, that's the approach we have to take in the United States.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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