Serving an international customer is no longer as difficult as it used to be. According to one study, 82 percent of shoppers made at least one purchase from an international merchant in a calendar year — despite the fact that only 1 percent of small businesses in the U.S. export goods overseas.
But filling the occasional overseas order isn’t the same as having a truly international presence. Expanding to a new market requires boots on the ground to ensure you understand the unique nature of consumption patterns, marketing strategies and business laws.
For this article, I talked to two experts who successfully grew their respective businesses internationally.
Igal Stolpner is the Head of Growth & Marketing at Investing.com. As the company’s first employee, Stolpner was instrumental in growing international sites from zero to nearly 100 million monthly sessions.
John Pollard is Executive Vice President of Registry for Donuts Inc. From 1997 to 2000, Pollard served as Expedia’s international director and led the company’s international breakout.
Here are some lessons and strategies you can adopt from Stolpner’s and Pollard’s considerable experience.
Research your target market.
This is perhaps the most important step in the process. Researching the local market will help you understand whether it’s a good idea to enter a specific country. Strategic research on the potential customer base and current market conditions is just the beginning. Stolpner recommends you ask two important questions:
What kind of local adjustments will you need to make (and what will they take)?
Are there any local legal limitations to your product or business model?
The answers can make or break your decision to move forward with the expansion. User-behavior research also can provide useful insights that influence your strategies. Pollard, for instance, points out that Expedia didn’t enter the Japanese market until much later, due to the way Japanese plan their travel and the expectations they bring to a tour.
While you don’t necessarily need a local office in every country you operate in, it is important to hire local employees who also can speak your language. Stolpner says it’s especially crucial to hire a local employee for every new target market. This person should have a deep understanding of the culture and market so she or he quickly can identify product tweaks or customer-experience aspects that must adjust for the environment. If you cannot hire a local employee for a one-time project, Stolpner advises you should — at the very least — find a local consultant who can ensure you don’t overlook anything significant.
Successful expansion depends on nailing a local-marketing strategy. Stolpner believes international SEO is extremely vital to international expansion. He stresses the importance of choosing correct hreflang tags, URL and domain structure from the get-go. These are critical not only from the SEO perspective but also to hit your branding and business goals over the long run. Stolpner considers the right hreflang tags the very beginning of international SEO for new, local websites. He urges that all other marketing efforts must follow to rank well in these fresh markets.
Your local employees can help advise your marketing strategies, informing you of cultural differences that will inform how you approach the market — and through which medium.
Most businesses tend to expand to a new country based on the promise the location offers, but it’s vital to understand the underlying elements that make each nation unique. During Pollard’s early days of international expansion, decisions were influenced by factors such as the ubiquity of credit cards or the degree to which the local country had adopted ecommerce. Today’s expanding businesses must consider local requirements around data processing and storage. Those who chase a promising customer base will learn the devil is in the details.
International expansion is fraught with risks and challenges. But this strategy also can introduce you to a new customer base with the potential to grow your business even further. Work out the costs and benefits during every step of the process so you can choose a direction that will benefit your organization in the long run.