Building Web Sites Globally: Challenges and Solutions

When I was living in Greece, I went to see a play put on by a traveling troupe of American actors. The play was supposed to be a comedy, but the acting was horrible, and hardly anyone laughed.

At the end of the performance, the lead American actor came out to take his bow in front of the audience. Walking off stage, he waved his hand in a hesitant farewell. At that point, for the first time all evening, the whole audience burst into laughter.

The actor probably wondered why everyone laughed just as he was waving goodbye. I didn’t have the heart to tell him – he had just told the audience to go screw themselves. (Be careful showing the palm of your hand to Greeks!)

Take the story to heart when building out web sites for international markets. As e-commerce matures, more and more companies are deciding to build web sites that are meant to serve markets outside of North America. What they are learning is that if you don’t plan, implement and manage an international build-out with the right issues in mind, you can make some pretty costly mistakes.

Here are just three of the challenges that you confront when building web sites for international markets:

Challenge 1: Project Management

Building a web site is a logistical challenge. Factor in multiple time zones and far-flung locations, and the challenge can become a nightmare. And since people have a natural tendency to want to put their “fingerprints” on a site, managing local involvement in a centrally planned initiative can be a morass.

We’ve found that it is key to establish a clearly defined working and approval process in a site build-out. As part of this process, there should be single points of contact that are responsible for making decisions and communicating to the team. Finally, a defined management structure, one that precisely lays out roles and responsibilities, will improve the overall efficiency of the working process.

Challenge 2: Cultural Factors

GM learned when launching the Chevy Nova in Mexico how costly ethnocentrism can be. Nova means “no go” in Spanish, and, needless to say, the car wasn’t a big hit. Every element of a web site, including language, visual design and navigation, needs to be designed with sensitivity to cultural differences.

Meeting these cultural challenges often requires seeking help from native or local specialists who can ensure that your web site means what it says. Feedback from local customers is imperative as well. We recommend that sites be tested for usability in each market that they will serve.

Challenge 3: Social/Political Factors

Any time you enter into a new market, you have to learn and plan around a new set of legal and social parameters. Take Europe, for example. There, privacy laws might restrict even the most rudimentary tracking and data-collection tools. Needless to say, if you don’t understand the markets your new web sites are serving, you can get into big trouble.

Part of the solution here is getting local input. Legal advice is important as well. The bottom line is to make sure your planning process allows for enough time to address necessary strategic and tactical issues.

The road to e-business success is littered with many a company that took a “how much is minimally enough” attitude toward the Internet. Taking a step into the big-time global business world requires an investment that matches the extraordinary opportunity.

Going ahead blind to operational, cultural and other business realities is the riskiest strategy of all. You might as well tell your customers to go screw themselves.

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