Economy Getting You Down? Look Abroad

OK, marketers, role-playing time. You have a new job. You’re overseeing a major auto manufacturer’s national interactive advertising and branding campaign.

In Saudi Arabia.

There are two probable reactions to this scenario. You’re thinking either, “She’s got to be kidding,” or, “How cool is that?

The Internet bubble didn’t burst. You’re forgetting the “World” part of the World Wide Web. The industry is just beginning. Why aren’t you part of it?

I lunched this week with George (last name withheld to protect his inbox), a U.S. citizen with a marketing and research background. Currently, he lives in Saudi Arabia, overseeing a global automotive manufacturer’s online marketing.

He faces some unique challenges. Despite Saudi Arabia’s relative liberalism in the Arab world, the client nixed an ad in which a car spoke with a woman’s voice, purring, “Follow me.” But George says his biggest obstacles aren’t cultural or creative. They’re technological.

George wants to create rich and streaming ads. Saudi Arabia has no providers. Beyond-the-banner ads aren’t a question of “if” but “who”? He complains that when he asks local service providers to bid on a project, they’ll often go around him and approach his client directly, offering a lower price. Even security is an issue, George claims. Providers of firewalls and other services are not always to be trusted with holding the keys to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia boasts a very affluent population segment. They’re the ones online. Internet usage tripled to 1.5 million users over the past year, although a few hours of access cost more than your monthly broadband service. That number may sound like peanuts compared to 137 million U.S. surfers. But the market is growing. We’re relatively flat. User demographics? No contest.

Half a billion people in the world are online at home. Most of these people do not live in this country. The Asia-Pacific region, led by China and India, will soon surpass the U.S. in “wired-ness.” China’s already overtaken its hyper-geeky neighbor, Japan, on that front. Are Chinese users as affluent as Saudi Arabian? Of course not, but with nearly 57 million users, they’re certainly a force to be reckoned with. Online Russians doubled last year. So did Kuwaitis. Latin America’s usage has tripled in two years, surpassing projections despite an economic crisis. Brazil’s online retail market is now over $1 billion.

If you don’t hear opportunity knocking, check your hearing. A fact of life at home, the Internet is an open frontier abroad. Your products or services are almost certainly needed in one or more of these emerging markets. As marketers, your job is to target opportunities and pursue them (unless, of course, you already have all the sales, business, and clients you can handle).

How to Get In

First, quit being intimidated. Venturing into foreign markets isn’t easy but is far from impossible. It’s never been cheaper or more efficient to get started. Email alone saves thousands of dollars in phone, fax, and telex bills. Research can be conducted from your desktop. English continues to grow as the lingua franca of global business (if that’s your only language). The greatest barrier to penetrating foreign markets is probably in your mind.

Identify needs you can fill. Some burgeoning markets, such as China and India, are sophisticated technologically but less so in marketing strategy. Latin America needs payment systems, fulfillment, and customer service. George, our friend in Saudi Arabia, wants rich media and other beyond-the-banner technology.

Target your skills. Where do you/your company fit in the global equation? Can you facilitate deals or broker joint ventures? Sell? Consult? Market? Teach? Program? Speak a foreign language? Design? Foreign opportunities range from simple supply/demand equations to more nuanced openings. Foreign “experts” are perceived (correctly or not) to have added value or cachet. Some countries will welcome your company and facilitate entry if you’ll provide jobs or training.

Connect and network. Once you know what you can offer and where, schmooze. Before getting on a plane, you can cover ground at home. Contact business and cultural groups, consulates, and economic development offices. Work to meet natives of your target market who can educate you and make local introductions. Prepare marketing materials in the native language. These are not translations of your current collateral but targeted for the local market. Think PR. Investigate trade shows and conferences in the region. Attend. Better still, speak. Publish bylined articles or be interviewed in the local media. Keep your eyes open for local partners or alliances.

Be patient. Rewards can be rich but not immediate. Prepare yourself for longer sales cycles and a steeper learning curve (on the client side and yours) than at home.

Think globally, act locally. If you’re not a native, you don’t think like one. A local rep is often the most important investment a company can make when expanding into a foreign market. This person has an on-the-ground understanding of local needs, perceptions, and business practices and will translate your message and align your value into that cultural framework.

Just do it. Younger, unencumbered dot-bomb veterans might (carefully) consider markets where their skills and experience are in higher demand. Having done this three times, I can vouch that this is doable. Returning home with international experience looks good on your resume, too.

None of these ideas work for you? Consider the assignment in reverse. What can your company offer foreign businesses testing the waters in your local market?

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