I recently learned that online shoppers are four times more likely to buy if they can conduct a transaction in their native tongue. Surprising isn’t it? Especially when you consider that over half of all Inter­net users do not use English as their first language. Yet, in North America at least, we seem to expect everyone to be able or willing to conduct business in English. Not so, say researchers of cross-cultural busi­ness practices. And, as recent research at AOL Time Warner reveals, in the coming years, European online consumers are expected to grow and surpass American online shoppers.

So, I got to thinking about the need for small business people operating online to assess their abilities to serve growing markets overseas, to prevent foregoing new opportunities.

The Internet has been touted as the great equalizer, and the gateway to the global marketplace. For the first time in history, a small business, operating from home on a very limited budget, has the opportunity to attract international busi­ness by offering their products/services online. But is it really as simple as setting up shop online? How does a small busi­ness successfully tap into world markets on the Internet?

According to cross-cultural business researchers, the process of globalization, or adapting your Web site to effectively promote and facilitate your business in in­ternational markets, is vital to making the Internet work for your business beyond our North American borders.


The first step towards globalization is to define your target markets-their hab­its, values, wants, needs etc. Conducting market research into your target country is vital to overcoming cultural barriers and creating an effective online market­ing strategy.


The level of globalization you under­take really comes down to determining how much you are willing to pay to en­sure each user’s needs are met. In an ideal world, your Web site would be available in all target market languages. A user would simply click on his/her country and a Web browser would serve up your Web site in his/her native language, offering locally relevant graphics and content and accepting local currency. Yet, translating entire sites into additional languages can be cost-prohibitive for a small business.

Therefore, you will need to balance your user’s needs with your ability to de­velop an online experience tailored to them. Start with a well-designed English site first. Then, determine how much of the site needs to be localized for differ­ent markets.


Of course, for a Web site to be per­ceived as easy to use and meaningful by the target user, development for cross-cultures goes beyond mere textual trans­lation. It also considers design, naviga­tional style, graphics, and the cultural context of language. Therefore, localiza­tion-putting language into a meaningful context-is key.

Always consider language within its cultural context. This is critical to posi­tioning your product or service effectively and creating meaningful messages that engage and inspire the user.


Keep in mind your use of icons to assist the user. Even common Web site graphics are not always universal. Misuse of symbols, logos, colours or body lan­guage can be embarrassing and can cost you business.


In North America, we pride our­selves on getting to the point of matters quickly. But to some we may be too blunt, even rude. Not all cultures respond to the North American style ‘hard sell’, prefer­ring instead a softer approach.

Considering the style and tone with which you address your customers and advertise your product online will help bridge the cultural gap and make users more comfortable on your Web site.


And finally, ensure your Web design­er is aware that you are targeting markets other than English, since there are also a number of technical details to consider when undertaking a globalization project. For example, your designer should con­sider issues such as ‘text-swell’, the direc­tion in which a language is read, time and number formats and coding for language differences.

In the end, if you have carefully con­sidered the cross-cultural impact of your Web site, and adapted accordingly, your Web site users should be able to under­stand your message, and quickly find and purchase what they need.

The message behind globalization? Think globally, act locally. Understand your target markets and you will be better equipped to serve them. Armed with cul­tural sensitivity and a global perspective, small businesses doing business online can succeed in the international market­place.

Reprint. Originally published in Small Business Canada Magazine