The internet literally brings home the idea of a globalised world, but e-businesses cannot afford to be complacent about the global customer when it comes to exporting. Here’s a guide on how to think global, act digital and create an international e-business. One of the biggest myths in this digital age is that having a website is automatically a ticket to export. While it may be true that anyone in the world can potentially find and buy from you, it would be a fallacy to expect success if you simply believe ‘build it and they will come’. E-business specialist David Turner, digital strategist for Xtensha, says one of the biggest mistakes businesses make is not having a strategy behind their web presence. It starts with the level of integration they want with the internet; for instance, some businesses use their website to attain new contacts but then close the deal in person, whereas others may instead want a fully-automated system where a potential customer can browse for and purchase a product, and have the back end take care of itself.
Have plan, will build
Turner says exporters need to "come at it with a business planning approach" because at the moment there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the medium: "There’s a gap between people talking in terminology from an industry perspective saying ‘blog’, ‘RSS’, ‘shopping carts’ and the business people understanding that. They don’t actually know how it works or how it could affect their business." As the former e-business adviser for Austrade, and with a previous role as e-business director for the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Turner saw many businesses needlessly throwing money at website developers. "Unfortunately they think, ‘we'll get the web guy to build it and we'll add a shopping cart’," he says. "They have to sit down and follow all the business planning rules: who are you targeting, what do they need, what's the right marketing mix, is this a real market that we're after, what are the benefits for the customer?" The idea that the customer comes first is very strong in an online marketplace where positions on search engines and the role of social media advocates become increasingly important to capture the customer looking for what you can provide. Convenience is king online, says Mohammad Khan, Australia Post’s international business development manager. "In a couple of seconds, customers can shop anywhere in the world. Today more than ever before, customers decide when, how and where to buy," he says. "Customers with considerable spending power who no longer have time to spend their money are likely to go online and shop. SMEs need to understand this trend and cater for this market." Turner agrees that businesses needs to set up a website to serves the customer, not the business. One mistake he often saw was the website using the business’ language, not the customer’s: "They miss out on search engines because they weren’t targeting the right keywords." It also pays to understand your target market, he adds. It’s no good believing you sell to the world when an investment in one market could be more profitable. "One day they get an order from Norway and they think of the opportunities without taking a step back and considering whether that's the right market. Maybe that's an anomaly," explains Turner. "Or, it might be an okay market, but we only have X amount of resources, and we'd be better off putting it into Sweden because we could get 10 times the sales there." This is the difference between proactive and accidental e-business exporters, he says.
Developing your online business
At the very least, your e-business plan should include the following considerations: Content: Your site has to present well, look and feel credible, and be easy to use. The content will depend on the site's purpose. If you expect to pick up leads and complete the transaction offline, you might focus more on information about your company and customer testimonials. If the transaction will occur online, you'll need to include product information as well as details about payment and shipping. A contact page makes customers feel more secure. Also helpful is a site wide search engine. Also pay some thought to how your customer might access the site: they could be using a mobile phone! Language: If you're after non-English-speaking customers, have your website translated. Make sure the translation gives the right impression, including using culturally suitable terms for marketing. Many global e-businesses use mirror sites, but having a country domain (e.g. Finland's '.fi') localises the business and earns customer trust more quickly. Also watch for the advent of domain names using different language character sets (see The World Domain). Payment: Which currencies can your system handle? If it's only one or two, choose a 'universal' currency such as the US dollar, or the currency of your target country; add an exchange calculator for everyone else. Find out what currencies your customers are able to pay in, as there may be existing exchange issues. Also consider different payment methods; the more the better, but it can be expensive to include everything. Research the preferred method of payment in your target country: is it credit, debit, cheque? Look into payment gateways such as Paypal. Shipping: Freight and inventory management is a crucial element of selling online. Foremost, manage customer expectations; be upfront about duties/taxes, and the expected delivery period. Be aware of customs and quarantine restrictions, and other product-related regulations including safety standards. Some freight companies allow you to integrate your system with theirs, allowing instant quotes and generating the required documentation. Ask around. A well-run system will allow you to monitor inventory. Some e-businesses are so lean they provide just-in-time manufacturing, keeping product storage costs down. Traffic: Research how your customers might find your business: via a search engine? Which one? Which keywords will they use? Don't underestimate the power of social media, including endorsements through forums and blogs.
Taking it offline
There are also plenty of things to consider offline, ranging from managing queries to after-sales service. For example, you may have to dedicate resources to overcome time differences and language barriers.
"How do you deal with the fact that if your site is translated, someone calls up speaking Japanese? How are you going to support warranties?" prompts Turner. "The online stuff is easy; the offline stuff can be difficult."
A lot of businesses fail when they think of the web as a silver bullet. "People think that having a website is enough, but it's not," he says. "The website has to be one part of an integrated marketing plan and that's tricky when you look at those overseas markets."
All in all, exporters are becoming more proactive about e-business, Turner observes, "particularly with the global downturn, people are looking to go online as a way to expand their markets". But he warns that businesses need to commit to the medium.
"A lot of small businesses are going to struggle in this space if they go in there half-hearted, which a lot of them are," he says. "They're going to struggle because more and more businesses have serious dollars in this space, along with proper plans."
Khan echoes this sentiment. "Businesses should not launch in foreign markets because everyone else is doing it," he says. "It is not enough to sell products. The key to success in a foreign market is that the product reaches the customers via the optimum channel. The right distribution strategy can make the difference between success and failure in global business."
The World Domain
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will look to roll out its Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) project in late 2009. ICANN’s senior director for IDN Tina Dam says it would mean internet users could have any web address or email address in any language.
Exporters could therefore buy domains in the language of their destination market. "They could select the different alphabets that they wanted to have, different addresses for that website depending on the languages they want to represent, what market they want to target," says Dam.
This would help exporters who want to reach their market in a non-Latin-based language if they advertised an internet address, particularly in print media. Dam gives the example of a Russian newspaper carrying an advertisement for a Russian website, which would currently carry a URL in Latin characters-difficult for the reader to visit if they did not have a keyboard with Latin characters.
IDNs wouldn't just change things for languages with a different character set, but sometimes the whole orientation of typing, she explains: "In Arabic you type from right to left so you type in part of the address in Arabic right to left; can you imagine switching to typing the second part of that address in Latin from left to right?"
The domain must only contain the alphabet from one character set to avoid confusion with similar looking language script.