Tips for adapting your e-commerce site for global markets

E-commerce localisation can give your audience of online consumers a huge boost in numbers:

Around 55% of the current content of the internet is in English. Yet only 20% of the world’s population speaks English – and only 5% do so as their native language.

Those numbers alone show that there is room for expansion if English is the only language you support…

But the really important point has to do with internet users’ shopping habits:

  • Most consumers will only buy from a site in their native language
  • Even those who will buy in other languages are more likely to make a purchase when they don’t have to

According to most recent statistics, most companies could as much as double or even triple the number of people they reach online by adapting their e-commerce site for global markets.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to do that.

What is e-commerce localisation?

The goal of successful e-commerce localisation is to make it possible for anyone to interact with your online store as if it was specifically designed for their native language and culture.

Doing this isn’t easy. It means you need to put yourself in your target audience’s shoes:

For example, your potential new clients in China will not only expect to be able to read about your products in any of the Chinese dialects…

  • They will search for them using local keyword equivalents.
  • They will expect to be able to find out information about them presented in local sizes and ratings.
  • They will also want to buy them using their preferred currency via their preferred payment methods…

This means there’s much more to e-commerce localisation than simply translating the words which can be seen.

If you do it right, you will be able to compete with local vendors on an equal playing field. You will also be setting up processes which will allow you to continue to do so more easily in the future.

A well-thought-out localisation process makes adding new products to your store – and indeed entire new language versions of your website – relatively straightforward.

Why is localising your e-commerce site important?

                1) A modern audience expects it

Increasing globalisation has led to a modern internet where localisation is more the rule than the exception.

Simply put, as more and more companies localise their online stores, the more companies which don’t will stand out…

And the less your online audience will be likely to be forgiving if you don’t offer your site in their preferred language.

                2) Localisation boosts sales

If you are not localising your e-commerce site, you are missing out on massive numbers of potential online sales.

If you only offer an English-language version of your site, for example, you could easily be reaching an audience twice your current one if you localise it for just a few other major languages.

What’s more, people are more likely to buy from you if they can do so in their own language:

  • 42% of 13 700 European internet users surveyed say they have never shopped online in a foreign language
  • 56% of those same users said that language was more important than price
  • 90% of internet users surveyed by Gallup say that they will always visit a site in their own language if there’s a choice

3) More completed transactions

Most of the big online retailers localise their e-commerce sites because they find that a large number of online shoppers will start to add items to their cart or basket but fail to complete the transaction.

The reason cited is a failure of consumer trust when presented with a situation where they have to hand over their money using an unfamiliar interface, currency or in a format they’re not used to.

Even steps as basic as localising the language of a landing page, currency and tax information, currency format and delivery options on your site can improve your online audience’s trust levels and help to close those sales.

                4) E-commerce and m-commerce are only set to grow

In the 2007-2017 period, global online retail sales increased at a rate of around 17% per year. Some estimates say that the 2017-18 increase could have been as much as 25% (this to reach a global total of £1.9 trillion).

As the internet continues to reach even more out-of-the-way places, these numbers are only going to grow larger.

What’s more, m-commerce (mobile commerce) is also experiencing a rapid expansion:

  • In the UK, it’s estimated that around 56% of online sales will be completed using a smartphone by 2021.
  • In the US in 2018, 40% of Black Friday sales happened through a mobile device.

How many languages should I target?

Adapting your e-commerce site for global markets is all very well. But which global markets would be best?

There are several different approaches to deciding on the number of languages you should target with your e-commerce localisation:

1) Reach as many people as possible

To reach the overwhelming majority of global internet users, most specialists will tell you to localise into 20 languages.

Others say that if you localise into 13 languages, you’ll still be reaching around 9 out of 10 people online. Those 13 major languages are Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.

With a top Language Service Provider and modern technology, this isn’t as massive a task as it might seem at first glance.

2) Hit the main audiences

If thirteen-fourteen languages – let alone twenty – is outside of your budget, you might consider only targeting:

  • The major global audiences – English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese.
  • Major European audiences – if you are targeting Europe, you may want to consider French, German and Italian too.
  • Only the biggest e-commerce markets – the largest numbers of e-commerce consumers are the Chinese, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish-speaking markets.

3) Research where your customers are

If you want to focus your localisation spend, it’s worth finding out where your customers currently are and what languages they speak.

This can give you some very interesting insights into which languages or markets it might make sense to start your localisation efforts with.

Use your usual analytics tools in addition to market research and studies – having a local language partner is useful for this – and you will know where to prioritise.

Tips for globalising your e-commerce business – where to start

That’s enough of the what and the why of globalising your e-commerce business. Let’s move onto how:

                1) Never generalise

When you’re adapting your e-commerce site for global markets, remember that each market is different. Don’t generalise.

What works and converts for one audience may not work elsewhere – even if your audience in that region is geographically close by or speaks the same language.

You need to consider each market as its own distinct entity if you want to succeed in reaching that specific audience.

                2) Start as you mean to go on

Designing your website and app with the localisation process in mind will make it easier to add new language versions in the future.

Website localisation best practices are worthy of a full article in and of themselves.

The essential strategy is to create an adaptable design which will accommodate things like text length expansion and contraction, right-to-left languages, the replacement of images, the adaption of time and date formats and so on.

3) Localise your app too

E-commerce website localisation will usually be at the top of your list when it comes to reaching more customers online.

But, bearing in mind the forecast growth of m-commerce, it’s also smart to localise any e-commerce mobile apps you might have at the same time.

That said, it’s worth doing some proper market research to see what percentage of your new target audience actually uses mobile devices to make their purchases before you do deploy a new app language version for individual audiences.

4) Localise your SEO

SEO localisation involves more than directly translating your English-language keywords into your target language.

People from different regions and cultures will search for the same item via different terms. Don’t forget the importance of dialect either.

A French-speaker from France may use different terms to search for the service they are looking for than a French-speaker from Belgium or Haiti.

5) Research your audience’s preferences

Whether it’s confirming something as basic that there is demand for your products or checking that there is enough mobile device ownership to justify adding a language to your app, you can’t beat in-depth knowledge of your target audience.

There are a huge number of cultural norms and preferences you need to understand before you start throwing money at an advertising campaign or localising your e-commerce site.

You will want to research things like:

  • Preferred social media channels: Facebook and Twitter aren’t universally popular. Wiebo and WeChat are the big names in China, for instance. You can’t expect to find a new audience if you’re speaking in spaces where they aren’t listening.
  • Preferred marketing channels: the same is true of general marketing channels. Is email marketing a “thing” in your new target market? It’s best to know the normal, expected channels you should be using.
  • Preferred shopping spaces: while eBay and Amazon may dominate many areas, you can’t overlook competitors like Alibaba in many parts. On Single’s Day (one of the major Chinese present-buying holidays, equivalent to Black Friday or Cyber Monday) in 2018, Alibaba’s revenue topped £11.8 billion.

6) Forms and formats

Your market research should give you the information you need to know the formatting your new target audience will expect in terms of things like currency, date, time and standard name order.

You should also research formats for industry-specific things like clothing sizes or energy ratings.

E-commerce sites like Alibaba, eBay and Amazon have filters for details like this which help browsers find what they are looking for. This means that properly localising product information like this is vital if you want consumers to be able to find your items on these platforms.

7) Translate your reviews

People trust online reviews almost as much as they trust word-of-mouth recommendations these days:

  • 71% of customers feel more comfortable purchasing a product with positive reviews
  • 70% of people will check the reviews of a product before making a purchase

This is excellent for you if your English-language reviews show the quality you offer your clients. But what about your potential customers who only speak, say, Portuguese?

Not only should you make it possible for your clients to easily leave their reviews in whatever language they feel most at home in, but you should also consider the power of having all of your reviews – in any language – accessible to everyone who visits your site.

You can do this on a small scale by professionally translating (never use tools like Google Translate if you can help it) the best reviews you receive.

For larger-scale work, automation using custom Machine Translation (MT) software is an excellent option. As opposed to the generic Machine Translation offered by software like Google Translate, a custom MT engine will have been specifically trained to deliver higher quality results on terms specific to your industry.

Using MT to automate your review translation really comes into play when you are targeting multiple languages and you get numbers of reviews each and every day.

8) Localise your product descriptions

As a consumer, not being able to see a product description in a language you understand is annoying and may put you off making a purchase. A badly translated description can be misleading or outright dangerous.

Poor product description translations can quickly destroy the trust any consumer might have started to place in your brand.

This is another field where custom Machine Translation can play a highly effective role, dramatically increasing the speed of translations.

Most product descriptions are relatively dry and factual. This means that the role of human post-editors in the MT process, and thus translation costs, should also be minimised.

9) Localise your marketing

Many e-commerce websites and apps contain marketing pop-ups as well as other less intrusive adverts.

Like all of your marketing localisation efforts, these adverts need to be carefully judged and adjusted to appeal to whichever target audience is going to see them while remaining cohesive with your overall brand.

Just remember the high-profile brand localisation mistakes made by massive names like HSBC, Pampers, Coca Cola and many others to see just how costly errors like this can be.

10) Localise your payment process

If there were only going to be three parts of your entire online operation you were going to localise, they should probably be your product descriptions, your reviews and your payment process.

They are situated at three key parts of the purchasing process – factual information-gathering, quality reassurance and, finally, the actual transaction.

This final step is where many online retailers find they struggle. A huge proportion of people will add items to their cart or basket and then not follow through on making the transaction.

The customer being “spooked” by something out of place in the payment process is usually where the fault lies. This makes it critical that you convert your payment process to the locally-preferred alternative and display prices in the correct format and currency.

11) Be consistent

No matter how many different markets you end up deciding to localise for, it is important to keep your brand consistent.

Some markets may require a great deal of adaption in order to meet local cultural expectations and norms. This may often mean you need to consider transcreation – sometimes called creative translation – of your marketing materials and messaging.

However much adaptation is required though, don’t localise at the cost of too much cohesion. Otherwise, you may lose the value of having a global brand in the first place.

The most important e-commerce localisation tip – do it right

While global brand cohesion and targeting each target market as an individual entity are important, there is one overriding feature which will allow you to make a success of your e-commerce localisation efforts:

Do it right. Poor-quality or inaccurate translations or those which are culturally insensitive can quickly detract from all of the hard work you’ve done.

This means that whether you’ve spotted a process where you could save money with a properly trained and human post-edited custom Machine Translation engine, or you need a specialist human marketing translator to carefully tailor your message for a new audience, you should always make sure your translation is accurate, persuasive and culturally appropriate.

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