Translating a site is as much art as science
E-commerce has grown like a hormone-fed chicken this year, but ravenous marketers are beginning to realize that if they want another revenue glut next year, they’ll have to look past the U.S. border. Analysts say they’ll find juicy pickings there, while Internet business consultants warn that it’s not as easy as it looks.
First the good news: Market researcher International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass., paints a rosy picture of international e-commerce, with particularly high near-term predictions for Western Europe. The company estimates that electronic business-to-business commerce will grow to $30 billion by 2001, while by 2002, non-English speakers will make up over 50 percent of the world’s online population.
“There are huge markets overseas and if you’re not taking advantage of it if you have the opportunity to, you have a major strategic flaw in your business,” points out Jonathan Nelson, CEO of San Francisco-based electronic business builder Organic, which has developed sites for companies including Barnes & Noble and Starbucks. “But what do you do, how do you do it, what’s going to happen?”
The bad news is that, global village or no, it really is a different world out there, and companies have to be prepared to deal with that. The first impulse for a company with global eyes is probably, “Let’s hire a service to translate the Web site.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. As anyone who’s ever tried to decipher a manual written in fractured English can understand, going global as a digital business is not just a question of switching “buy now” to “achetez maintenant.”
Nelson says that with branches opening in London, Sao Paolo and Detroit, he can relate. “From my personal point of view as the manager of a global company, you don’t completely get what’s going on in other places, so one can hardly blame people for feelings of trepidation.”
No doubt grasping for their own piece of the pie, there’s a new service sector springing up to help companies make the transition from States-centric to world citizen. They run the gamut from strategic consulting, as offered by Organic and many other e-business builders, to companies hawking those so-called “solutions,” super-techie approaches to lowering the glitch factor when serving up an international smorgasbord of content and ads.
Organic approaches the problem, for itself and for clients, as one of culturalization rather than translation, heading each outpost with an Organic old-timer but primarily staffing it with locals. “If you’re building for Asia,” Nelson explains, “it’s not enough to have a Hello Kitty doll sitting on your desk.” Things that Organic’s strategic services unit ponders include where each country is in the curve of the Net: Are most people working on old modems? Have they been surfing for a long time? Emerging markets may need a tutorial approach instead of fizzy Flash ads. Do people have credit cards? Can they have purchases shipped to their homes? Does the company have existing sales channels with which its Web operations may conflict?
Chip Shot Golf had to answer all those questions when it decided to build a version of its site for the Japanese market. Turning Japanese was a logical move for the e-tailer of custom-built golf equipment and accessories, featuring PerfectFit clubs that are customized by the user. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has been serving the U.S. market successfully since 1995 with half a million unique users each month; extending to Japan, the second-largest golf market after the U.S., seemed essential. They used both business consultants and technology to pull off their Japanese site, including working with marketing consultant Naomi Moriyama, president of New York-based Moriyama Enterprises, on tweaking the site’s messages for the Japanese market. The site had a soft launch last October.
Chip Shot worked with Moriyama on cultural marketing issues; for example, Chip Shot lures its U.S. customers with a double value proposition: “custom-built” and “half the price.” Here, the half-price element plays well, but in Japan, it turned out to be the opposite. “I think sometimes Japanese customers are turned off by the value message,” says vice president of marketing Nick Mehta, “and are more sensitive to getting things to fit right.”
“One of the biggest pieces of learning was that it’s very important to take things a few steps at a time,” he continues. “What turned out to be a good decision in the Japanese site was that we streamlined the offerings in terms of the number of promotions and the complexity of the site.”
The soft launch was another smart decision, Mehta believes, since it allowed the company to “work through the issues.” These included handling shipping, returns and customer service. Chip Shot solved the latter by employing U.S. residents who are native Japanese-speakers.
To manage the bewildering array of Web assets and their flow among U.S. editors, designers and translators, Chip Shot turned to Idiom Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass., provider of applications to help companies manage their assets and processes as they develop semi-independent foreign-language Web sites. Idiom takes the tools-plus-consulting approach to helping clients go global. Its WorldServer product, introduced in December of 1998, is not server software, but three complimentary modules for working with content: a translation workbench, a module to establish a framework for targeting sites toward different countries and a collaborative tool.
When work begins on the foreign-language version of a site, WorldServer works behind the scenes as the staff uses its Web interface to check assets in and out. WorldServer automatically routes assets, keeping track of who has what, where it needs to go next and what changes have been made to it, all the while e-mailing to-do reminders to staff.
Before implementing WorldServer, Idiom offers clients a Globalization Readiness Workshop, where its business consultants evaluate the issues, be they architectural, business, marketing or procedural.
Eric Silberstein, Idiom’s CEO, says that WorldServer can help companies achieve the right balance of localization and central control. Companies that allow international subsidiaries to develop sites independently risk “brand drift,” he says. “The other mistake is not allowing enough local input, so the Web sites look like flat translations and they don’t appeal to the local markets.”
Another company offering its services to global businesses is Digital Island, a San Francisco company with a server-based solution called TraceWare. This app uses patent-pending technology to figure out a user’s geographical location. It can be employed to serve native-language content and appropriate product information including ads, and to link to such things as currency conversion and tax calculation applications.
Stanford University’s Highwire Press has been a beta tester for TraceWare, which became commercially available on Aug. 9. Highwire Press partners with scientific societies to put their scholarly journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, online. Pharmaceutical companies are heavy advertisers on Highwire Press journals, and TraceWare allows them to serve different ads to different countries. “They’ve been in a difficult position,” says Digital Island product manager for application services Neil Henry. “Their spotlighted [pharmaceutical] products are almost always involved in a worldwide approval process. They want to turn up the ad volume in countries where they’ve just been approved without [touting the drugs] to countries where they haven’t.” Henry calls this “ad serving at a high order.”
The race is on to post globally and act locally, and it may be that they who have the best tools, win.
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