International Tips: Localize Your Website for a Foreign Market

localize your website

When you aim to make a foreign, non-English version of your company website, you probably think about translating your current site. If so, you’ve already made your first mistake. Time and again, companies do this when creating a Japanese, Korean, Spanish, etc. website, and I’ve seen foreign companies do the same with English sites. The results usually fail, big time. I want to help get you on the right path, with 5 quick tips to localize your website.

To make an effective business website for your company in a non-English language, you need to:

  • Identify your objectives
  • Take stock of your international human resources
  • Consult with as many people in the local market as possible
  • Hire culturally bilingual people to advise the process
  • Hire a designer and copywriter (and maybe a translator) who are fluent in the local language

Let’s look at each of these more closely…

Identify your objectives: Why you want to localize your website

By far, the most common reason for making a foreign version of a company website is, “We want to sell our product/service in [country].”

What does that really mean?

Do you want to sell in the country, by mail order, through distributors? Or do you just want to raise awareness? If so, who are the website viewers? Is it B2B or B2C? Have you done market research? Are you prepared to handle non-English inquiries?

Among those and many other questions, you’ll start to see if you’re making an e-commerce site, a content-heavy awareness site, a landing page, a corporate profile, etc. There’s no point localizing your CSR pages, staff profiles, and every product spec page if prospects/viewers in the other country don’t want or need to know.

Take stock of your international human resources

By human resources, I mean who in your company knows anything about the target market? That’s a start. Have they spent more than a few weeks there? Do they know the language? Do they have any insights on the people, communication styles, marketing trends?

Get them together and listen to them. It’s all valuable and free information.

For example, if you want to make a Japanese version of your website, do you know what a Japanese web page typically looks like? Do you know that they are typically wordier, need more statistics (even if they’re kind of spurious), and must have the Japanese in a Japanese font, like MS Gothic or MS Mincho, and not a Chinese font like Simsun (which can look the same when you don’t know the languages).

To get an idea of what it’s like, take a look at this English translation of a Japanese company’s website.

Consult with local people

If you’re lucky enough in #2, you’ll have resources in your company that can be subject matter experts on the local market. But for small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs or SMBs), this is almost never the case. So, who do you know? Who’s on your LinkedIn or in your CRM? Find any connection you have in the target market and then ask and listen. Listen carefully. Get a translator if you don’t share a common language.

You’re trying to find out things like if there’s a demand for your product/service, how similar products and services establish themselves in the market, and if they or someone they know can offer expert advice.

You’ve got to listen. Companies that don’t listen usually miss the mark. Unless you’re Apple, you can’t roll out a carbon copy of what you do in the home country. You need to know what local people want and expect.

Consult with culturally bilingual people

I use “culturally” bilingual because you need to know more than just the language. You need to know the culture, the emotions, the symbols that appeal. It’s easy to get a direct translation, but that’s just words. The great majority of communication is not with words. And when it is with words, it’s in words that people will understand. Otherwise, well, no one gets it. When they don’t get it, they don’t want to buy it.

These culturally bilingual people, ideally, are both people from your culture and the target culture. They’ll help you see and bridge gaps in your understanding. If they’re in marketing, media, etc., they’ll also guide you on effective localization practices. They may also be able to perform actual services like web design, translation/transcreation, and digital marketing. Don’t confuse these people with translators. A translator’s job is only to translate the words from one language to another.

Form a localization team

The size and scale of the team depends on your company’s size and on your resources and time frame. You may only need one trusted consultant to facilitate the process of creating your new non-English website. You may also be able to form a team of freelancers or a mixed team of internal staff and external consultants.

Be very careful with agencies here, because they’re designed to handle as many orders as possible, and they typically assign tasks such as design, writing, and translation to young and unproven staff. Despite this, they’ll often charge you the Earth.

Know what you want and know your market

If you’re in the US, UK, even in a country near to your target country, you’re not a local.

Websites that work locally are locally informed.

Sites that are direct translations are almost certain to look and sound foreign in the local market. This creates discomfort and a lack a trust. No one buys. Much time and money is wasted. But you can avoid this right from the start if you localize your website.

Use local resources. Use culturally and linguistically bilingual marketing resources and make something your target market wants and understands.

Adam Goulston, MISD, MS, MBA, ELS, CPRW, is an American-born, Tokyo-based digital marketer and writer. His portfolio of clients spans business, academia, and nonprofits/NGOs. He runs Tsujiru to provide original content and localization strategies for Asian companies marketing abroad and for non-Asian companies working in Asia. He’s also an avid photographer. Connect with him on LinkedIn

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