Article by: Anna Jelonek, Head of International Executive Department at iCEA Group.
It has happened – you are starting your business of a lifetime. You’ve found a niche or something you want to share with people and did a business. Your brand started to be recognized in your country and your traffic is increasing month by month. Over time it starts to convert. And then comes that moment when you decide that you want to conquer the world. Expanding your business internationally – the question: how to start
Technical point of view
The basis, of course, is to enable the target users in a given market to become familiar with the services or products on offer. Depending on your business goals, think about whether to put the site on separate domains dedicated to a particular market (recommended!) or whether it will be an expansion of your current site based on language versions in directories. Remember – automatically targeting users depending on their browser language or IP settings is not good. Instead, make it easy to reach other language versions for users and search engine indexing robots, e.g., Google bots.
You will probably copy the site’s current layout, plan a similar category tree, and plan to sell the same product offering. Question: is it a good idea to copy one to one? It all depends on your target group in a given market.
An individual approach is your key to success
One common mistake when developing a business for foreign markets is assuming that the same offer or website design will work everywhere. Unfortunately, this is not always the right direction, and an individual approach to users from a particular country is the key to the success of your business. There are many reasons for this – from cultural differences to demographics and even the economic situation of potential customers in a given country.
Another common mistake when expanding into foreign markets is to believe that our target group is all the people living in that country. Although just as in your home market, you are undoubtedly aware of who exactly your customer is (demographics, for example), in other markets, it is advisable to define your target group in detail as well.
An individual approach to determining your business opportunities in a given foreign market is not just about analyzing the purchasing behavior of the country’s residents. It’s also about researching your competitors, especially those operating for a long time in your chosen market.
Compare yourself to the biggest!
Let me start with a case on which direction not to go. One of the big brands in the Polish market decided to develop its business in Germany. However, the brand assumed that since the products offered in Poland sell so well, the same products would quickly gain popularity among German users.
After several months of intensive activities, it turned out that:
– traffic on the website is growing from month to month,
– visibility for key brand phrases has improved significantly,
The phrases are not converting – sales are not growing as they should, assuming a steady increase in traffic from different channels: Organic, Paid, etc.
So it was only after several months of action that it was decided to analyze the competition more closely in terms of the offer presented on the website. The analysis was based on online shops in a given industry from the TOP10 search results for the most general phrases. Those with the highest estimated traffic were selected based on analytical tools (Ahrefs, Semrush).
The next step was to review the most popular phrases related to products carefully. It quickly became apparent that the clothing brands offered by competitors on the German market were radically different from those sold by our Polish e-commerce.
The difference was huge: over 40 clothing brands which are the most popular in the German market were not available at all on the website of our Polish e-commerce.
Conclusion? Don’t assume in advance that customers will eagerly purchase an offer that works in one market in another country. An individual approach and thorough business research are essential.
Get to know your foreign customer
So how do you get to know your potential customer in another country? How do you find out what they are looking for, what they are interested in and how they make their purchasing decisions? There are several ways to do this:
1. Your current customers
2. Your competitors’ customers
Customer data you already have
If you have come up with the idea of expanding your business internationally, you probably already have a basis for this. Perhaps it’s customer inquiries via contact forms about shipping to a particular country, or maybe your analytics tools indicate an interest in users from abroad?
It should be the norm to connect analytics tools to your site to gather data on traffic, site progression and users right from the start. After all, every business decision about the direction and development of your company should be based on adequately analyzed data.
One of the best tools for extracting customer information is, of course, Google Analytics. It is a vast source of knowledge about the target group of any business. So how do you use this tool to select your target audience in foreign markets?
1. Who are you and how old are you?
Demographics and geography are fundamental. Both give you the most precise information you can and should get about your customers. Knowing how interest in your products breaks down by gender and age will already tell you what direction to take. And above all, what kind of communication should be used on the website, social media, or newsletters. Even taking into account cultural differences, it may turn out that while in your home country, men aged 35-44 are more likely to use your offer, in another country, these may be men, but at a much younger age. Such information should be a valuable hint not only when it comes to communication (content on the website), but sometimes even the website’s look (more modern graphics? payment types popular in a different age group?).
Not checking such primary data as age and gender is a mistake that can cost us a lot. For example, suppose some e-commerce brand addresses its offer to both men and women. However, the enormous advertising expenditures are directed to women, and profits do not increase. However, after a closer look at the data, it turns out that men make the most extensive shopping baskets, and the data in Google Analytics confirms it.
It is, therefore, safe to assume that advertising efforts here have been misdirected or at least incorrectly distributed by gender.
2. Where are you from?
In addition to demographic data, geographical data will, of course, play a massive role in our case: location and also by language.
Google Analytics provides us with accurate location data here. It not only shows countries with the greatest or untapped potential but even narrows it down to a specific region or even city. What value can this have for a business looking to expand abroad?
If you see that your offer generates interest in a particular country, this is the first signal to think about potential expansion. It will also allow you to prepare your proposal (competitive analysis mentioned earlier) and your website in advance. Promoting your brand in an area with some awareness of your business is a more leisurely start. It’s the nucleus of building brand identity in a given area – including foreign ones.
But it’s so much more. For example, if you’re European business selling women’s clothing and planning to expand to the United States. You already know that the first interest in your offer has shown in these areas, so you decide to monetize it. My suggestion? Look deeper into the data – vast or culturally diverse countries will require even more careful analysis.
The analysis is done, and how does it turn out? First, you gain popularity in California, while it’s winter and the natural start of the winter jacket season in your home country. And this is where the light goes on. Since your shop is gaining popularity in California, promoting winter jackets would not make much sense. Or at least not as a priority product.
3. What language do you speak?
The next piece of data concerns the language spoken by your customers and potential customers. Suppose your analysis showed great potential in the Canadian market. A detailed check even narrowed us down to Ontario. Moving on to the data related to language, we can see that English-speaking users want to visit our site and French-speaking ones. And here, we have another clue about who our audience is and how to tailor our site to them.
In this case, it would be a good idea to implement a French-language version of the site and the English-language one. All this so that a user from Canada could feel comfortable navigating our site. The user’s awareness that the brand cares about the smallest detail by adjusting to the client’s needs and language is a considerable advantage from their perspective. And this will have a direct impact on the success of our business in this market. An additional value will be the possibility of SEO – increasing the site’s visibility also for French-speaking phrases.
4. What are you interested in?
Once we know our target audience, their age, where they come from, and what language they speak, it’s time to move on to interests. That is what defines our customers. How do they spend their free time? What interests them? What topics do they most often search for and devote most of their time to?
This is where another piece of data from GA comes in handy: interests. This tool will provide us with information on whether the user visiting our site likes shopping (are luxury brands vital to him?), is interested in sports and films? Or maybe on the wave of ubiquitous return to nature and ecology, he will pay attention to these aspects of his life?
Such knowledge can be used to choose the message within the site to the customer. Assuming that most users care about the environment in which we live, it would be a good idea to look at your company’s environmental policy. I am not only talking about participation in environmental actions but even the way of packaging products – choosing recycled paper instead of plastic.
The relatively simple data you can pull from Google Analytics will allow you to take a broader look at your business in terms of realization, such as how you package your products for shipment, make your site more aesthetically pleasing, and communicate appropriately in terms of language. Such a comprehensive approach will allow you to define your target group and take specific actions so that the customer has a sense of being taken care of and appreciated. And above all – I truly understood you.
When the competition is already there and you’re just getting started
What if you can’t obtain demographic, geographic, and interest-related data on potential customers in a market that is new to you? This is where, once again, the competition can come to our aid (whether they want to or not).
In addition to analyzing the product offer, it will also be inspiring to explore the keywords on which the competitor’s website is visible. Key phrases here will be an ideal basis for:
– learning about trends using Google Trends
– getting to know the long-tail and advisory phrases related to these general ones
Google Trends is one of those tools that allow you to find out the latest and most popular trends in a given country. Using the knowledge that comes from this tool will enable you to see what kind of people your competitors’ customers are. After all, they are also your potential customers whom you intend to reach. The more you know about your target audience and their sphere of interest, the easier it will be to adjust your entire business and communication strategy to the requirements of a user from a given country.
Many other analytical tools (Ahrefs, Semrush) allow you to analyze keywords in terms of advice, which is an excellent source of knowledge about the users themselves. By finding out what problems potential customers are facing and what answers they are looking for related to your industry, you will step forward as an expert. After all, not only do you provide services or offer products, but above all, you should know your industry best. Therefore, not only be the place where your customers can buy the products they are interested in, but it also creates a space as a guide to the industry and be a help to customers in every field.
If you want to read more about competition analysis in the SEO industry – visit iCEA Group’s blog.
Understand cultural differences
This point is directly related to the location and where your potential customers live. Not knowing the culture of the country or region where you want to build a business is the most severe mistake an entrepreneur can make. If you’re doing business with other countries, you must understand how different cultures interpret things like advertising and marketing messages. Forgetting about this can be dangerous because inappropriate advertising material could offend consumers and lead them away from buying. Even if your brand communication works in your local market, it does not mean that it will work in other countries.
Instead, research how ads are done in various countries and create messaging that appeals directly to those values and beliefs. You can find out which aspects of life matter most to people in a particular culture and create ad campaigns based on those priorities. For example, if your target market is heavily influenced by religion, consider making commercials about what makes their faith unique instead of just selling products. Likewise, if the family is significant to them, show pictures of happy families interacting together while using your product, so they know how it enhances their lives.
Learn from the mistakes of others
In the history of marketing, even the most prominent brands have repeatedly made big mistakes in misaligned communication for a particular country’s audience. One example is Procter & Gamble’s Pampers. When they entered the Japanese market, they kept the convention that a stork brings babies. However, according to one Japanese tradition, babies are found in peaches. On the other hand, they quickly did their homework by entering the Middle Eastern market. The brand communication was graphically adapted to the cultural requirements regarding women’s clothing – covered shoulders.
Another example is the Gerber brand which did not take care of the proper analysis of local customers when entering the African market. Due to reading difficulties on food products, pictures usually reflect the products’ content precisely. Unfortunately, Gerber didn’t check that. When they entered the Ethiopian market, only the Gerber logo was printed on the jars as part of the graphic – a small child.
Such details create a whole and prove how well you can prepare your business for international expansion. The basis will always be a person – your potential customer. After all, they are the ones you want to show your products and services to, make them interested, and consequently encourage them to buy.