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A few years ago, the European Commission described SMEs as “the lifeblood of Europe’s economy”, and with over 5 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK their role here is ever growing. Generally the rise of the internet has made international commerce quicker and cheaper than ever before – and importantly, it’s simpler than you think to test out overseas markets before you grow there.

According to a recent report, the e-commerce market is set to be worth £645 billion by 2018 – and with the right tools, everyone from established businesses to kitchen-table startups can join the party. To help small businesses keep pace, Google has launched a free digital learning platform called The Digital Garage which can help SMEs keep up-to-date with the knowledge they need to export successfully and use free tools that can make expansion easier.

If you’re thinking about e-commerce in other markets, keep in mind three words as you get started: Research, Localise and Adapt.

Researching target markets

  • Online free tools like Global Market Finder can help you explore your potential new markets. By using worldwide internet search data you can prioritise where you may have most success, using information such as keyword searches by market and language. The tool also integrates European languages to help businesses plan campaigns in multiple European languages.
  • It’s tempting to dive right in when it comes to serving your new clientele, but it is extremely important to identify local issues and reduce risk before you’re too far down the line. From a technical perspective, does your site work well enough abroad with varying speeds of internet connection? Thinking about supply chain, can you deliver your products to where you want to sell them? And when it comes to local regulation, think beyond cultural barriers and look at legal hurdles, including reviewing local taxes, import tariffs and the like, which could impact your bottom line. A Global Business Map you will give you an overview of fundamental country facts, figures and insights, while most governments have sites to help answer questions on regulation.
  • What are your target customers’ expectations? How do they use the internet in their path to purchase? There are a number of free tools out there that mean you don’t have to spend money on surveys. Try research data like Google’s export tools to help better understand different target markets.
Localising for your new clientele
  • There’s a difference between translation and localisation… and it’s important to get it right. Often, simply translating from one language to another isn’t quite enough. Use the free Google Translate to target your website and online marketing materials into multiple languages and to communicate to consumers in their native language. But afterwards, localising will help you truly ‘talk the talk,’ from correcting units of currency to measurement and even address format. Consider finding a native speaker to review your site and ensure that cultural references make your business seem more ‘local.’
  • Every market is unique, so it’s inadvisable to simply rely on hunches about customers abroad. Data analytics tools and research will help you make the right localised adaptations as consumer and market behaviour changes.
  • Localise where it matters to customers. By using this Business Exports Map you can glean insights on local market preferences. For example, in Poland, 95% prefer websites in Polish, so you’ll need to localise your site for both language and currency. However, in the Netherlands 87% of Dutch people speak English so you may find that translation is less of a concern.
Adapting your business
  • Smart investment in advertising can help get your name out there faster. See which keywords are popular in your new markets by using tools like Google Adwords, which enables you to target online advertising directly to consumers who are searching for the products and services you offer. It’s also worth considering retargeting ads, to convince people who have already visited your site to buy again.
  • Think beyond home turf when it comes to payments. It is advisable to get in place an e-commerce system that makes it easy for your new customers: help them pay so they don’t have to think about exchange rates or additional taxes. When customers don’t have to make these calculations themselves, they are much more likely to buy.
  • Just like in your own market, the post-sales period is crucial as you try to cultivate one-time customers into loyal, repeat customers. Consider building into your site clear, upfront information about policies for refunds and exchanges. This could be simply having a well-localised contact page, or clear customer support via a contact form.

By Shane Nolan, Director of SMB Sales at Google UK & Ireland