By Dave Collins
Founder, Shareware Promotions

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

What the well-known saying neglects to clarify is this: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a French/German/Japanese/Bolivian dog, until you sink your foreign teeth into their ankle. As much as we may like the idea of the Internet being the last great equalizer, the truth is that we never leave our own identities and expectations behind. And to a large extent, these expectations are tied to our culture and language. When they’re not met, we get frustrated and angry, and the chance of our spending money decreases significantly.

In the US, there is a tendency to think that foreign is simply a synonym for non-American. However, this is not the case – look it up if you don’t believe me. Everyone’s a foreigner outside their own country, and thanks to the Internet we can now spend hours outside our cultural comfort zone whenever we choose to. Most of the time, that isn’t a problem – but the fun starts when we want to spend money.

 There’s enough material to write an entire book on this subject, but because the main purpose of this article is to get you thinking about this issue I’ll stick to nine practical ways in which you can avoid annoying potential customers.

 1) If you sell real, tangible products, make it very clear where you do and don’t ship to – right from the very beginning, rather than making your visitors hunt through the fine print only to be told they’re not wanted. Telling visitors you’re only selling to the US/UK/Australia is the polite thing to do, and means that there won’t be disappointed would-be-customers wanting to strangle you in every corner of the world.

 2) If you hope to sell outside your own cultural sphere, avoid slang, local metaphors and “inside” terms or jokes on your website. Don’t confuse/annoy visitors by using sports terms such as “ballpark figure”, “playing hardball” or “having a good innings”, because as clear as you think they are, they’re not universal. At all.

 3) Similarly, anyone wanting to sell abroad would be wise to avoid graphics with symbols or gestures. You might think the “thumbs up” sign is universally positive, but in many Middle Eastern and South American countries it’s actually incredibly rude. Trust me, you don’t want to know why.

 4) Flags aren’t always the best way to signal a link to a French/Spanish/German part of your website, at least not if you’re hoping to sell beyond the borders of those particular countries. French, for example, is also spoken in Canada, Morocco, Senegal and Lebanon, but these countries might not appreciate being bundled together under one, foreign flag. Using the actual names of the languages – Français, Deutsch, Español – is often a better, safer option.

 5) Don’t force your ideas or expectations on your visitors – people are more flexible than IP addresses, and you should be too. If someone in Germany is using the English version of your site, it’s probably for a very good reason. Don’t send them emails in German, and don’t keep redirecting them to the German site. Not only German people live in Germany!

 6) Don’t assume that what works well on your US website will be just as effective for all native English speakers. Your compatriots may respond well to the suggestion that they should buy something to “support their country”, but this is likely to put a lot of Canadians off. Many Americans love clear, simple explanations and illustrations, but your arrogant British visitors will hate being “preached” or talked down to.

 7) If you’re not in the US but you’re hoping to sell to a lot of Americans, you have to work hard and do your research to meet their expectations and their standards. As an example, some surveys have found that US users react negatively if their country isn’t the default option in a drop-down list of countries.

 8) If you create separate pages or sections of your site for other languages, make sure you have them checked by a native speaker. Don’t rely on translation software combined with vague memories of high school French – at best you’ll entertain, at worst you’ll offend. There’s more to cultural differences than replacing one word with another.

 9) Finally, basic but well worth repeating: let visitors be flexible about the way the enter their address. Zip codes don’t exist outside the USA, and neither do states – make sure your customers can enter their own versions, or leave those fields blank.

 Naturally, these rules don’t apply every single time or with every single customer. I’m sure there are people reading this who are thinking “Well, I’m from Senegal and I don’t mind clicking on French flags” or “I’m Canadian and I think American patriotism is perfectly charming!”. Good for you – but that doesn’t change the fact that some people may feel very differently.

Also, if you’re a small business it goes without saying that you can’t set up a separate website for every language you want to sell to. Neither can you hope to set up a friendly, patriotic American site, a neutral, funny-accent Canadian version, and a smug, superior British one. What you can do, however, is be aware of these issues, and make conscious informed decisions how you want to handle them. Selling in the dark is never a good idea – and when there’s a whole world of foreign “dogs” out there, it can become downright dangerous. After all, some of them might have rabies.

Disclaimer: I’m British, proud of it, and therefore naturally arrogant and dismissive. But I’ve tried to mock “both sides” equally here. Even though “we” don’t deserve it as much. Obviously.

Be seen, be sold.


Dave Collins is the CEO of SharewarePromotions, a well established UK-based software marketing company. Dave specialises in Google AdWords, Log Analysis, Online Marketing and Delegation.

[Editor Note: Dave Collins, noted UK micro-ISV marketing expert, is sharing his considerable expertise on marketing, SEO, Google AdWords and more on Fridays at MyMicroISV. Thanks Dave!]

[tags] Dave Collins, micro-ISVs, marketing[/tags]

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your valuable hints. As a German MicroISV, I have to deal with these issues every day. E. g., publish a blog only in German (restricts readership to Germans, Austrians, Swiss, many Dutch and a handfull people from other countries), only in English (excludes many readers in my home country), or both – and can I afford the time for this option?
    As for your 5) and 8): The reason Germans often prefer the English version of a web site is that the translations often enough leave you clueless about what the author meant.
    My advice for all English speaking web authors: If you want to reach your German audience and don’t have a native speaker at hand to do the translation, you are always better off if you write unsophisticated (!), easy to understand English.

Write A Comment