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"The Three Hurdles Of Global Web Sites " - When it comes to a global Web site strategy, one size doesn't fit all 

One of the most difficult issues companies are dealing with in the new global economy is thinking locally and managing globally. Sure, companies have always had international divisions and subsidiaries, but they tended to be isolated fiefdoms. Now the global economy requires that companies use their Web site to provide a consistent image to customers, no matter where they are.

But companies can't just impose a one-size-fits-all view on their Web site. To appeal to customers, some localization has to take place. Success requires collaboration, and expertise in something CIOs already understand quite well: the delicate balance of an architecture that's centralized and federated at the same time. Forrester Research analyst Ron Rogowski talks about the cross-cultural challenges of global Web strategies.

Q: When it comes to global collaboration, how much of this is a technical problem and how much of it is a people problem?

A: Probably 90 percent of it is organizational?it's that high. One of the big complaints used to be that it was costly to communicate across time zones. Now you've got instant messaging, and some companies are even using voice-over-IP and Internet calls, so there are lots of technologies that can enable people to work together, plus you have extranets and shared Web sites. The biggest problems come down to three issues: language, logistics, and leverage.

Q: OK, let's go through those one by one. You mean people speaking different languages, presumably?

A: That's the obvious part, but it's more the problem of what you call something. For instance, how do you define a wireframe? Is it a sketch or an HTML mockup? Doing the latter when you need only the former wastes everyone's time.

Logistics is the challenge of operating in multiple time zones. Frequently, someone has to make a sacrifice. I'm on the West Coast, and I work with our team in Japan quite frequently, so at 5 p.m., I'm making calls to Asia [because it's the next morning there]. That's not a big deal, but for someone in New York, when it's 8 p.m., it becomes more challenging. Around the globe, this causes frustrations and inefficient workflows.

Leverage is a challenge that stems from what I call a hub-and-spoke structure, where everyone reports in to a central corporate entity. This means that your regional entities lose leverage, because they don't get to collaborate with each other, so they're not leveraging what may be common regional knowledge across Web sites. I see this in large multinational companies in Europe?their offices are all creating something different, because they're not talking to each other.

Q: This sounds like the old IT problem of trying to figure out whether you want a federated structure or a decentralized one.

A: That's exactly right. Centralization makes sense in a Web environment, because you're hosting your basic infrastructure and sharing design templates. Depending on the business, that makes sense to varying degrees. There's no pure model?that is, one that's wholly centralized or completely decentralized. It's all federated to a degree, and the challenge is finding that sweet spot on the continuum.

Everything is a process, and it's ongoing. On the one hand, the more centralized you are, the better your opportunity to amortize cost savings. But you also want the regional staff to be able to localize, because they understand the market best.

Q: Are businesses really capable of that sort of fluidity?

A: Yes and no. Smart people know that their Web site will never be finished. It's just like designing a car; you finish one model year, and then you go on to the next. Without some clear timelines, you fall into nebulousness and you never get a cohesive experience. But you have to realize that it'll never be completely finished because you always want to improve it.

Q: What's the toughest part of solving the challenge of the three Ls?

A: Understanding the needs of your customers in local markets. The degree of localization depends on the uniqueness of users in different geographies and on the selling proposition. For example, the people who buy Oracle software probably behave the same the world over as far as purchasing is concerned. But the way people purchase clothing is different. If you're Lands' End Japan, you have to integrate your regional Web site with different shipping companies that let customers choose a delivery window; they also have different methods of payment than we do.

To accommodate these things, you have to have a mechanism for input. The people in local markets frequently are not designers; they're responsible for sales and marketing. The local offices are in charge of getting data on who the customers are and how they behave, and then you have to talk about how that affects design. Local site owners usually balk at things that are handed down by headquarters, so there has to be some back and forth.

That said, you also have to demand that the regional offices back up their requirements with real data. They just can't pull it out of nowhere and say, "This is how it's done here." If you're a local site owner and you bring data to the table, you'll get a lot of credibility. On the other hand, the headquarters staff really has to be listening. You can't just offer lip service.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: If it's not an e-commerce site, it can be difficult to measure its success. But you can look at qualified leads coming from a particular country. You can set up a phone number that's unique to the Web site, and you can do Web analytics to check to see if people got to the meat of the content they were looking for. If you see that they keep hitting the back button, it means they didn't find what they wanted.

Q: What should be the qualifications of the people who lead the project?

A: They have to understand the value of the site globally. That may sound obvious, but you have to have someone who understands that a Web site is a marketing communications vehicle, a transactional vehicle, and a communication vehicle. It helps, too, to have someone with exposure to international work and who can balance headquarters' values with local needs.
 


Article courtesy of Optimize 
October 2005, Issue 48

For more information on the cultural considerations involved in website localization please see our article Culture and Website Localization.