February 24, 2009 |
It is often striking to me to watch the majority of internet companies (both startups and established market leaders) only focusing on the US users for all their business operations. It is more than disappointing to see this approach when you are an international user yourself – and a user who wants to be a customer but sometimes is simply ignored and rarely served.
Usually when making the decision of only focusing on US users these internet companies cite the way the US users are easier to monetize because advertisers are more willing to pay to reach such users. And since advertising is still the most popular business model for many companies, it is no wonder that they don’t even want to consider users from the rest of the world as valuable – after all, only rarely major US brands are willing to pay to reach such users.
But at the same time I’ve been bragging for a while already about how international users feel deprived of many things and the fact that we often can’t get a number of services often make us want to pay money for the service we want to get – even if it is actually supposed to be free for the more lucky people in the US. In my opinion, that’s the major difference between a spoiled US user who thinks that the fact that he pays for internet access makes him eligible to getting all the online content he may want for free and a disadvantaged user somewhere in the Eastern Europe or in Asia who would be more than willing to pay for what he really wants to have – but simply has no options to do so.
For example, many services that are sold online have the only available payment option – PayPal. And PayPal has way too many limitations for users from outside of the US: for example, even though I still have no chance to be able to receive PayPal payments, I am able to create an account for myself and pay for certain items using my credit card as a funding source. This may not sound too bad but I remember the entire process of getting everything to work and persuading PayPal support into letting me use my account to send payments as a real nightmare lasting more than a month.
And I don’t even want to mention how difficult it is to have anything sent from any US-based online stores (those that tend to be way cheaper than anything you will find locally somewhere in Europe or in Asia) to a location outside of the US. In many cases such stores won’t accept your credit card because it has not been issued by a US bank and won’t let you have your purchase delivered to a town somewhere in Russia – while there’s no real difference between sending a package to a town in the US and a town in Russia with the only visible distinction being the price that will always be compensated by the buyer anyway.
I can continue the rant about the limitations that international users face when trying to pay for anything that we want online – be it a virtual service or a real-life product we want to be sent to our locations outside of the US boundaries. The examples are numerous and believe me: when you can not get something, in many cases you will want to get that particular unobtainable thing even more – and this is exactly why I am talking about the huge international market as we are simply prepared to pay where US users are not.
Yet when announcing their “global” launches the majority of internet startups only choose one language (English, obviously) to offer to their users – never even caring about the rest of the world and the huge number of users they can reach if they bother to give them some additional attention.
The next stage is when web companies decide they are good enough to have their websites localized into other languages and get the global user base growing. Unfortunately the best thing such companies usually bother to do is having the content of their most important pages translated into the desired languages with the help of professional translators and will never bother about reaching to international users in blog posts written in their languages or using other promotional techniques that are just natural for them when they work with English-language audience.
But sadly, the vast majority of startups still think that everything they need to do to reach the global audience is crowdsource the translation process by inviting their users to help them with translation (hence frequently the poor quality of results) or – worse still – choose some machine translation system to do the same (hence unbelievably terribly results).
To me it looks like terrible negligence given the results they could otherwise achieve by paying proper attention to their international users. For example, we have recently discussed Facebook quickly becoming the top social network in France by simply offering the French-language interface. And while Facebook can probably afford such an approach to translation due to a huge user base with a number of professional translators willing to help as well (and often quoting experience with Facebook as experience in localization of web services), there are not so many startups who have a comparable user base that will be able to produce more or less readable translation. Yet they are never willing to invest even small amounts in translating the more important parts of user interface with the help of professional translators and prefer to face the risk of never reaching the international audiences properly with their poorly worded messages.
And of course no startup will ever care about a full-scale marketing and PR campaign to support the launch of their product in this or that new country – and the best the users in these new countries will get is a mention of the announcement on a company’s blog. But how fair is it? Is it really so difficult to hire someone to write a proper press release and submit it to local wire services and trade blogs and publications – simply to boost the effect from the introduction of a new supported language instead of hoping people will simply find you in search engines? While it may sound too complicated, local PR professionals can easily be found on sites like oDesk or Elance and the investment in a week of their work will certainly be outweighed by the positive effects – provided that your company knows how to monetize international users (and you should know that – otherwise I see no reasons you thought it was necessary to translate the product from the very beginning).
Honestly, it does not really sound like rocket science to me: it’s not that difficult to have a launch plan for a particular country and even outsource PR and social media marketing to local professionals – provided that you are willing to invest an amount adequate to the results you are hoping to get from entering into this or that new local market. Yet in the vast majority of cases everyone hopes that search engines and word of mouth will be perfectly enough to get some traction internationally as well – but unfortunately it rarely happens as word of mouth needs someone to initiate it and usually this someone should have a good local voice for people to be willing to start talking. Yet no one will even attempt to try to talk to local bloggers and local press – so it is no wonder that in the majority of cases these startups end with no buzz around their products launched in new countries.
The worst part is that in many cases these new countries will often have their own competitors who often steal the ideas from these very startups and pretend to act as local equivalents – often being nothing but local clones. But these clones are launched before the legitimate startup even bothers to start thinking about localization and so the clones get all the buzz and all the users locally because the original companies simply did not care about these additional markets at the time of the launch.
For example, in Russia the largest social network is Vkontakte.ru and it is such an obvious clone of Facebook that when I first saw it myself I could not stop laughing for a few minutes – the guys copied everything down to the last design element. Yet they are doing pretty well with their 28 million users. Not bad, really? And how many users does Facebook have in Russia? It’s quite difficult to determine without official information after Facebook’s decision to disable pages for networks (where anyone could see exactly how many people belong to this or that network – and Russia could be one such network) but one thing is for sure: Facebook is barely noticeable in Russia – virtually no buzz and no mentions on blogs as compared to the huge Vkontakte.
It now simply looks like Facebook entered the local market too late to be able to earn a significant market share. As a result of this, when Facebook was finally translated into Russian language and some bloggers started to discuss it, I actually saw comments from people asking if Facebook was some new clone of Vkontakte and what’s the point of moving to this clone when they are so comfortable on Vkontakte already.
Honestly, I can only consider such lack of attention from US internet companies to their potential global audiences as a terrible neglect that could easily result in loss of millions upon millions of potential revenues – simply because as I’ve mentioned above we are prepared to pay and we have not been spoiled enough to expect everything online to be free so it is easy to lure an international user into paying for something that seems to be just natural to a user in the US.
Examples of the services that we are more than willing to pay for are quite numerous. For instance, many of my friends in Europe often plead Twitter to finally let them pay for the pro version of the service with SMS updates to their respective country available. Right now the only way you can get Twitter to work here is via web version or various applications and a simple thing like SMS updates is simply not available – no matter how much you are willing to pay for it.
Also many international businesses use various services that make working with customers in the US easier for them – like buying virtual phone and fax numbers in the US. For a phone number the simplest solution I am aware of is buying it from Skype but unfortunately you will not get text messaging with this number – and texting people in the US and getting their replies to a US phone number is also what many people and businesses would really love to have and are perfectly willing to pay for it – especially since we pay for related services already but they just don’t meet all our expectations.
And of course I know many people here in Russia who would pay huge fees to PayPal if only the eBay-owned electronic payments provider agreed to let us receive money here. The reality now is that as a Russian PayPal user (and a user from the majority of countries of the world) you will only be allowed to send money and will never be able to receive anything – which is difficult for many service providers, both freelancers and local companies. And if PayPal agreed to let us use their services in both directions, we will be more than willing to pay a significant extra in fees (basically something the US users will never even consider paying) – and these extra fees will probably be enough to compensate for PayPal going through all the hassle involved in making this possible in every such new country.
Another example is online TV services like Hulu: they are great and they offer tons of great content but as an international users you will hardly be able to watch anything over there – without any option to pay for a subscription and still watch it from where we actually are instead of cheating with US IP addresses (that many of us currently do).
And I would not even want to mention how willing we are to be able to buy goods from US online stores and paying for its delivery to our countries – even if the delivery price may sound ridiculous to a store owner – simply because usually the price of the product itself is much higher in other countries with the difference easily accommodating the mailing price and some extra money that we will save by buying from the US. After all, what’s the point in refusing your potential customers from abroad in service if they are willing to pay for the delivery – and will also generate new sales for your store?
Yet the vast majority of businesses are unwilling to realize the potential of the international markets and are scared whenever they hear words like “China” or “Russia” – even though they have some basic ideas that any of such new countries can be a huge potential market for them. And it’s getting more and more disappointing every day: we’ve been talking about globalization for so long that it is just beyond my understanding how it happens that internet is so unwilling to embrace new markets – when internet is the tool that makes distances between countries virtually non-existent. But for now I would prefer to hope that things will change eventually and the global financial crisis will help companies notice markets abroad and explore them looking for new revenue sources. And maybe new companies will begin to realize that international users could be even more valuable as those they have in the US as these international users will be much more willing to pay.