Ultimate international marketing insights and tips for startups

For today’s startups, the opportunities and ability to extend their offerings to foreign markets has never been greater. Global platforms for web infrastructure, commerce, and marketing make international market development a real possibility, yet many are held back by lack of understanding; concern over the resources required; and a fear of the unknown. By building knowledge and awareness of each market and then maximising the experience for customers at a local level, international marketing and expansion can drive real scale for many new businesses.

Do your research

It goes without saying that it’s imperative for you to understand the conditions in any foreign markets that you’re looking to enter. Not only must you know what local customers’ want and what competition you’ll face, but also to be aware of considerations including culture, legal, financial, payment options, purchasing power, internet penetration, distribution channels (especially physical goods), etc., all of which will have implications for your international marketing efforts.

Are any of your existing competitors operational in the region, or are there any local players to consider? These shouldn’t necessarily be feared, as there may be opportunities to develop ‘co-opetition’ – just because someone may be seen as competitive in the first instance doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t work with and leverage them, which could be especially relevant to an international market where they have an established local presence. You can also look at their experiences of launching in these markets to gain valuable insights into what worked or what hurdles they faced.

You may not be able to sell at or with the pricing structure that you have elsewhere; in some markets you may even be able to charge more. There will also be local legislation to take into account around, for example, relating to how you collect and handle data or run promotions and offers. You should certainly take steps to protect your intellectual property in all territories in which you sell, which can be a major challenge in some cases.

If you have the opportunity, visiting new territories on fact-finding missions is always advised. Getting ‘on-the-ground’ and talking directly to local customers, partners and influencers brings a whole new perspective and insight when developing plans for launching and growing your presence.

Localise fully

Offering your product or service in a truly localised manner is key to driving audience awareness, conversion and uptake; building understanding and trust amongst potential customers and partners. Buying a local domain and providing a translated website (not relying on your English-language site to do the job for you) is only the starting point however. Catering for cultural nuances and sensitivities, whether in messaging, content, delivery or direct customer engagement, requires a deeper level of knowledge and appreciation that cannot be gained from ‘automated’ translation services such as Google Translate, despite the temptation of being fast and low-cost. Using professional or even in-territory localisation resource is required who can tune your site, content and marketing for local cultural differences.

International marketing for startups - local knowledge

You also need to be conscious of maintaining a consistent voice throughout the customer journey; this includes localising all marketing, communications and, ideally, customer sales and support, beyond just the site. Try testing local-language keywords and phrases for targeting across search and social, with localised copy and content to more engage the customer. Having to translate (often into third or fourth tongue, or beyond) creates friction in the customer’s conversion process that you should look to eliminate where possible.

Invest in technology

Maximising local conversion isn’t just about language and catering for local cultural nuances, there are also systems and process adaptions that need to be made to again reduce friction. Choosing the right web hosting and infrastructure provider is critical to maximising site speed and performance which are not only important to the customer experience, but increasingly relevant for search engine optimization.

Payment mechanisms are also a crucial factor; allowing payments in relevant currencies and methods will improve both customer trust and conversion. Also, pay attention to the accuracy of currency conversions that are displayed on your site or through marketing; if these are off it will undermine your credibility.

Establish a local presence

99designs operate what they term their “go local to go global” strategy by placing a regional country manager in each market they enter. This provides significant benefits by being able to work effectively within the specific time zone; overcome language barriers; and have on-the-ground cultural, competitive and economic intelligence. Having in-territory resource creates a face to the business in the chosen marketplace that can represent you at events, meetings, with media and with partners or customers, thereby building greater affinity and trust.

Where this isn’t an option, or to help scope the market in the first instance, look to potential local distribution partners, selling agents, joint ventures or affiliates who have strong local presence and, critically, relationships with potential customers, media and ecosystem players. Beyond large global affiliate networks, there are many who operate within specific territories or regions; affiliates can not only drive sales growth, but also help establish a wider marketing presence through the blogs, social media and content that they use to drive referrals, especially catering for the local audience.

Another option to gaining local resource and presence is to use freelancers. Services such as Upwork, Fiverr. and Freelancer can give you access to vetted and verified local freelancers that can be used for all manner of marketing tasks: market research and intelligence, copywriting, social engagement, even customer support.

Start with what works elsewhere and test

A good starting point is to take the marketing tactics that you know work elsewhere and test them out in your new market. Limit budget and activities to avoid over-exposing yourselves, either financially or in terms of reputation. Test out whether local ‘norms’ necessarily hold true; from personal experience I’ve witnessed where objections by local teams to new ideas and thinking because “that’s not how things work here” not only prove to be unfounded, but by over-coming can create unprecedented market opportunities. When developing the media plan for Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption title we received a lot of feedback that using the intended 60 second TV spot lengths wouldn’t work in certain territories because local media channels were all geared to buying 20 second lengths. We broke this prejudice, ran the 60s and delivered the most successful games marketing campaign ever.

Use local media

In many markets, especially emerging, local media – online / social, broadcast, print – is very relevant for certain audiences. There may be local variants of global media outlets, but invariably these will be franchises with only limited connection to the main, centralised body. Their design is to appeal and cater for local audiences and it’s important to deal and work with them directly for your marketing efforts. As above, having some kind of on-the-ground presence will aid this significantly, often having those direct relations will carry more favor than being a recognized name, a point often lost on many US and EU-centric businesses.

Using local social media, and not just relying on the global platforms, will broaden your reach and give you greater engagement to more locally aware and empowered consumers. It can also help you gauge market responses to your activities so that you can better understand, iterate and optimise.

Maximising your international marketing efforts 

Allow yourself enough time to lay the foundations and build the necessary infrastructure before entering a foreign market whether that’s making the necessary hires, developing partnerships, adapting messaging and content, or testing your marketing tactics.

Tools that can help with your international marketing: