Divided by a Common LanguageThe Internet is often spoken of as the first truly global medium. This dovetails with the notion of globalization, the idea that national economies are being subsumed by a global economy, where cultural and linguistic differences are submerged.
The reality, of course, is somewhat different. National economies continue to exist and evolve; cultural factors are still potent determinants of comprehension and behavior.
When it comes to the Web, the truth is that the medium has been almost exclusively American. Europe is widely perceived to be lagging woefully in Web take-up, and positively antediluvian in the development of e-commerce.
The United Kingdom is an obvious potential market for American e-companies,
due to perceived similarities in culture and, particularly, language. In point of fact, US forays into the UK have not, with notable exceptions (Yahoo! UK - for example) lived up to expectations. The received wisdom is that "the market is not yet mature".
One of the problems...is a profound misunderstanding of the cultural and linguistic chasm which lies between the United States and the United Kingdom...
While it is true that high telecommunication costs have tended to artificially depress Web demand in the UK (and across Europe), the Freeserve phenomenon has given a lie to the received wisdom. Freeserve, less than a year after its launch, is the largest ISP in Britain. With almost 1.5 million subscribers, it has sent Web giant AOL packing, and efforts by The Gorilla to establish a dominant UK presence are all but dead in the water.
I believe one of the problems associated with this lack of success is a profound misunderstanding of the cultural and linguistic chasm which lies between the United States and the United Kingdom.
It was George Bernard Shaw who observed that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language". Plus ša change...
As an Briton based in the United States, over the past nine years I have had to learn a new language; one that is superficially the same as my native tongue, but with profound differences in vocabulary, tone, tense usage and spelling.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that, on the Web, American spelling is generally perceived by Britons as mis-spelling rather than Americanization. A website littered with perceived mis-spellings is hardly likely to inspire a potential British customer to part with his or her cash, even if that site sports a domain name ending in ".co.uk".
Cultural faux pas can extend to a site's color scheme. For example, furniture giant IKEA has eschewed its corporate colors of yellow and blue (also the national colors of Sweden) in favor of red at their Danish site. Why? Simply to avoid raising the hackles of Danes who, for centuries, have been resisting the encroachment of Swedish culture.
There is no reason why American Web-preneurs should be aware of the cultural differences which exist between the US and Europe and between European countries, much less the potentially catastrophic effects of "getting it wrong".
A few relatively simple steps can help ease the transition from domestic to global success:
- Acquire a domain based in the country/ies in which you wish to do business. In Germany, buy a ".de" domain name, hosted on a German server. In the UK, do the same with a ".co.uk" domain.
- Translate your content into the language of the market you wish to enter - and that includes the UK. While English may be the lingua franca of the Web, remember that most Europeans learn English English as opposed to American English.
- If you want content in the vernacular, don't rely on a translation program. Instead, find a Web-savvy native (try http://www.towerofbabel.com/). And remember that Spanish Spanish is very different from the variants spoken across Central and South America.
- Be aware that European telecoms use a "metered-call" charging model. Europeans are charged for each minute they are online. This argues for a slim, graphically-sparse site to minimize download time.
- Many Europeans do not use the latest and greatest versions of the two most popular Web browsers. In the UK, for example, it is estimated that up to 20% of users browse with Netscape 3, as this is the version supplied by free ISP Virgin Net. Freeserve supplies Explorer 4. You'll need to evaluate your site to ensure compatibility across these two browsers and their various versions (but you do that anyway, don't you?).
There's no doubt that, in the next few years, Europe (and the rest of the world, come to that), will represent huge potential markets for savvy Web-preneurs. If you want a slice of the action, be aware of the overt and covert differences between "us" and "them".
We're not in Kansas any more.*
* Title of the keynote address given by Jared Spool at the User Interface 98 Conference.