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Expanding your business abroad? Expect the unexpected

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In this four-part series, we'll look at the steps involved to create a global website for your business

On the Internet, the staples of international business etiquette are less of a going concern. One need not fret about how strong a handshake to give, what kind of body language to use, or the proper protocol for accepting a business card when nobody has a body to begin with. Pixels are convenient that way.

But using the Web to sell to different countries requires a different set of sensitivities: Are you using the written language correctly? Are you designing your site for the technology at play in that market, which could be more advanced, less advanced, or just plain different than what Canadians are used to? And, most importantly, have you tested your site in its intended foreign market, to check for pratfalls you might not have expected?

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One of the key things to keep in mind when entering a new market is that "culture" is more than just a question of local customs and linguistic quirks.

For instance, Philipp Gysling, the director of Mesh Innovations Inc., a Toronto-based firm that specializes in building web applications for medical businesses, learned the hard way that not everybody uses the same online payment services, for example.

In one project a few years ago, his firm was working on an e-commerce site that was aimed at Swiss customers. PayPal might be a de-facto standard for processing payments, but his customers, he discovered, were used to something else.

"In Switzerland, the Post Office handles a lot of financial transactions in everyday life," he says. Online purchasers there were more accustomed to the electronic payment system the post office offered.

The solution was to take the more bureaucratic route to set up an account with the Swiss post office's e-commerce system - but that's where his users were, so that's where he went.

Another way to smooth wrinkles in translation is to use a business-in-a-box service like BizTree. In any culture, formal business language has its own tone and diction; a translation that's technically correct but poorly worded could reflect negatively on a business. The $200 application, produced by a Montreal firm - itself selling internationally and online - offers a set of 1,500 document templates which cover basic business transactions and agreements. Primarily sold as a labour-saving device, pre-written templates can help ensure that your language comes out sounding professional in foreign languages.

Cultural differences present themselves in a plethora of ways. Some are well-publicized, like the Chinese lucky 8's, and unlucky 4's, which have the misfortune of sounding like the word 'death'. Others, more troublesome, have to do with political sensitivities, concerning national or ethnic conflicts. Inadvertently stumbling upon such a situation on a business website seems improbable - but it can happen.

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Emre Akkas, the co-founder of GlobalMe, a Vancouver localization firm, remembers working on translating an e-learning site intended for a Taiwanese audience. Everything looked fine until a Taiwanese native pointed out that a building depicted in a picture was actually located in China, which Mr. Akkas says risked falling foul of local sensitivities.

"We always have it previewed by a native speaker in the country," says Mr. Akkas.

This suggestion is a common refrain: To spot trouble in the Internet age, there's no substitute for someone on the ground in the countries you'd like to be selling to.

"My advice is always, when it comes to testing and localizing, use local resources," says Mr. Gysling.

Trusted contacts in another country will have a grasp on factors that won't be in any piece of printed advice: A sense of current events, a read on the state of pop culture, a feel for the language. Just as importantly, on a technical level, they'll be able to preview your site from the target country, which is vital to make sure that everything works.

If you already have business contacts at your destination, then so much the better. If not, however, the Internet can provide. Professional social-networking sites LinkedIn are one avenue. An even more direct option is to use job-market sites like, which matches freelancers from around the world with prospective employers.

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Freelance labour might call for a dash of caution, especially if it's found online, but businesses like Mesh Innovations Inc. and BizTree (which has translated its documents into seven new languages) found that with the right due diligence, they've found quality translators and the proofreaders in their target markets.

The particularities of the world's countries, and the cultures that inhabit them, can - and do - fill books, and a bit of preliminary research can go a long way. But differences between cultures tend to catch people off-guard, since different beliefs, attitudes and histories lead to ways of working that defy prediction. The only rule is to expect the unexpected. Culture is a fickle thing, after all, and that's why, when it comes to localization, nothing beats a local.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues next Monday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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