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Marketing Locally? Think Globally

Thinking outside the borders can expand your customer base.

It's a paradox: So many online merchants, yet so few willing to reach for the stars by thinking beyond the American market. They don't call it the World Wide Web for nothing--as an online merchant, you are but a few mouse clicks away from a global customer base.

We in North America are sometimes lured into the myth that we are the very center of the world. But the United States represents just five percent of the world's population. Nor do we have a monopoly on spending power. The CIA's World Factbook lists who in the world has the most disposable income by looking at per capita GDP--that is, a country's gross domestic product divided by its population. The top ten: Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Kuwait, Jersey (an island in the English Channel), Norway, Brunei, Singapore and, way down at number 10, the United States. And while the global recession has dampened business around the world, the United States has been hit particularly hard.

The lesson is clear enough: Some of your best potential customers don't buy things in dollars or live on this continent.

The global nuts and bolts
In most cases, the real barrier to the global opportunity is fear of the unknown. International marketing, like international travel, requires a willingness to grapple with the unfamiliar. There are different languages, of course, as well as different currencies, customs restrictions, and shipping costs. But you will encounter no insurmountable barrier. In that spirit, here are some tips and considerations that will get you on the international fast track.

Payments
Let's start with the number one fear for any merchant going global: Given the distances and multiple currencies, how am I going to get paid? There's plenty of good news here. We are entering the golden age of innovative online payments, with payment services that can give you access to millions of customers in countries around the globe. Currency exchange is built in, often with favorable terms, and without the hassle of opening multiple merchant accounts overseas. Of all the challenges posed by international selling, getting paid should be the least of your concerns.

Language
In the beginning, just try your luck in English, which, lucky for us, is the international language of commerce. Do remember that for most customers, English is a second language, so keep the wording simple and straightforward (never a bad idea) and keep a look out for American expressions that won't translate well. You don't want your product to "hit it out of the ball park." Once you get traction, a good translation service can help--if not with your entire site, at least with your international shipping policies and costs. For many customers, a multi-language toggle is of great help.

Select a test country
A good way to begin is by identifying your most promising country and making that a pilot project. Doing so will give you a mini-course in global selling while keeping things relatively simple. As with learning a new language, once you master one, the others will be easier.

International shipping
It sounds daunting. It's not. Most large domestic shippers have offered international shipping services for years. Among them are USPS Global Shipping, DHL International Shipping, FedEx International Shipping, and UPS International Shipping. If you already have a good working relationship with a shipping company, that's a good place to start.

Duties and taxes
Both may be charged to the buyer on certain items and vary by country. Make sure that your customers are aware that duties and taxes are their responsibility.

Customer service
Speaking of international policies, do make certain that you've stated them clearly. One of the biggest concerns for customers and vendors alike are return policies. Be clear about who pays for what. International customers may also want to make sure that your company--being thousands of miles away--actually exists. So be especially responsive to international e-mail inquiries. An international calling plan can reduce the cost of a phone connection. Remember, a small cadre of satisfied international customers can lead to good word of mouth--and that needs no translation.

There's always more to learn, of course, and a library of books can be found on the subject. But the bottom line is this: If you start slow, think globally, and follow a few simple rules, your business can be as world-wide as the Web itself.

Eddie Davis is the senior director of merchant services at PayPal and is responsible for providing PayPal's payment processing services to thousands of small and medium-sized online retailers. Davis joined PayPal in 2005 with a background in merchant sales and acquisitions.

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