Building a successful global business is a never-ending juggling act. With what can seem like an unlimited number of moving parts, compromises feel inevitable. Efficiency is traded for simplicity. Optimal long-term solutions are traded for quick and dirty fixes.
These tradeoffs can be especially problematic for e-commerce businesses. For companies aspiring to go global, what initially might seem like a sensible decision to ramp up a new country on its own platform can snowball into 10 different websites running out of 10 different codebases. Each one is its own tangled web of custom features, add-ons, and designs.
These inefficiencies aren’t just theoretical problems, as significant additional overhead is required just to manage the code, catalog, and IT needs of each site. With more points for failure, the risk of downtime is increased, while conflicts in data or content can hurt a brand’s experience.
To get the most out of a global e-commerce business, it is critical for businesses to internationalize their websites via best practices — building a single platform that can support every country in which they operate and eliminate the overhead, headache, and hassle of a disparate setup.
Following are some considerations e-commerce businesses should take into account when planning a global initiative.
Establish Key Tenets
The first aim for company is to establish the principles that will guide its global rollout, as they will inform key decisions to be made in the strategy and execution. These key tenets of internationalization are consistency, repeatability, and simplicity.
The biggest benefit gained from consolidating a network of global sites into a single internationalized platform are the consistency gains. With a single central platform, it’s much easier to ensure that all sites follow best practices and maintain consistent brand standards, messaging and experiences.
E-commerce managers and merchandisers can operate multiple storefronts without needing to jump back and forth between different platforms, improving efficiency and productivity. In some cases, companies move to a regional management model due to the advantages gained.
Also, customers who may interact with multiple sites will appreciate the improvement in experience, helping to ensure that an e-commerce site keeps their business. Companies can create country-specific features as needed, but having a single standard will reduce customer confusion and improve management capabilities.
Typically, an internationalization project isn’t centered around just a single country. While it can start with a single country, it’s highly likely that others will follow, whether in the short term (countries in which a company already has a presence) or long term (countries a company hopes to expand into).
Designing a highly repeatable process offers multiple benefits, such as providing valuable flexibility. If a process is built to be repeatable, an e-commerce site won’t feel pressured to overload the initial release, potentially speeding up development and reducing risk.
Companies instead can launch additional countries on a timeline that works best for their teams, which will help reduce mistakes from each iteration and fine-tune the process.
To make the process as simple and efficient as possible, it’s recommended that businesses pursuing an internationalization initiative follow an MVP approach — that is, do only what is necessary and iterate from there.
This should not be treated as an opportunity to build and release new features that aren’t required for international sites.
Ultimately, the goal of a central internationalization platform is to make the management of a global online presence a business process rather than an IT one. Doing so will bring down the cost of bringing a new country online and decrease the time to market after the initial implementation.
Take the difficult work and do it up front, while the time is available to reduce the number of hard decisions that will need to be made down the line.
Once the goals of an internationalization project are defined, businesses can get down to the finer details. Here are some key considerations that should be made when developing the strategy to ensure that implementation goes as smoothly as possible.
One of the most valuable behaviors that should be implemented at the beginning of an internationalization project is to document the key features that exist across sites, including all current features and anything planned.
Understanding the full set of requirements up front is crucial, as it will help make the design and development process efficient and consistent. Instead of customizing the site for each individual case, duplicate needs are identified, and solutions are found that fit into existing plans and guidelines.
Think ahead to future countries as well; investing the time and effort now will reduce the load with each subsequent rollout. This allows releases to occur much quicker, which a company’s business stakeholders will often expect.
Currency, Content and Language
It is valuable to take stock early on of all requirements surrounding currency, content and language. How an e-commerce business’ sites will differ from each other in these ways can have fundamental impacts, ranging from how various data is maintained to how payment will be captured from country to country. (A good example: the different types of online payment methods accepted across South America.)
In turn, these items may impact other business processes and can provide challenges with content authoring, data feeds, integration, reconciliation, or other areas.
Similarly, it’s crucial to understand the sales environment, as different countries can have very different rules and needs. Are there concerns about local privacy regulations, like GDPR in Europe? What about operating in a country like China, which has requirements about data storage?
What languages will the content need to be presented in, like the requirements for French and English in Canada? Will variations of the same content need to be translated or will content be localized on a country-by-country basis? Keep in mind that different countries may use variations of the same language. Which will you support?
All of these questions can have tremendous impacts on the organization, structure, and functionality across an internationalized platform.
Data Model and Catalog
While all of these considerations are key, few are more impactful than getting the data model right the first time. Start by understanding what data is shared between countries, what data is different, and what teams are responsible for that data.
From there, master data structure can be designed that reflects the needs of an e-commerce company’s ecosystem. When done right, (which may include inheritance models at country or regional levels) it can save your teams significant time and energy.
The bigger your global reach, the more internal stakeholders are likely to be involved. We all know how this can cause problems, so make sure to define who owns what up front. Businesses may want to enforce certain features or content at a global level to ensure consistency, whereas others may be left to local control for greater flexibility.
Deployments and Maintenance
Running your global site on a single platform can have major performance implications, especially when it comes to downtime, resource-intensive processes (such as search indexing, data processing and catalog syndication), and general maintenance activities.
Remember, one team’s “overnight” processing may be another team’s peak business hours. The right plan should minimize the business impact of these activities on all parties.
No matter what a globalization plan looks like, the first country site released will present the biggest learning curve. Since the first one likely will take the longest, the best bet is to pick a smaller country to break the ice. This will help reduce the time before rollout and reduce the risk of any errors the teams may make
Once the first country has piloted effectively, look to develop a rollout plan that will allow efficient and strategic launches for the remaining sites. Due to regional interdependencies, there may not always be the luxury of going country by country, so focus on ways to split up the remainder into groups to reduce risk.
Initially, it can be intimidating to think about the effort required to properly internationalize a company’s global e-commerce presence. On top of that, the thought of doing so on a single platform might even seem like a risk.
However, maintaining a separate network of global sites is a bit like the iceberg fallacy: An e-commerce team may think it understands the challenge, but there are major invisible costs, issues, and inefficiencies just below the surface.
By taking these considerations seriously before embarking on an internationalization initiative, the actual expansion process should be smooth sailing upon completion and for years to come.