Part I: Crossing the Cultural Chasm

[The following is part of a six article series on CRM by Ashley Friedlein, CEO of London-based e-consultancy. To read the other articles in the series, go to:]

Over the next six months, I will be writing a series of features focused on the broad topic of e-CRM. I don't intend to enter the terminological blood bath around what exactly I mean by e-CRM but I can say that I will cover CRM as it applies to digital channels--focusing on people (consumers largely), processes and practicalities rather than technology. I'm also keen to anchor the features around a quest for return on investment (ROI), both from a business perspective and from a customer perspective.

The topics I'll be looking at include personalization, community, targeted online marketing, analytics and customer service. For this first piece, I am wearing my European hat to address the broader cultural question of how well Web sites do, or do not, migrate across countries. We are told that we now live in a global village and the Internet is a global medium, so shouldn't the U.S. version of a site transfer pretty seamlessly to, say, the U.K.?

Certainly there is no reason why technology and much of a site's infrastructure (content management systems, servers and hosting, etc.) should not be shared, or at least replicated. In my experience, and having talked to companies such as iVillage, Motley Fool and Amazon there are perhaps surprisingly strong commonalities in the way that people across the world "consume" a Web site. Core customer needs, such as the ability to find what information easily and quickly, vary little from country-to-country--meaning that if your information design, navigation and other site applications work effectively in one country, then they stand a good chance of working in others.

However, things are very vastly different when it comes to the content of a site and the nature of the relationship that the users develop. Sites that rely an ongoing, personalized dialogue with the customer (which is what many sites are now striving for), have to be localized to succeed. The tone of voice and style must be sensitive to the cultural context; people must feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place. As David Berger, founder of Motley Fool in the U.K., comments: "The Internet itself does not break down barriers. It is a tool which can allow people to break down geographic and cultural barriers but only if they want to."

When Hillary Graves, managing director of iVillage in the U.K., came over to the U.K. from the states, she was told that their community approach would never work with British women. (Culturally it was just too alien to us stiff Brits.) At the time, however, the U.S. site already had 195,000 registered U.K. users, showing a demand. Currently, the U.K. version is dominant in the women's market with over 468,000 unique visitors per month. Hillary attributes iVillage U.K.'s success in part to their expertise in facilitating communities online (a skill which transferred very well from the U.S.), in part to the localized content and in part to their choice of partner in Tesco, the UK's number-one retailer (and the world's number one groceries e-tailer).

So here we begin to see the less visible, but extremely potent, cultural differences beginning to shine through. For example, the users of the Motley Fool site in the U.S. are heavier consumers of content than their U.K. counterparts. However, the U.K. fools are (relatively speaking) more active in the community parts of their site. Whilst a few U.K. users have ventured across to the U.S. site, almost none of them have posted there. How does David Berger explain this? "It's just that finance and investing are less of a sport in the U.K. than in the U.S. And there are some things, like health and money, which you just cannot divorce from where you are, where you come from and how you have grown up. You can share values in the global village but it is very difficult to share your cultural make-up."

The Amazon experience in Germany highlights another cultural oddity. Germans do not like paying for things online with a credit card. This means that Amazon must take a completely different approach to payment to fit in with the way they like to do business there. And the mere thought of sharing content or, worse, a consumer user-base across, say, France and Germany is quite terrifying. (Don't buck history.)

So what can we learn from this?

  • The way people interface with a Web site is really not so different around the world.
  • You should share and reuse technology where possible. It makes commercial sense and does not impact on the customer experience.
  • In most cases, content cannot be shared across sites and successfully speak to its target market. Tread extremely carefully if thinking of sharing users across sites.
  • Values can be shared much more effectively in the lobal village than cultural heritage.
  • In the virtual world a sense of place and a sense of physical presence are all the more important to inspire users with confidence, trust and a feeling of belonging--key levers that translate directly to the bottom line.

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