I have written about cultural characteristics often on this blog to affirm their importance for proper international SEO and general internet marketing efforts that are catering to specialized or international markets. [One side note is that cultures are not restricted solely to countries, as groups within an overall culture can have their own specific cultures with accompanying tendencies]. Understanding how they impact your business is paramount and it requires doing the necessary research on the local contexts and establishing how best to accurately adapt web content and messaging to improve the customer connection, among other things. International SEO companies work to assist businesses with their strategy and actions in this regard and help them gain a greater foothold on various international markets.

One area I haven’t addressed yet is the individualistic vs. collectivistic differentiation experienced in cultures. As inferred by the term itself, individualistic cultures tend to privilege independence and self-reliance with group affiliation and goals often not carrying as much as individual goals. Conversely, collectivistic cultures sway towards prioritizing the group over the individual, promoting group cohesion, and often defining people by the groups they belong to. These cultural tendencies are entrenched in cultures’ histories and although may not be as important as they were say 40 years ago, they still impact the way people in these cultures live their lives and will continue to do so.

Leveraging Individualistic & Collectivistic Tendencies
From this understanding, how can businesses cater to these tendencies? Businesses and the SEO companies assisting them can take specific actions across different areas of their online presence. But the most applicable is potentially how businesses create consistent, relevant content that engages their customers on social media.

Promotional Social Media Content – marketers can supply interesting content via social media that caters more specifically to a self-reliant individual or a group-oriented person and this can influence how well your company connects with the customers. Further, business can target audience members based more on data regarding the groups they are involved with or conversely the apparent independence they live with. For collectivistic cultures marketers can make content relevant to the in-groups they are a part of. This obviously changes to a degree with each type of group a given user is a part of. However, using language that recognizes group inclusion, and making the product or service relevant to sharing with a relevant group or a group in general is key.

Promotions can have calls to action that require group action rather than from the individual. In a collectivistic culture, marketers could motivate customers to join with fellow ‘followers.” Also, marketers could spur customers to create a user video that must include family members or those from another important in-group, for example, rather than one that simply features only the single customer. Additionally, some cultures create more on social media more than others do. Check out our Casual Friday video on the subject and you can match appropriate social media use to the appropriate individual-collectivist tendency for the best strategy.

For more information on cultural characteristics, check out a previous blogs on the importance of power distance, and the relevance of high context and low context cultures. Reach out to me directly at rbuddenhagen@webimax.com if you are interested in addressing how culture impacts your business’ web presence.

Athletic and cultural giant Nike had a significant misstep last week when they named a limited edition shoe after the drink known in this country as a “Black & Tan,” a layered combination of a stout and lager beer. The company was doing so to honor Ireland in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, however, the gesture was received as an insensitive and somewhat confusing insult. Nike did not fully understand the significance of the “Black & Tan” phrase in Ireland.

The “Black & Tan” is, yes, a layered drink of stout and lager, but the drink itself is more common in the US than in Ireland where the phrase is associated with the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force used to suppress revolution in Ireland particularly from 1920-192 during the last two years of the Irish War of Independence. The group was nicknamed the “Black & Tans” for the colors of their improvised uniforms and had a reputation for attacks on Irish civilians, thus, Irish sentiment towards the phrase, even the word “Tan” remains very negative. It represents a painful time in the nation’s history and old tensions with Britain, making the mention of “Black & Tan” in marketing efforts simply puzzling. Such a case has clear PR and Marketing implications.

Cater to the Context
“Cater to the context” is becoming a mantra of this blog and my writing, but the Nike case is proof that such mistakes do happen and that cultures DEMANDS our attention. Nike had the best of intentions, but unfortunately that is lost because of their failure to do the necessary research on their message and its appropriateness for the given context and target audience. When involving any culture (usually one other than your own), the culture needs to be analyzed and understood before action is taken. The extent of the action or campaign dictates the level of cultural understanding and analysis required, and there is always some required.

This misstep was significant not necessarily because of the amount of PR backlash received or the possibility that Nike will not be able to recover (which is not the case), but because of how easily it could have been avoided. The amount of research that was required was a simple Google search, small-scale market research/focus groups (really one conversation with someone from Ireland would have sufficed), or a look at the use of the phrase in past marketing efforts (Ben & Jerry’s made a similar mistake in 2006 using the phrase in the name of an ice cream flavor). The marketing message was based on assumptions that Nike decision-makers and marketers had on what the phrase meant, seemingly assuming it had the same significance both in the US and in Ireland.  Now, the extra public relations, SEO, and reputation management work to replace the negative story with the resulting apology far outweigh any work on the front-end to avoid the situation.

In sum, marketers should take from this case:

  • Local research should be done to establish a deeper understanding of the cultures involved.
  • Determine if company perceptions or assumptions match the reality of the local context, no matter how seemingly simple the involvement with the culture in question appears.
  • Proactively seeking to avoid such situations is better than trying to fix the damage they cause after.

Connect with me directly at rbuddenhagen@webimax.com,  on Twitter @ryanwbudd, with any thoughts on this case or how culture and internet marketing impact your business. Also, check out Anthony Pensabene’s blog today, just below, some great info on language, terms, and culture – what is “Culturomics” and is there really an SEO name debate?

SEO and cultureIn Monday’s post, I introduced the idea of cultural characteristics and looked at power distance. Certain characteristics of culture influence the way people act and experience their world and, of most interest to those in international SEO, experience the internet. Many aspects of certain cultures have changed over time, however core elements of culture tend to remain unchanged, they only adapt to the times. As such, certain tendencies of those from a specific culture can be expected, and as internet marketers, we must cater what we do to best suit the tendencies of a certain market.

With that said, by no means is it a hardened rule. Tendencies are just that, the ways people tend to act when looking at an overall collection of a group – averages. So there are people in a given culture that will receive information differently as they experience the internet, but we are trying to cast the biggest net to purposefully engage the greatest amount of people in the target market. With this understanding, we press on to look at another characteristic of culture, whether a culture is high or low-context. I describe this pair of characteristics in our Casual Friday video for today -check that out for more detail and to hear Todd and I discuss other international SEO issues.

High Context vs. Low Context Cultures
High and low context addresses how much meaning is in the literal words versus the meaning that is attributed to the context in any given conversation or communication interaction. In low context cultures, meaning is more literal and received mostly through explicit descriptions utilizing more in-depth explanation and examples – essentially resulting in more words. In high context cultures, more meaning is given to the context of the interaction, the time of day, the roles of those involved, the place of the business in their industry, the standing of their brand, and any other unspoken understandings – so less explicit, fewer words.

It’s Relevant Impact
How does this impact internet marketing? In terms of web design, on-site content, and social media content, you want to connect with your audience, so if you are targeting those in a low context culture, like German culture for example, you want more explicit detail and explanations, utilizing many examples and thoroughly presenting information. This will give members of the target audience meaning in the form that are most used to dealing with. Conversely, with low context environments, like Japanese and Chinese cultures, content should be more based on contextual understandings based on unspoken understandings like the company’s place in the society, their relationship to their customers, their place in the industry and their resulting responsibilities to the environment for example. Here, marketers want to be less explicit overall, concentrating on offering interesting features that will engage the audience instead of extra detail and descriptions.

In this case with high context-cultures, you do not want to take detail away at the detriment of SEO value, so this needs to be weighed against each other. On one side of the spectrum, you can go high on detail for SEO purposes (while moving away from the cultural norm for high context cultures). On the other side, you can offer less overall detail (appropriate for high context cultures) which equates to less opportunity for SEO. In the end, it is not a black and white issue, there is a middle-ground that you can strike, balancing informative detail for SEO gain and catering to the high context characteristic. Working with search engine optimization consultants to strike this SEO-culture balance without sacrificing either is ultimately a business’ best option at successfully navigating these matters.

Culture is a dynamic, living thing. This may be an exaggeration of sorts, but the point is culture is an evolving entity that impacts just about every aspect of our lives. It impacts the way we experience our days, structure our time, share with friends, work at our jobs, and – how we experience the web. Cultures adapt as time passes, but core elements of cultures can and do remain unchanged. These core elements account for cultural tendencies that exist from culture to culture influencing the way people behave and, for our purposes, experience the internet.

As a result, it is important for international SEO companies to recognize such differences and optimize accordingly, presenting unique culture or country-specific strategies. Culture is a relevant and recurring issue that I discuss on this blog, but for good reason, its reach and impact on internet marketing and SEO is undeniable. Today, I’m going to look at one cultural characteristic in particular and how it can impact marketing efforts.

Power Distance
One important cultural characteristic is called power distance which addresses how a culture negotiates power and status in relationships. As a concept, it is the extent to which those in less powerful roles accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Superior roles are thus respected and revered to a greater degree. In lower power distance cultures, everyone is seen as more equal, whereas with high power distance, more social rank and distance is put between subordinates and those higher than them.

So in terms of web design, if a company is catering to a lower power distance culture, they want to think about how they present their management. If transparency is an element of the company culture, for example, a company may have a desire to put the direct contact information of management on the site or provide a feature for connecting with the CEO or C-level executives. The company may want to seem accessible to customers. This may present a disconnect though with the local culture as people may question the professionalism of the company.

A business in tern should weigh their own culture against that of the audience they are targeting when deciding which should dictate practices. As such, businesses may want to override local influences with elements of their own organizational culture to present a certain identity. There is no correct “one-size-fits-all” solution, and decisions need to be made on a per-country basis.

SEO in Hong Kong

Many businesses expand into Hong Kong.

I’ve touched on the fact before that conducting business in international markets forces much change on a company. From adapting to new political and economic structures to understanding different legal systems and how they all impact your business model, the way you run your business from top to bottom simply changes; you adjust it according to the local context. This is a must, but the key is realizing this before the transition abroad, whether you are a manufacturer or an SEO company establishing this understanding early is best.

Reframing
Needless to say, communication, the thread that runs through all business operations, is also directly affected when operating in new markets. As there are so many facets to its impact on communication (e.g. internal communication with local employees, communication [PR] with the businesses’ publics/audiences, and communication [marketing] with customers), the goal is not necessarily to minimize its negative influence but instead use cultural and communicative differences to your advantage. Rather than asking, “how badly is the language and cultural barrier going to impact us[?],” ask “how much can we leverage our ability to adapt and deliver a locally relevant experience for our customers to further separate us from our competitors?” That is redistributing the power back to your business, framing a challenge as an opportunity to excel. The reality is many businesses in a new market will simply not capitalize on the fact that they are an outside entity operating in a new context. This is a powerful opportunity, but before we can address how to positively leverage it, we must understand the communicative value of your mere presence in the new context.

The Communicative Value in a Company’s Simple Presence
Even with how interdependent nations currently are in terms of commerce and trade, the very presence of an outside entity in a different country still carries a message in and of itself. Your presence says that the company is confident, it’s expanding, and it feels the business can thrive in a new environment.  This presence is received by all of the businesses’ publics (e.g. established customers, future target customers, regulators, competitors, partners, etc.) in different ways, both positive and negative. If there is positive brand awareness at the outset, then the transition will be much smoother in terms of a PR outreach standpoint. If more negative assumptions exist about the ability of the business to function in the given context or the potential negative impact its presence may have on local competitors, there are additional barriers to overcome.

A business first needs to assess how their presence is being received, or ideally, will be received as the business should undergo research in this new context (country) to understand what they are getting into before they arrive. Why? -Because strategic communication can be structured into business decisions from the first moment the business’ eventual presence is known in the new context. This way, a business can strategically plan actions and make business decisions that carry communicative value and give a certain message (to achieve a certain goal). Contrived? – No, because perception is often reality, true intentions can be overshadowed, and messages can be misunderstood. So in an environment where misrepresentation can happen so easily (like in a new country) and its potential negative impact on image is so great, both overt communications (e.g. press releases, adverts) and its more impactful alternative, actions that when taken give off a specific message, should be strategically planned from the very top of an organization, hence “strategic communication.”

Check back tomorrow for the second installment of this post…