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International eCommerce: Digital marketing considerations

Drawing on our experiences of internationalisation with our clients, we have put together this practical guide to help eCommerce professionals plan for customer acquisition activity in new markets. A full PDF version of this report is available to download here.

Key focal areas of this report:

  • Key planning considerations / understanding your target market
  • Deciding on a team structure
  • Individual channel considerations
  • Different routes to market


1 About the author

2 Introduction

3 The importance of planning

  • When are people buying?
  • Where are people buying?
  • How are people buying?
  • What are people buying?
  • Your competitors
  • What are your objectives and how do they dictate the strategy?
  • Contingency planning
  • Sourcing digital industry data

4 Team structure

5 Individual channel considerations

  • Paid search
  • Organic search
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Social media marketing
  • CRM / Email marketing

6 Other considerations

  • Implementing international Google Analytics
  • Is MVP a good option for internationalisation?
  • Are there any quick routes to market?

7 Conclusion

1 About the author

Paul Rogers is an eCommerce digital marketing professional with experience of working on international customer acquisition projects while at Session and in previous roles. Paul has worked in-house for a large gifting retailer as well as in other retail-focused in-house, consulting and agency roles. Paul has worked in digital marketing for over eight years and has also consulted for retailers in Asia, North America, Australia and Europe. You can follow Paul on Twitter or read his blog.

2 Introduction

This guide was written in January 2015 as part of a series of internationalisation-focused pieces, aimed at helping retailers looking to expand into new geographies. This guide is focused on customer acquisition activity when entering a new market and will cover the following key areas:

  • Understanding your chosen market(s) and being able to forecast channel performance
  • Understanding the work required (knowing what needs to be done and when)
  • Understanding the differences between the different channels
  • Understanding the differences in customer behaviour (compared to existing markets)
  • Structuring teams and resource
  • Choosing which marketing channels to focus on

I’ve tried to make this resource applicable to all countries by focusing on general concepts, so unless otherwise stated, the advice in this article can be applied to the majority of markets. As I’ll outline later, due-diligence and planning is key. Different regions with different barriers, purchase behaviour and seasonal peaks will have a big impact on your short and long-term performance. I’ve seen lots of retailers go into internationalisation half-heartedly and not succeed as a result. Without fully understanding the markets you’re entering, it is near impossible to understand how your localised strategy needs to differ from your existing strategies for your current markets.

You also need to plan how you’re going to resource and output your activity. Will you use agencies for your channel activity? Will you build an in-house team? Will you centralise your team or have local offices? Will you create a multilingual hub? These are just a few considerations that we’ll discuss later.

3 The importance of planning

Planning is key to any project, but when it comes to moving into regions you’re unfamiliar with, it’s fundamental.

In the past I’ve worked on projects where the company has not 100 per cent understood the nuances of different markets and suffered as a result. This applies to every element of international retail. However, marketing needs to be led by the customer and without a thorough understanding of where commerce is happening and who your customers are, you can’t really understand what’s going to work and what isn’t. It’s also really important that you validate the need for your products in the country or countries you’re looking to expand into.

When are people buying?

An important consideration for internationalisation is your target country’s seasonal peaks. These can differ across the world. Here are some examples of seasonal peaks you may or may not be aware of:

These are just a few examples of seasonal events that can have a significant impact on seasonal sales, particularly those which encourage gift giving. There are plenty more for other regions and also lots of smaller ones. It is also worth considering monthly peaks around paydays when planning and structuring campaigns.

Where are people buying?

Different regions have different levels of eCommerce maturity and penetration. For example, buying consumer electronics online in Norway is far more prevalent than in Finland, which has a lower level of eCommerce penetration.

Verticals can also affect demand for specific types of products. People in the UK are far more likely to buy a gift experience online (such as a driving experience) than their European counterparts. In France and Italy, where multi-choice gift vouchers are extremely popular, there’s less chance of someone buying from a website selling only a specific type of experience. This is an example of why due-diligence into your demographic and vertical is essential.

When considering paid advertising it’s also important to understand where people are located. A lot of people living in Scandinavia, for example, buy online from the US. In Spain, over 50 per cent of online transactions are purchased by people who aren’t in Spain, while the majority of transactions made in Spain are from Barcelona. This data is key for any paid search activity. International SEO could also be important if you’re trying to reach users who speak different languages.

Here is an article that illustrates the importance of these trends:

It might be that one of your competitors is also highly associated with the product range of your vertical, as someone like Sports Direct are with football boots in the UK. The presence and role of aggregators and marketplaces is another factor to consider. In New Zealand, TradeMe is extremely popular and is a big part of the eCommerce industry, with over 3.3 million active users in a country with a population of only 4.5 million people.

How are people buying?

The use of mobile, tablets, and payment solutions varies widely from country to country.

In the US and China, mobile is prevalent for buying products online. If you’re expanding into these regions, mobile considerations must be factored into your strategy, both from a UX and a marketing perspective. This article shows how important mobile is in the US, with mobile transactions reportedly accounting for 29 per cent of US eCommerce. It is important to understand the level of smartphone use in your chosen expansion region, as an optimised mobile experience is going to be a lot more important in a region where sales from mobile account for more than 50 per cent of your sales.

In my experience, retailers in the US tend to allocate much higher proportions to paid advertising on mobiles because they’re more likely to get a direct return. One US fashion retailer recently made the decision to allocate around 35 per cent of its international paid search spend to mobile, because it had previously performed well in other countries. Analysis of the results, however, revealed poor conversion. The reason for the discrepancy was attributed to a non-mobile-optimised website. Despite US customers being more likely to convert on a non-optimised mobile experience, international markets were not so inclined to make a purchase on a non-optimised site.

In addition to device choice, payment preferences can change from region to region or country to country. For example, it is still common in Italy and Spain to make payment on delivery or via cheque. This may not be a viable option for your business, making payment preferences an important consideration.

What are people buying?

As well as differences in buyer behaviour when it comes to purchase choices online, there are vast and numerous differences between regions to consider.

For example the number of people buying clothing and footwear online in Spain is significantly lower than the levels being sold in the UK. Germany also generates nearly five times the amount of online orders for clothing and footwear compared to Spain.

Within Europe, Germany, France and the UK are a long way ahead in terms of online buying, with records showing significantly higher volumes in online transactions and revenues. Between the three however, there are some big differences in purchasing behaviour. Germany has the highest proportion of online purchasers in most product categories but has a far lower number of people buying food online compared with the UK. Research also shows that unlike other European countries, people in the UK don’t usually buy sporting equipment online.

Doing your own research into the different markets you’re entering is fundamental. Combining the data points talked about in this report is a good start, but it’s important that you have a clear understanding of each market, from its peaks to its buying habits, before venturing into its eCommerce space.

Your competitors

Organic search

Start by taking a sample set of keywords (as many different groups as possible) and tally the competitors that are ranking for 50-100 keywords. It’s important to use head terms, long-tail product terms and the category-focused terms.

For example, if you’re selling football shirts you could use the following (English examples):

  • Football shirts
  • Manchester United Football Shirts
  • Small Chelsea Football Shirt
  • Falcao Shirt
  • Football shirts for Girls
  • Premier League Football Shirts

This will enable you to gauge which retailers are doing well across a broad range of keywords. It is always best to compile a broad list of competitors before refining the list. After closer inspection, competitors who appear to be doing very little trade through organic, can often be dominating a niche section of the market. A helpful tool for gaining insight into which retailers are ranking for different keywords is SEMrush.

Once you have your list of competitors, you can start doing due-diligence on them. Firstly, I would suggest running them through SearchMetrics which highlights visibility trends and comparisons between them. This is important because it will help you to broadly understand the market share in each channel.

Let’s go back to the football shirt example. The screenshot above shows that one of the competitors is very clearly the market leader when it comes to organic traffic, although in this case the retailer has a broad product range, so that may need to be taken into consideration. To gain more insight, you might want to extract the leading retailer and run them as a separate query, just to illustrate the difference between the other retailers.

The SearchMetrics dataset is based on keyword visibility, which is given different weightings based on rankings and keyword volume, amongst other metrics. SearchMetrics also gives you a similar dataset for paid search, although I’ve found that it is nowhere near as good as it is for organic search.

SEMrush is also very useful for finding your competitors for paid search, as well as keyword research, because of the volume and proportion of traffic data it provides.

Paid search

The principles around organic competitor discovery also apply to paid search; particularly collating data on retailers appearing for target keywords. SEMrush is a really good data source for this. Other useful tools for keyword /competitor discovery are Hitwise (particularly useful to help understand your competitive landscape) and Google AdWords Keyword Planner.

Affiliate marketing

There are a number of ways to find out which of your competitors are leading the charge with affiliate marketing and also which affiliates they are working with, which can significantly help to reduce your own overheads when you start.

A tried and tested method is to look at the copy your competitors have provided to affiliates via their feeds (e.g. voucher sites, cashback sites) before conducting Google searches to find other websites using the same description. This will give you lots of prospects.

In addition, because lots of affiliates will not show up organically, you can search for hotlinked affiliate banners or descriptions using Nerdy Data. This will generate a list of websites citing the reference in their source code. Nerdy Data is a ridiculously useful tool for this, with lots of other uses, and is worth looking into in more detail. You could also get more insight by looking at the websites linking to a merchant’s cookie policy page, or you could choose to just perform searches for the copy on the page, as affiliates often just scrape it.

Social media marketing

Using social media to discover competitors will give similar, if not the same results from other channels. In addition, social media can help to identify influencers within an international vertical. In order to generate this kind of data, I’d suggest using the following tools:

  • Traackr – focuses on influencer identification and connection
  • Linkdex – originally an SEO tool, it also focuses on social media
  • Peer Index – focuses on influencer identification and connection
  • Followerwonk – advanced Twitter user searching

These are just a few examples, but the above are useful tools to find, analyse and connect with the people who are influencing your chosen social networks. You could also use Klout, which is fairly good for a quick overview.

What are your objectives and how do they dictate the strategy?

For me the most important part of international customer acquisition is the short-term and long-term objectives, as they will both dictate the strategy.

Short-term goals are more likely to drive your customer acquisition activity. For example, if you’re trying to operate profitably from the start, then you will need to adapt your paid channels in favour of that. Opting to be very specific, rather than using lots of broad match bids in paid search could be a good option. Alternatively, you could only work with affiliates that you think will deliver incremental revenue. Your short-term goals will also influence how you structure your teams.

If you’re happy to operate at a loss for a set period of time, then you’re unlikely to go down the MVP (minimum viable product) route. I recently worked with a large US retailer, which started selling to the UK solely through organic search and CRM (it had an existing and fairly active customer base, but launched a new site/strategy).

Although it initially operated through the low COS (cost of sale) channels, it was happy to initially absorb the shipping costs in order to generate market share. As it got a better understanding of the market, they started testing the paid channels, with the intention of generating long-term customers and for research purposes, as opposed to going in with the intention of remaining profitable. This was a good strategy for them, as they had an understanding of how they could operate profitably before they started thinking about paid search CPAs. In the end, they were able to generate new customers through paid channels and still make money on the first order.

To summarise: It’s important to align your strategy and preferred marketing channels to your overall objectives for international expansion. Channels like organic search take time, so may be a good long-term investment, but it’ll be a while before you see a return. The same applies to content marketing. In contrast, paid search is likely to generate immediate revenue. However in two years you might hit the same revenue levels as you would through organic, but with a sustained COS of ~12 per cent, whereas organic will continue to reduce. Affiliate marketing is similar to paid search; it’s scalable, but you’re always going to have roughly the same cost of sale.

Contingency planning

If you’re unable to achieve the CPAs you had originally targeted with paid search, or the volumes are lower than expected from organic keywords, you need to be able to respond.

For me, the contingency plan is an alternative route in terms of budget allocation, but it needs to be supported by data. For example, allocating more money to paid channels, which are more likely to deliver a short-term return than organic channels. It’s fundamentally important that you have very robust reporting to inform your budget allocation.

Here are questions you should be able to answer:

  • Which products/areas are consuming the highest proportions of the budget?
  • Which products/areas have the lowest CPAs?
  • What are the most profitable routes to conversion?
  • What are the most profitable product /channel combinations?
  • Which product/channel combinations are not achieving target CVR/COS?
  • How do mobile CPAs vs desktop CPAs compare for paid channels?
  • What are mobile volumes?
  • Which products have the lowest CR%/exit rates/bounce rates?
  • Which channels are delivering the best ROI?
  • Which areas of the site are delivering the best sales and the highest CR%?
  • Which channels are contributing to that volume?
  • Which channels are contributing to that CR%?
  • Which sections of the website are delivering the best overall CPAs and COS?
  • Which sections of the website are reliant on which channels?

I’d suggest mapping your targets and then having a reporting spreadsheet that has a dashboard purely for detailing performance vs target. You then need to have pre-empted actions for the areas that aren’t performing.

Sourcing digital industry data

There are lots of different sources for international, industry-specific data. Here’s a few to consider.

Market research reports: I’d suggest getting your market research conducted by a specialist agency, but there are some places where you can obtain retail market data for specific countries:

I’ve used Hitwise on international projects in the past and it’s a very good source of data. The only problem you’re likely to face is that Hitwise can only provide data for a handful of countries. Here are some sources of data I’ve found useful in the past:

  • Mosaic / Demographic data
  • Keyword data
  • Upstream / downstream visit data
  • Industry benchmarking data

There’s plenty more data available via Hitwise and, if it covers your expansion region, it’s a very useful addition to your marketing toolkit.

4 Team Structure

Based on my experience, here are the options in terms of structuring your team from a customer acquisition and marketing perspective:

  • Full localised teams
  • Country representatives supported by an existing team
  • Country representatives built into an existing team and managed by existing Heads of Departments
  • Using agencies to begin with, then moving and managing the operation in-house
  • Using freelancers who can be reviewed over time
  • Bringing in internationalisation specialists to manage the process. If choosing this option be sure to choose a specialist with experience of bootstrapping

Each of these options has different benefits in terms of cost, level of control, level of output and resource, and more. The decision is heavily dependant on the size of your business, your budget, your investment, and the way you currently operate.

5 Individual channel considerations

Paid search

The differences in purchasing behaviour and general eCommerce penetration between countries will influence your bidding strategy in a country. For example, in China you may want to target more users via mobile or change your bid for mobile, because a large amount of people in China buy on a smartphone.

Here are some of the key considerations that need to factored into your paid search activity:

Building your account

If you’re managing your paid search in-house or using non-natives, you’ll probably find yourself relying on broad match more than you usually would. Allocating budget to broad match on fairly generic phrases is a good way to understand which keywords are capable of generating the right kind of traffic and conversions. For example, if you’re selling football shirts in other European countries, by doing a broad match on some of the main terms, you’ll be able to find more specific variants.

This is a very crude example, as realistically you’d build a strong keyword list before going into this, but you can apply the principle to more specific queries.

You can then add the high performing variants as exact match bids, negate them from the broad match, and then start doing broad match bids around these keywords, allowing you to find even more specific variants. The above is a good example as the original broad match identified football teams and then football players as opportunities.

You could then create ad groups for the different teams and then the individual players. This obviously adds to the setup time for the account, but it’s a good way of building out your ad groups based on actual performance data.

Once you’ve started to identify these opportunities, you would then need to start working on ad copy for each of the different ad groups. This is really important from a performance perspective (due to the impact on quality score) and also a click-through perspective, as including the specific keyword will improve click-through rate.

Another consideration for ad copy is the slight differences in dialect for the different areas. Eg: Spanish and Catalan. To counter this, you’d need different ad groups and different ad copy to target these different groups.

Keyword research (paid search and SEO)

I’ve already covered one of my biggest suggestions, which is to use broad match to find new keywords (and also negate those that don’t convert), but you will still need other sources of data to be able to build your initial lists. Here are a few that can help:

  • SEMrush – look at what keywords are delivering impressions and clicks for your competitors
  • Organic impression and click data – this can be found in Google Webmaster Tools which is another good source of data
  • – this helps to identify lots of variants of the different keywords, based on matching different parts of keywords and phrases
  • Keyword Planner – this is a bit of an obvious one, but the keyword planner is very useful to obtain keyword data for most countries
  • YouTube’s keyword tool, UberSuggest or FreshKey – are all capable of providing additional data

Another key part of keyword research is understanding the intent behind the query, particularly on whether a keyword has transactional intent. As part of your keyword research you should be mapping/categorising keywords by type (transactional, informational, research etc) and also against ad groups and landing pages.

If you’re doing keyword research for SEO, it needs to be carried out before you map out the structure of the website as it can be used to inform your architecture. If you’ve already built a new site or you’re looking to mirror the structure of an existing website, you should still be mapping keywords against your different pages to ensure that your site facilitates for the different queries that represent opportunities.

Organic search

Know your search engines

Depending on which countries you’re expanding into, you might need to adapt your strategy beyond Google, especially if you’re looking at countries like Russia and China, where users rely heavily on Yandex and Baidu.

Baidu, which reportedly has a 67 per cent market share in China, will have a huge impact on your organic strategy. Baidu isn’t dissimilar to Google in terms of the ranking signals it uses. However, it does appear to be a bit behind in terms of penalties and quality measuring. Baidu also has a similar reliance on links as a key ranking signal and is apparently very focused on the quantity of links, as well as the quality and relevance. It’s also worth noting that its advertising model is very different.

Yandex has a similar presence in Russia with an estimated 62 per cent market shareThis guide from Yandex suggests that the signals are broadly similar and that the principles of Panda and Penguin are also factored into how they rank websites.

Use of the hreflang tag

If you’re launching new versions of your websites to target users in different languages, you should be using the hreflang tag to tell search engines which language each URL should be targeting. You can read more about how this should be implemented here. Put simply you should include the tag on each page on the website where there is an alternative page for another language.

The tags should look like this:

Or if you were using a sub-directory solution:

For formatting reasons on this blog, we have had to include an extra space at the start and end of the tag. This is not required for your implementation.

This is a fairly basic guide to implementing the hreflang tag, but there are plenty of other considerations and ways of using it. I suggest reading the following articles if you want to find out more about how the hreflang tag can benefit your international serving:

This tool, introduced by Aleyda Solis, helps to generate the hreflang tags for you.

CCtld (eg: vs sub-directory (eg: es/) vs sub-domain (eg:

This is a widely debated topic, as it’s relatively subjective and there’s only marginal benefit between the options. Some people prefer to use the localised domains because of their local relevance, other people prefer building up the authority of one main domain.

In my opinion there’s not much beneficial difference between the two, but I personally like it when an international website uses sub-directories, because it’s cleaner and easier to maintain in a lot of ways.

CCtlds do have a local advantage, but if configured correctly, it is only marginal over using a gTLD (Generic top-level domain).

I also recommend creating separate accounts for each of the international sites in Google Webmaster Tools and setting the target geo-location for each.

Varying levels of leniency

I recently worked with a large retailer in India, which relied heavily on organic search for customer acquisition. I audited its link profile and instantly realised that it had taken a very unnatural approach to generating links, which lead me to recommend that they disavow the majority and also consider removal campaigns.

After I spoke with a member of its marketing team and assessed some of its competitors, I realised that the Penguin update hadn’t had the impact in India that it had had in the UK and US. They confirmed that the tactics that no longer worked in the UK and US, still worked in India. In the end we did agree that a content-driven strategy was more long-term. However, we had to agree that the removals and disavow could wait until that activity started generating coverage.

To assess the level of leniency in your target region, look over some of the other websites that are ranking and try to gauge how mature the results are in terms of updates. I suggest having an expert conduct this to avoid drawing false conclusions.

Even if Google still ranks websites that are using unnatural link building tactics, I still wouldn’t recommend going down that route as it’ll cause problems in the longterm. It’s just good to understand what is working and where your competitors are.

Sourcing content

This is heavily based on how much budget you have for the project. Ideally you should use a legitimate translation agency to create quality, eCommerce-orientated copy based on your existing content. However, good translation services are hard to find, so this is not always easy. In the past, I’ve had a lot of success working with international students.

One thing that’s important to remember is that you will need to source content for meta titles and descriptions, which need to be localised along with the rest of your content.

Link building

Unless you’re operating from localised offices, international link building is notoriously difficult because of the language barrier between service providers and the people commissioning it. I’ve tried both options; using native companies, and UK operations with teams in other countries. I prefer the latter but it does cost more.

To counter this, in a previous role, our strategy was to create interactive assets and get them translated, which was very effective. In most cases, we would pay native companies to do the outreach on a cost per placement basis, which again worked very well. We created guidelines based on the top-tier publishers we wanted to work with and the native company would then work on approaching them and achieving the placements. This worked well.

There’s a temptation to lower your standards because it is easier, but I’d strongly recommend against this. If you use questionable tactics, such as directories or guest posting, you’ll find yourself removing those links in 12 – 24 months time.

Affiliate marketing

One of the biggest considerations with affiliate marketing is the types of affiliates that work in a given region. For example, there are a number of European countries that simply don’t use voucher codes, and some retailers in Europe avoid discounting in general, because there’s a belief that it cheapens the proposition.

It is also important to know which networks have the best performing and most suitable merchants. Once you’ve chosen your affiliate network, you then need to select your mediums and the top affiliates you want to collaborate with.

If you’re not going to be doing a massive amount of affiliate-lead activity, I suggest taking the top five or ten affiliates and nurturing the relationship, with the intention of optimising activity based on what delivers incremental revenue and what doesn’t (although defining incremental is easier said than done).

What role do aggregators play?

Another consideration for affiliate activity is what role the aggregators play in a given country (the equivalent in the UK are MoneySupermarket, Farfetch, Lyst, Polyvore etc).

Depending on how much dominance the aggregators have, they could be very valuable to you, either as an affiliate or as a reseller. If you consider aggregators like GoCompare, Compare The Market and MoneySupermarket, in the UK finance sector, it’s evident how influential aggregators can be. Groupon is another example of an aggregate affiliate for discounts.

Social media marketing

International social media is difficult because you need native speakers to manage your accounts, especially if you choose to use networks like Twitter for customer service queries.

One option is to have a centralised social media strategy combined with native speakers in each department. The downside of this is that the person managing the output isn’t fully aware of what’s happening at higher levels, and is reliant on updates from the native speaker. Preparation is really important in this area, as you need to know what the users are doing via social networks. Below are some key points that you need to understand.

Which social networks are people using?

There are lots of country-specific social networks that have huge amounts of users, but are relatively unknown outside of their main target country. Here are some examples:

  • Tuenti – Spain’s largest social network with over 15 million users
  • Vkontake – Europe’s second largest social network after Facebook. It’s used in Russia and the surrounding countries
  • Qzone – China’s biggest social network with over 645 million users. Allows users to do lots of things including keeping a diary and blog
  • Xing – a business-focused social network used in Germany

These are just a few of the bigger examples, but there are lots more. This article has a bit more detail on international social networks.

What are the common uses for each social network?

It’s important to know which social networks are being used for customer service, product or service-related feedback, reviews and product research, as well as which ones have the most volume and brand value.

People in different regions have different uses for social networks. For example, in Asia social network usage is focused on music and video sharing, whilst South America is very focused on Twitter and blogging.

These are just broad generalisations, but it’s important that you know what kind of content is going to generate the best engagement with your demographic, which requires you to know who these people are, where they are and what kind of content they like.

Who is using which network?

In addition to knowing which networks are popular, it’s also important to understand the user groups behind each network to understand the best place to reach target users. I suggest doing research into the users for each network to understand the general demographic: age, interests, intent, desired use of the platform, income etc. This will guide you on whether it represents a good opportunity for your paid and organic social media strategy.

If you are running paid advertising alongside organic social, you should be able to obtain quite a lot of data around the users you’re targeting, as well as being able to specifically target them. If you’re using Facebook, you can target your demographic specifically by inputting information around interests, age, location etc. With Twitter, you can use your paid search keyword lists to create audiences to target.

How are competitors using social media?

Identifying which social networks are worth pursuing is one thing, but it’s also really important to understand how your competitors are using social networks. In Spain, Tuenti may have a high number of active users, but if your Spanish competitors are using Tuenti and not generating much engagement, you might want to review this channel.

You might find that your target users in the new geography prefer to engage with photos as oppose to status updates or sponsored content and that this generates better engagement compared to organic posts. Even if you don’t use the information, it’s good to have this kind of understanding of the market.

Implementing the work

If you have the budget, I suggest creating the strategy in-house (based on what you’re already doing) and outsourcing the implementation work to an international agency or independent consultant, which will allow you to replicate your existing social media activity via native speakers.

CRM / email marketing

Legislation & opt-in/out

One of the key considerations for international email marketing is how the laws differ in different countries, particularly around how you obtain and distribute emails. In Europe, you should only send emails to recipients who have opted into email communications, whereas in North America, you can send emails to anyone, unless they have opted out of communications.More information can be found here:

International user behaviour

Another consideration is understanding and assessing how people from different regions respond to email marketing. Just because something works in one country, doesn’t automatically mean it will work in another. The best way of finding out what works and what doesn’t is through trial and error. You can apply the same principles for segmentation, trigger emails, reporting etc. and should factor this into the strategy as well.

I asked Catherine Ainsworth to contribute to this piece, as she’s someone I’ve worked with in the past who has a lot of experience around international CRM / email marketing. Catherine now runs a small consultancy called Click Connect, but has previously worked in senior roles for large retailers.

Catherine said:

“Chances are if internationalisation is on the cards for your company, you’re doing pretty well. You probably know what you are doing and can see a clear niche for your offering in new geographies. While you might be able to export the majority of your operation to the new territory with only minor changes and tweaks, don’t assume this will be the case with your marketing communications – particularly email.

“Each different country (and in some cases, a region) has different perceptions and reactions to digital marketing, with the consumers in some countries taking it all in their stride while others view it with cynicism and distrust. The good news is that the UK is pretty much at the forefront of digital marketing, so following many of the best practices here will stand you in good stead. Important guidelines like the distance selling and privacy rules are set at a European level and are a good place to start. There are some territories that take these guidelines a little further – for instance France has even gone so far as to legislate with the famous “Anti-Amazon” law which limits larger companies from using their size to undercut competitors with large discounts and free delivery, and there are signs other European countries may follow suit.

“It is important to be aware of customs and attitudes of your chosen countries. Don’t assume that the slightly offcentre email creatives that work well for the UK’s highly technically-savvy (and slightly whimsical) customers will work everywhere. If in doubt keep your email communication simple and focused. Also, I could not recommend highly enough having a local expert on board to guide you through both cultural considerations and local marketing law and practices. In the past I have made this person an in-house employee and benefitted from their local knowledge in how the site is merchandised and how best to talk authentically to customers over social channels too, but you could also look to build a relationship with a locally based email service provider so you get both your technical and cultural support in one place.

“The good news is that in building an audience much of the tried and trusted techniques will work. Obviously, don’t forget your checkout opt-in (some countries do not need even this level of permission but it is simply best practice in building an audience who actually want to hear what you have to say), on-site incentives to join the mailing list also work well everywhere and reciprocal partnerships with other companies could also work well (assuming customers know exactly what they are getting themselves into!). “All that might sound a little scary but a small amount of research before you launch into your activity will save you any headaches after the fact. Expanding into new countries is a highly exciting and demanding time in a company’s development. I wish you the best of luck!”

I also asked Sarah Foulke, from Bronto, for her thoughts, as Bronto has worked alongside a host of retailers who’ve progressed into new regions.

Sarah said:

“With a new country, come new potential customers! The first step when expanding into new geographies is to grow your contact list. Create sign up and pop ups to capture email addresses from site visitors – or optimise the ones you already have! Consider offering small incentives such as a % or £ off their first purchase to drive sign ups. However you only want to help people along the purchase process. You wouldn’t want to set up a sweepstakes for something like a free car! You could end up gathering a lot of contacts who are only after freebies and not going to stick around.

“To prepare for the influx of new contacts from your optimised sign ups, make sure you have an engaging customer journey planned. Triggered messages like a welcome series and a post purchase or lapsed purchase messages are key foundations to have in place. The welcome series is especially important in the early days; it establishes a basis for your relationship with that customer and presents them with an opportunity to spread the word about your brand. Add social sharing links, or run contests based on social sharing. A great contest to try is a ‘share with a friend’ campaign. The key here is to show off why someone would want to share. Are we giving them an incentive? Make it easy for them to share to reduce any friction. Finally, make sure the content that you are asking them to share is something you would want to share. People take pride in their social feeds and they won’t share content they don’t find interesting.

“When it comes to content, first impressions count. Ensure that your emails are easy to read on both a desktop and mobile device, with a clear call-to-action. Now get creative! Utilise your partnerships with other complementary but non-competing retailers to promote each others’ items in your emails. Build loyal customers by finding who purchases frequently or shares your messages on social media, and give them VIP status to foster a strong relationship.

“And of course, do your research before you hit send. Many countries have varied thoughts and perceptions around marketing, so be sure you’re following the local customs. For example, in Germany they expect a double opt-in, while in the US you may send messages until the customer opts-out.”

6 Other considerations

Implementing international Google Analytics

There are a number of options for setting up a Google Analytics account for the international variants, including individual profiles, one main profile and filtered views, to name a few. My preferred option is to have one main account (which may require cross-domain tracking) and then have filtered profiles as well, allowing you to look at the performance of individual countries.

Is MVP a good option for internationalisation?

I’ve seen a lot of retailers bootstrap their internationalisation project, with the intention of creating an MVP and then adapting as they grow and invest.

There’s an argument that this represents a good option because it gives you the opportunity to learn as you go and invest into channels that are working. However, it usually means that you’re less likely to build a brand, which is usually built off the back of activity that isn’t ‘directly’ profitable, such as PR, TV advertising and offline advertising.

Branded traffic should really be a component of the end goal; it converts best (as the user knows the brand represents a fix for their need), brings in more ‘retainable’ users, doesn’t have a cost once they arrive, and is a more long-term, sustainable route to sales.

I’ve seen one really good example of the value of brand developing over the last few years. There are two retailers, probably with relatively similar marketing budgets, one grew faster at the start because they allocated budget to channels that are more likely to deliver a short-term ROI, such as affiliate marketing and paid search. The other invested heavily in PR, TV advertising and offline marketing. Today, the second retailer is far larger than the first because of their brand, which has also impacted their direct acquisition channels as well.

Are there any quick routes to market?

Easy wins are difficult to come by in retail at the best of times, let alone when you’re entering a new market, but there could be some opportunities to gain exposure within existing retail environments.

Marketplaces could be a good option – obviously you’ll need to take a hit on margin and there are overheads attached to set-up and maintain listings, but they represent a good way to get presence and orders quickly. Amazon marketplace has a global presence and auction sites such as La Redoute (France), Price Minister (France), Otto (Germany), HitMeister (Germany), Sears (US), New Egg (US) and Dang Dang (China), could be good options.

In addition to the larger marketplaces, you may also find smaller, more niche marketplaces that would be happy to allow you to sell your products. You could also look at working alongside drop-shippers to generate some orders quickly – obviously you’re going to need to take a hit on margin, but it’s a good way of getting some traction quickly – especially if you’re selling branded goods.

7 Conclusion

To conclude, entering new markets can be highly lucrative and a great way to generate more revenue and new customers.

However, at the same time, it also represents an easy way to lose a lot of money. The key to internationalisation is research. You shouldn’t be entering a new market without fully understanding how much demand there is, how competitive the different channels are, who your biggest competitors are, when key seasonal peaks are (and how big they are), how and where people are buying (this will impact channel performance), and who your potential customers are.

It’s really important to know more than just how much revenue an industry equates to over a year. You need to know how much of that is attributed to individual brands, when the key trading periods are, who the competitors are within each channel and you should be able to identify what your key barriers to entry are.


Additional reading 

Article update
This article was originally published under Session Digital, which unified with Inviqa in June 2016. For more information about the unification visit