August 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Searching Abroad

Without leaving home, U.S. e-retailers can reach foreign shoppers with astute search marketing tactics.

Lead Photo

Cabela’s Inc. launched a paid search program in the U.K. in mid-May. In the first six weeks of the program’s launch, the multichannel retailer of hunting, fishing and camping gear increased its U.K. sales 120%.

“That’s a pretty good sign,” says Derek Fortna, Internet marketing manager. “We’re growing our international business quickly, but as we do so we want to make sure we’re doing things right.”

For Cabela’s, which has been taking orders from British consumers for decades, growing its overseas web sales starts with zeroing in on a particular market, and the United Kingdom was first on its list. To develop its U.K.-specific search strategy, Cabela’s worked with search engine marketing agency Zed Digital, whose parent company, Publicis Groupe, also owns Cabela’s U.S. search marketing service provider, Performics.

Zed advised Cabela’s on how to adjust its bidding strategy in the U.K. to take into account terminology differences, such as referring to a “salt water reel” (the term Americans use) as a “sea reel” (the term British anglers use).

Having a local partner also allowed the retailer to tie its keyword bidding to local events that it otherwise might be unaware of. For instance, a few weeks into the program Zed Digital upped its keyword bidding on boat-related phrases because of a large boat regatta that was taking place the following week. In turn, Cabela’s saw an immediate bounce in the U.K. among boat-related items.

“Our agency knows what’s going on in the country,” says Fortna. “For us it would be difficult to know or understand everything that’s going on over there. Even though the U.K. is pretty small compared to the U.S., there’s a lot going on, as well as a culture gap that we’d have to overcome.”

It’s a common problem North American online retailers face as they consider how to market to consumers in other countries. E-retailers know there’s a big opportunity, but often they’re not sure how to get themselves known in new markets without the expense of setting up shop in several countries and hiring local personnel. Effective search marketing tactics, often with the help of local agencies or employees familiar with target markets, can generate significant traffic and sales for North American e-retailers, even those that keep all their personnel at home.

The opportunity

More North American web retailers have been exploring the possibilities of selling internationally because of the recent recession, says Zia Daniell Wigder, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst. “The economic downturn has led retailers to take two approaches—either decide to hunker down or to say, ‘Yikes, we need to diversify our revenue by going global,’” she says.

Indeed, 60.3% of online retailers that are not selling internationally say they are assessing the viability of selling to consumers outside of the United States, according to a recent Internet Retailer survey.

The opportunity for growth from international sales is there as online retail continues to take root abroad, says Wigder. For instance, online sales in the U.K. are expected to grow 12.4% year over year this year—to 56 billion pounds ($US 85 billion) from 49.8 billion pounds in 2009, according to trade association the Interactive Media in Retail Group and technology and consulting company Capgemini. That follows 14% growth in 2009 and 25% growth in 2008—both of which outpaced U.S. growth, not surprising given that online retailing is more developed in the U.S. than in most other countries.

Big dividends

Similar opportunities can be found elsewhere as well. For instance, even though only half of Canada’s online population had made an online purchase as of the fourth quarter of 2009 (compared with 75% in the U.S., according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project), those who had made an online purchase spent a similar amount as their U.S. counterparts, according to a recent Forrester Research report.

Moreover, shoppers from abroad are already visiting U.S. retailers’ sites in significant numbers—regardless of whether or not those retailers are selling internationally, according to the Internet Retailer survey. The survey found that nearly a third of merchants report that at least 11% of their traffic comes from outside U.S. borders.

Having a robust search strategy can boost those numbers even higher, says Wigder. Which is why helping shoppers find a retailer’s site can pay big dividends.

And search marketing can be handled from the home office—though it helps to have employees on hand with international expertise. That approach can help a retailer avoid the considerable expense of establishing a physical presence in a foreign country. U.S. e-retailer eBags Inc. claims it became the most successful online handbag retailer in the U.K. after five years of building its presence there, but the U.K. operation never broke even, and eBags shuttered it last year.

Other e-retailers are taking a more cautious approach: staying home, but still reaching out.

Online footwear retailer Heels.com, for instance, says it attracts a significant portion of its sales from abroad, although it declined to provide details. And it does so without paid search advertising, tailoring content to specific international markets or even working with an outside vendor. “We rely on our good domain name and we also understand SEO really well,” says Eric McCoy, Heels.com CEO.

The site’s high organic search rankings stem from the copious amount of content it produces on a daily basis. For instance, every SKU on the site features seven images and extensive product details; many also feature videos. The site also has two blogs—high.heels.com and heelsandthequeencity.heels.com—that discuss products in an attempt to garner additional traffic and boost its search engine rankings, says McCoy.

Those efforts have helped the retailer secure the top organic listing for keywords such as “Heels,” “LAMB heels” and “Guess shoes” on sites ranging from Australia’s Google.com.au to the U.K.’s Google.uk to France’s Google.fr.

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