Empress's new clothes? An attendant demonstrates augmented reality shopping during Alibaba Group's 11.11 Singles' Day in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip
An attendant demonstrates augmented reality shopping during Alibaba Group's 11.11 Singles' Day in 2016. The annual event is important for China's luxury goods market. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip

Consumers and businesses in different countries are not all alike when it comes to using the web to buy and sell goods.

Websites in China, for example, are “busy.” They have lots of links and are packed with Chinese characters. Western websites, in comparison, have plenty of white space and rely less on mobile apps.

Matt Arney is the CEO and founder of Translate Now, a San Francisco-based firm that focuses on Asian language localization, website setups, Chinese payment integration and other client solutions. He says adjusting to such web-user preferences will be critical for companies selling goods and services to nations involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Arney previously helped to bootstrap and build two businesses in Asia – first the Tokyo-based software distributor act2, and then as a founding member of Beijing-based localization services company CSOFT.

He spoke with Asia Times about the opportunities by BRI for the worldwide localization industry — which helps firms adapt products, linguistically and culturally, for sale in foreign markets.

How important will localized websites and other content with cultural tweaks be to BRI-related businesses?

It’s critical to do your research before deciding to enter a new country. Websites in developing countries will mainly be accessed via mobile devices. Mobile devices in these places may not be as robust as western iPhones or Android devices so you need to account for this in your user interface/user experience design strategy.

For example, for entering the China market, we advise clients NOT to localize their desktop website. In China, 95% of users access the internet via mobile. Most users spend the bulk of their time on platforms like WeChat, Weibo and Alibaba instead of on desktop websites.

Similarly, in countries along BRI there will be preferred platforms and apps to support.

What are the top challenges in creating foreign-language websites and content for your customers? Is it language, visual design, content organization? Do clients, consumers in different countries have different web sensibilities?

Matt Arney. Photo courtesy of Translate Now

Definitely. To the Western eye, Chinese websites appear very busy — lots and lots of links, less white space and heavy use of flash for ad banners.

Why is this?

For many it can be challenging and time- consuming to input Chinese characters and links make it easier to quickly search. Also, internet speeds are still slow in China — having a single page with access to many links is preferable to launching several pages to find the content one is looking for.

A counter argument to this is that Chinese websites maximize space while Western websites waste space. For countries along the Belt and Road, there will be similar differences to account for not only in website design but also in apps or platforms used.

Do some countries, such as in Africa, pose special challenges? Why?

In the past, we’ve had communication delays with some linguists in Africa, primarily due to slow internet speeds and other infrastructure problems. Also, payments to some Africa-based linguists can be challenging. Many linguists use a popular payment app called M-Pesa which means ‘Mobile Money’ in Swahili. Those not supporting M-Pesa may be required to physically send cash to linguists in certain developing nations in Africa.

Can you give an example of how a properly designed website could help a company (foreign or Chinese) in selling goods and services to Belt and Road-related companies?

Instead of ‘websites’ it’s our belief that having a presence on e-commerce sites like Alibaba, Amazon, Tencent and Line will be hugely important for the Belt and Road. There will be other players that emerge and play a big part too.

Can you give an example of how e-commerce platforms can support business activity for BRI?

The best example is Alibaba. It has TMall Global, a cross-border marketplace for foreign brands and merchants to sell directly to Chinese consumers.

Recently, we helped co-sponsor an event in Detroit called Gateway 17. Alibaba’s Jack Ma was there to talk about opportunities for the US to sell to China.

Can you give examples of foreign companies that have used Alibaba’s TMall to successfully sell in China?

Northwest Cherry Growers (in the US) chartered fifty Boeing 777s to ship cherries to China during the 2016 season.

During a huge annual selling event in China known as ‘Singles Day’ on November 11 last year, Alibaba sold US$18 billion worth of goods in just 24 hours, 84% of it over mobile devices. Top sellers included Costco, Nike, Under Armor and over 14,000 other international brands.

Given Alibaba’s reach, we believe they will be a major e-commerce player along the Belt and Road in future years.  

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times