Taking your mobile app global

Matt Raoul · October 17, 2018 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/4c5f

The world is shrinking and the mobile audience is growing but going global isn't easy

The world is shrinking. Not literally. (Well, maybe literally. I’m not a scientist.) The world is shrinking culturally, and it’s opening our eyes to just how big the global audience is. The number of mobile phone users is estimated to be 255 million in the US next year. It’s 5 billion globally. You can do the math on the size of this opportunity.

Companies are scrambling to understand the value of new audiences and the task of localizing their product. For some, this initially means translation. It’s simply an effort in copying and pasting every piece of copy you’ve toiled over getting just right into Google Translator. So easy! And then everyone around the world who doesn’t speak English will read your poetry and your product will just… speak to them.

As your eyes widen while you imagine your growing user base, you’ll end up hitting the translate button a few too many times and “Sign up to view your memories” will morph into “Commit to seeing your timely end” and you will have successfully creeped out everyone in the Philippines.

Okay, this is in fact just a far-fetched example but my point remains. Understanding your products audience on a global scale is a hell of a lot more than just translating a copy deck. This is something we’ve learned first hand here at Timehop as we reach more people globally.

But it’s 2018. You can’t ignore the value of diversity in the experiences of your potential audience; where they are located; their cultures; how they use your product, and if bridging any of these disconnects is the right move for your product.

When is the right time to start your global domination

It can feel challenging enough to figure out your business with your current audience, that you are maybe the most familiar with, in the most ideal of settings. That can take time, so how do you know when you’re ready to make your next big debut on the world stage?

Well, if you’re not thinking about it yet then you’re already behind. Steven Toy, General Manager at IAC’s Apalon Mobile believes that thinking global is something you do from the onset so there’s less trial and error when the moment comes.

“Considering localization at the early stage of app ideation is absolutely fundamental to our marketplace approach,” he said. “It’s often easier to build in relevant features if you’re thinking about them up front rather than trying to jam them in afterwards. By doing that in a disciplined way, we’re hypersensitive to it out of the gate. This strategy puts us in a good position to figure out how we’re going to translate content and understand the local eccentricities of the various markets that we’re in.”

Now, this doesn’t mean you localize first thing, so take a deep breath, you’re fine. It does mean you need to get in the habit of questioning every aspect of how your product translates, both literally and figuratively, to people who are not yourself or your current user. It will only strengthen your understanding of your products current offering, and you’ll ready yourself to know when its the right time to expand.

That right time for Alex Benn, President of Turo, can’t happen though until a company has at least found product market fit. (So cross that off your startup lessons Bingo card.)

“It’s almost obvious to say if it’s not working at home then expanding and replicating a model that doesn’t have good product market fit doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.

“Then after you get beyond the first two elements of the fit and the operational scaling, you can be tactical in terms of deploying certain resources, asking yourself what do you keep locally and what do you keep as a central shared resource? That becomes very specific in terms of understanding the dynamics of any individual market.”

You want thingamabobs? I got 20…

It seems so obvious that people use products in different ways. Sometimes VERY different. Their context is completely different. The world around them can be completely different. The language they speak, the weather outside, and even what they can watch on Netflix paints a different picture for every single person’s experience.

IAC’s VPN app is a prime example of this. People in the U.S. aren’t interested in it because they can stream services like Netflix and Hulu without any problem. However in countries where content is restricted, or where security and privacy  is a more prominent issue, particularly in the Eastern Block, a VPN is much more widely used.

Your experience as someone building a product is not always the same as the experience of someone using your product. It’s important to know in every seemingly tiny aspect of the experience, how people want to use it.

“If people are not posting to Facebook, but are posting in other places, then you have to go where they are,” said IAC Apalon’s Toy. “If Facebook is not popular, then we have to rejigger our sharing features and make sure the more popular sharing options are presented first in much the same way that language gets presented by default. Because we’ve been building internationally for so long, we’ve got a rhythm, so we know what we’re going to put first, second and third as we lay out our sharing options,” he said.

Even as different countries present unique use cases, Turo’s Benn believes that apps have to know where to be consistent.

“You need to keep certain experiences consistent and uniform if they meet core fundamental commonalities around need and behavior,” he said, explaining that the fundamental need Turo is addressing is the need for transportation. “You always need to strike a balance as you think about how to sufficiently customize a product for the local geography but also sufficiently being consistent so that you really are providing a global experience rather than a purely niche, one geography experience.”

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty (“nitty gritty” is pretty hard to translate, by the way)

So let’s play this out. Let’s take your copy translations. They start off straight forward, and then you realize different locales format their dates differently and you haven’t accounted for that in your data structure or design. What about currency? It’s not just changing the units, it’s displaying clear currency exchange. Wait, is there any regulation around accepting different currencies? There probably is.

This can be a bit of a rabbit hole.

“When we moved into Canada, we had to have Canadian French available so that the app and site looked and felt correct. We also had to provide a payment service where both hosts and guests were able to transact with Canadian dollars. This seems like basic blocking and tackling, but it is absolutely core to being able to make the offer. Similarly in Germany, we have the service in German and English so you’re able to meet those customers with their home language and in Euros,” said Benn.

And while you give proper attention to changing surface level options inside the app, you’ve got to buckle up because we’re going to consider the nitty gritty now. As IAC Apalon’s Toy pointed out, with the renewed focus on data privacy and GDPR earlier this year (Have you heard of that?), understanding requirements and regulation is now baseline. An app that understands regulation in the U.S. may not be up to code to expand to a good number of markets across the Atlantic.

“GDPR is on everyone’s minds these days, and it is going to have a big impact on a business’s decisions about whether they should get into the market. Strategies that worked in the past are flat out not okay in the new GDPR era,” said Toy. “A deep knowledge and understanding of GDPR is crucial when you’re thinking about localization.”

“That has to be taken into account when you’re thinking about localization. A lot of people don’t really know and understand what GDPR is about and they’re kind of serious over there so you’ve really got to think about it.”

Global domination doesn’t happen overnight

There’s no perfect way to do it. There’s not even a perfect way to decide if you should do it. The only thing that’s undebatable is the value in exploring it, and understanding the resources it takes.

In the best case scenario, you’ll find yourself exponentially growing your audience. People from completely different markets who you never knew could be the best audience that you haven’t found yet, because you hadn’t considered them.

In the worst case scenario, you’ve grown a deeper understanding of your users, their lives, and how people want to use your product. This only means you’ll be able to better serve the market you are in, even if you decide that it isn’t the time to invest in expanding.

For us at Timehop, our efforts in localization have helped us connect with new people on a deeper level. It’s helped us understand different experiences and just how different reminiscing can be for our users.

It’s not to say that thinking globally is the answer to all your problems. I’m just glad we’re all finally thinking about it.

(Image source: statefoodsafety.com)

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Matt Raoul

CEO of Timehop Creative maker, Room escaper, Bionic chef,& Brooklynite Formerly yipit, nestio, & barbariangroup

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Matt Raoul

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CEO of Timehop Creative maker, Room escaper, Bionic chef,& Brooklynite Formerly yipit, nestio, & barbariangroup