Introduction

BREXIT date is looming and in this age of uncertainty Irish based companies who are not actively looking to spread their business into markets outside the UK are exposing themselves to a lot of potential pain.
Consequently many of our clients have been looking to markets like Germany to take their business to the next level. And why wouldn’t they, with a population of some 80 million and a GDP of $4.171 Trillion (compared to the UK’s GDP of $2.914 Trillion), Germany is the biggest market in Europe and the 5th biggest globally, exceeded only by China, the U.S, India & Japan.

Given that Germany is just another European nation it must be straight forward to gain traction from Ireland using the digital channel? Well, there are some key issues which any Irish company needs to recognise and address before success can be achieved online when promoting your offering into Germany.
 

Mittelstand

First let me introduce you to the concept of the Mittelstand. It is a phrase which refers to small and medium enterprises and these type of companies represent a huge part of the German economy, and by extension are a likely market for your wares (particularly in a B2B setting). This grouping is not rigorously defined but is estimated to account for 50% of German GDP and employs 2/3 of the German workforce. These companies are usually family owned with lean hierarchies and operate at the top of their particular niche, often with a strong technical bent and export focus. While there is an enormous mix of companies here they are often thought of as conservative & risk averse, but flexible, with a long-term focus and a preference for dialogue. Germans are more formal in general and you should not assume that all Germans speak English, or that they are confortable doing business through English.

These facts should inform what you do online. You will need to localise your content into German. This means making it feel local by using idiomatic expressions, changing images, researching SEO keywords, and so on,  to make it work for the local market you are targeting. It is often best to work with professional translation and localization service providers in this regard.

Generally speaking you need to demonstrate your trust-worthiness and stability, show your availability and prove your capacity for long-term relationships.

A few obvious areas which you need to address to this end are:
  • Tell the story of your company – highlighting time in business, scale of success, forward thinking
  • Show off any certifications & awards your business has achieved – these confer trust and are particularly well-regarded in the German market
  • Present a  professional brand – the kind that potential customers could see themselves working with for years to come
  • Show customer reviews, testimonials and case-studies – which demonstrate your ability to deliver real solutions to real companies and individuals and show your commitment to customer service (highly valued in this market)
  • Push your local access – give some focus to either your local distributor or local sales team where they exist. If you have a member of staff who is responsible for the German market then it will not hurt to give them exposure.
 

Language

It feels very obvious to say that your online material should be in German – but it is critical in this instance. Remember that German is the third most commonly used language online and as such Germans have no need to search for solutions in English because they are so well served in their own language. If you are not providing content in German (ideally on a German URL) then you are essentially invisible to a German audience.

You should translate your product, your website and your marketing materials (e.g. case studies, whitepapers, reports, etc.) to get potential customers interested. This will help them to feel that the product was designed for them, not merely translated as an afterthought. You might also consider technical support in German as well.

There is regional variation in the use of German, both across Germany and in Austria, Switzerland and in some neighbouring countries. You must ensure you are localising your content to High German or you can expect to lose credibility in this market.

German is a language which favours the use of compound words – so when it comes to SEO activity you must consider exactly which particular words your customers are searching for. You will need to do rigorous keyword research in this regard.

German is the 3rd most commonly used language online. Germans have no need to search for solutions in English because they are so well served in their own language.

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Relying on Distributors

In some cases you may already have distributor arrangements in place in Germany. Do not cede responsibility for presenting your brand online to your distributors. You need to protect your own brand and ensure that you do not negatively impact the “global” representation of your offering because of what is being shared in one market. Rarely are distributors well-placed to make that their concern, they have their own agendas and pressures. Besides, taking ownership of this piece (albeit informed by insights from those boots on the ground) should actually be a boon to the distributors, giving them professional & localised material to easily share with potential customers. 

Promotion & Messaging

Germany is a mature market so you must understand where you stand versus your competition and you must communicate your advantage over them. As ever build a clear cohesive message that focuses on the benefits of your offering and business. Remember that because the market is so mature the German business customer is looking for innovations that have been proven to help them outperform their competitors.

When campaigning in Germany on the basis of your benefits, you should stick to the truth (for cultural & for legal reasons), deliver a logical argument and don’t over-promise. Also bear in mind that Germans tend to keep their private and business lives separate and this may drive you to tailor your message somewhat depending on your chosen channel.
 

Social media

As with other markets, Social Media is a potentially powerful channel through which to reach and influence potential customers. Any activity undertaken here MUST be transcreated (that is, not merely translated but created for the target market to achieve the original communication goals) and monitored by professional marketers with the knowledge and language skills to be effective and responsive.

 

For marketing translations, it is often necessary to freely and completely move away from the source in terms of syntax and words – by thinking about what is meant and coming up with creative solutions to express it so it fits naturally in another market

While the usual Social Media Networks are all active and present in Germany there are also some alternate channels with a strong German presence that are worth considering. Home-grown Social media networks like www.xing.de (their preferred option to Linkedin.com) may be a fruitful source of networking and business opportunities. As ever do some initial research before committing to any social network to ensure your prospective customers are actually on that channel.
 

Trade Fairs

Germany is the home of trade fairs and if you are serious about this market you will probably invest some time and effort in attending these fairs. Germans are very likely to agree to an in-person meeting at your booth if they are genuinely interested in your offering.

Give these activities exposure on your site, particularly if you are running any mini-events, meet-ups, panels and so on. Let potential customers see your “local” activity: write it up, video it, translate and share presentations. This content itself could form the basis of a lead-generation strategy. These can be expensive events but this approach can be used to generate value long after the trade fair has ended.

Also, make sure you announce which trade fairs you will be attending in the future – giving prospective customers the chance to come and see you & reinforcing the sense of your “accessibility” in the market place. 
 

Summary

This is hardly an exhaustive guide to doing business online with Germans but some quick takeaways you should consider are:
  • Use High German on a .DE URL with localised keyword research & SEO tactics to achieve German brand visibility
  • Protect that brand while enhancing & supporting your field sales teams & distributors by centralizing responsibility for site production, translation and maintenance (don’t cede this to distributors)
  • Demonstrate your longevity, capability, trust-worthiness & accessibility to a risk-averse but highly technical and engaged customer audience who operate their niche business with a long-term focus
  • Give any certifications or trade memberships due prominence on your website
  • Make your attendance at trade fairs more effective by announcing online your intention to attend in advance
  • Leverage trade shows by sharing content from those events after-the-fact on your website
  • Measure ROI
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