“Multiregion Madness”

by Jeff S. Pease

Companies that have operations in multiple regions have unique issues when it comes to creating a flexible and valuable web presence. When it becomes necessary to translate a single, unified web presence across language and cultural boundaries, special care is required in the planning stages to ensure that the workflow used to administer the site has the flexibility to serve both the needs of the company as a whole as, well as the company’s regional offices.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to gloss over the challenges of creating a multiregional web site. This article serves to demonstrate some of the special challenges involved with creating an effective multiregional web site.

The First Point

Before we begin, a brief note of clarification: the term I’m using for the purposes of this article, ’multiregional web site’ is a bit different in meaning than the more obvious ’multilingual web site’. A multilingual web site is simply one whose message is duplicated and translated into one or several different languages – the structure of the site tends to remain identical (or very similar) similar between languages. Since the site’s structure and underlying message are constant between languages, it is relatively straightforward to translate this into a supporting database structure simply by adding a couple of language flags to the database.

A multiregional site, on the other hand, is a site that’s designed to be viewed from different regions (whose spoken language may, in fact, be different) which, because of cultural differences or a different range of available product offerings, may have fundamentally different content structures for both. The reason I’m harping on this is that most people (clients and developers both) don’t differentiate between multilingual and multiregional sites, which is dangerous because of the vastly different scope requirements of each. Make sure that all parties understand what the client is asking for before proceeding, please.

Who’s In Charge Here?

For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that we have a client called WidgetCo with largish offices in Canada, New York, and Brazil. The job of preparing content for the new WidgetCo website has fallen to the head honcho marketing director at Corporate HQ in New York – we’ll call him Wally - who develops and/or edits the available content (trumpeting WidgetCo’s newest offering, the Super Widget) until it’s correct and on message. After a vigorous period of aligning marketing profiles and polishing WidgetCo’s message to a perfect, mirror-like shine, Wally forwards the masterful copy to the regional offices in Canada and Brazil for translation, after which it will be posted on the appropriate sections of the website for the entire world to enjoy. Wally eagerly anticipates his upcoming raise for doing such a great job (he plans to buy a fishing boat).

The problem, of course, is that the Super Widget is not yet available in Brazil (due to regulatory issues with the Super Widget, the Super Widget’s slower predecessor, Hyper Widget, will continue to be the state-of-the-art in Brazil for the time being). Wally gets a frantic call from the Brazil office saying that they still need to push the Hyper Widget and don’t want to promote the Super Widget for fear of causing a clamor. Wally relents since he doesn’t particularly want to cause a clamor either. Later that afternoon, Canada calls and wants to push their line of Boxing Day commemorative Widget accessories in the online store and to promote them heavily on the front page over Wally’s carefully considered, expertly worded message. Wally agrees (who can compete with Boxing Day?).

Wally pauses and thinks back to a simpler time when all he had to worry about was formatting the coversheets for the Fax machine.

The point, of course, is that regional offices often have a legitimate need to influence the content of their web site, even if it means in some sense diluting the message being pushed by Corporate HQ. The question facing poor Wally is how to maintain a working balance between Corporate and Regional marketing issues?

Making the WidgetCo Web Site Work

WidgetCo has many options, in this case. Of course, there are the polar extremes of either transferring content development duties solely to either Corporate HQ or taking Corporate HQ out of the picture entirely giving the regional offices carte blanche. Both of these are highly inflexible options, and probably had something to do with creating the environment that led WidgetCo to want to redesign their website in the first place ("Wally! The regional offices are rioting because they can’t promote their Boxing Day merchandise. Do something quick!").

A more flexible option is to create a content management system that allows Wally to create the Corporate HQ-level content and that allows the regional sites to decide exactly how to present it based on their own unique circumstances. In e-commerce situations, Corporate HQ can define and centralize product descriptions, photos and pricing, allowing the regional offices to use those values as jumping off points to create their own promotions and account for availability issues in their region. This way, the various regional offices can maintain easy consistency with the corporate message and branding while promoting their own messages as their needs require.

In any such system, there need to be some choices made as far as what limits, if any, should be placed on the regional offices when allowing them to override content from Corporate. However, extreme care must be taken to keep Corporate controls from becoming Draconian to the point where the regional web site become difficult to update and eventually, stale. The goal, always, is effectiveness.

Back in the Real World

Every company behind every multiregional web site is different, and the circumstances that will drive their design will vary widely. In some cases, regional offices will be content with updating a single page, or with updating a single section of the site (such as an event calendar), or otherwise restricting themselves to a particular corner of Corporate’s vision for the site. In these cases, the above scenario can be scaled back considerably.

However, in situations where regional offices have some degree of autonomy and require real control over the structure of a company’s website, there is no alternative but to spend some time carefully designing how the workflow for such a system should work based on the client’s unique requirements and circumstances.