With the nation’s political party leaders hotly debating the UK’s foreign policy, it’s worth taking time to think about yours, or rather that of your business. Are you looking to do business overseas? Here are four key points on doing so, from Steve Plummer.

As a tiny island, sat between our nearby neighbours in the EU, and our not-so-nearby neighbours in the Americas, export of goods and services has always been one of the UK’s strengths.

International trade is also a hot topic at the moment, what with the masses of pro/anti-European chatter in the press and social media, and the rise in the number of large international companies we all do business with – from Amazon to Google to PayPal.

For much of history, international trade has largely been the domain of larger companies. In the past it used to be an expensive task: trade missions to scope out potential suppliers, competitors, and customers; expensive marketing campaigns with high risk and long lead times; customers with an expectation that their suppliers would be in the same country. Thankfully much of this has changed in recent years, and the emergence and ubiquity of the web has fuelled this over the last few.

International trade and communications has gone from being difficult, complex, and costly, to something that’s almost commonplace.

There are four key steps to take you from doing nothing overseas to being in a position where you have a starter plan for taking your services international. I’ll take you through them.

1. Size up your competition and choose where to start

When choosing countries to focus on, competitors and market are the most important factors to understand:

  • Is there a market for my product or service in a given country?
  • Is the country so competitive that it will be difficult to get a foothold?

Building up a shortlist of countries should be straightforward. First, if you have a website, it’s useful to check whether you already have ‘dormant interest’. Whichever analytics tool you use, it should be able to tell you where your international visits already come from (in Google Analytics ‘Audience > Geo > Location’ will get you there).

Second, if you do not have a website, there are likely ‘safe bets’ for your product or service. As an example, the UK exported £11bn of goods to EU trade partners in February 2015, and as part of the same trade zone the EU is usually a good place to start looking for potential international opportunities. . Within that, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, and Belgium were bigger importers of UK goods.

Once you’ve put together a rough shortlist of countries, take a look at competition and the size of your market within any given country is also a relatively straightforward task. There are market research services and many expensive reports available in most sectors, but as a ‘broad brush’ first look, there are also many free tools.

A simple web search will tell you who the bigger players are in your category in any given country. Alongside that, tools such as Google Trends will give you information both on whether searches for any company (or search term) are growing or shrinking, as well as the trend in demand over the course of the average year.

Other tools for sizing up demand, and competitors, include:

  • Socialbro – reverse engineer any Twitter account to understand who its followers are, and where they’re based geographically
  • Ubersuggest – gain a very quick picture of the market for particular search terms in any region
  • Twitter and Facebook provide visibility of the number of followers, likes, retweets, any account has, all giving an indication of the popularity of a particular country (usually) in a particular region
  • Email, or even the telephone – obvious, but calling potential partners and suppliers in your shortlist countries can save many hours of laborious research.

2. Address language issues

One you’ve painted a rough picture of the countries you’d like to focus on, the next step is to define what you’ll do from a language point of view.

There are three basic options here:

  • Address English speakers only
  • Work on a case-by-case basis, staying English-only in some countries, native in others
  • Go fully native in each of your focus countries.

In most cases, working from the top to the bottom  of the list works well; in some markets it’s absolutely necessary to communicate in the local language.

Eurobarometer’s survey of 27,000 people across Europe is a fairly good guide to help you work out your approach as it breaks down the prominence of particular languages as a second language.  For example it found that English is spoken as a second language by 90% of those in the Netherlands.

If you do want to address users in a native language, there are various methods of doing so from your website. The most basic of these is to use Google or Bing translate, both of which have widgets for enabling site translation: https://www.bing.com/widget/translator .

At the more mature end of the spectrum, translators are surprisingly cost-effective and can be found through conventional channels, or on freelance-finder sites such as peopleperhour.com (currently listing 259 available translators: http://www.peopleperhour.com/freelance/translation) and odesk.com.

3. Marketing

From a marketing point of view, the first step to take is to simply make potential customers aware that you offer services internationally. In the first instance that means updating your website to make this readily apparent. For an e-commerce site you’ll need to add alternate currencies and additional billing address options.

The second step is to look at which paid marketing channels are open to you. When going international, paid channels are often better as they allow you to turn them ‘on’ or ‘off’, as opposed to SEO or content production, which requires a heavy amount of up-front work, followed by a long steady drip of results over time afterwards.

This will depend on your market, but the three most common channels to trial are:

  • Google AdWords – allows you to target English language speakers, or native speakers, in almost any country you choose
  • Facebook – allows you to define demographics to target, meaning you can pick both regions and the type of potential customer you want to reach within those regions
  • Twitter – again, allows you to target by language. Helpfully, they have tools such as ‘Lead generation cards’ which collect email addresses for you to deal with directly, rather than necessarily diverting users to a website.

There are many, many other options on top of this – from translating your site and setting up ‘hreflang’ information to allow Google to understand and rank the various international versions of your site, through to partnerships with local bloggers, magazines, or companies.

If we think of marketing as a series of steps from awareness, to interest, to an expression of desire, through to a concrete action or purchase, your focus here should initially be on testing the level of interest and desire. Spending a small amount of money on this and finding the right channel can help save lots of time and money as opposed to risking large amounts of money and expecting customers to take action immediately.

4. Fulfilment and response

The final, and perhaps most important step, is to plan how you will respond to requests, and how you will fulfil them. We’ve positioned this as the last step, but really, putting together the plan for this will also define the products or services you choose to offer to particular regions, and therefore which countries you choose and how you market to them.

Logistics: If you run an e-commerce business, this is usually simple. You sell your complete product catalogue, or a subset of it, to every country. If you sell services or other products, you may choose to deliver these directly, or you may partner with local suppliers for part of the delivery, or you may choose to deliver the services in digital formats, or even completely remotely. Skype, Google Hangouts, and other teleconferencing tools make this infinitely easier than it was just 10 years ago.

Legals: The second element of fulfilment and response is ‘legality’. The EU is going through a process of cleaning up laws around international digital trade (‘the digital single market’), but for now it is sadly important to ensure you have an understanding of your responsibilities. You’ll find websites like out-law.com and gov.uk useful in clearing up any questions you have while you’re still in the planning stages.

So those are the big steps to think about when planning how you might begin to trade internationally. Hopefully they give you a little nudge toward considering taking your products and services abroad.

So, have you decided what your foreign policy is yet? Have you already been trading overseas for some time? Get in touch in the comments below.