Content Abroad: Building a Sustainable Content Model Outside of the U.S.

Article ImagePublishers, take heed: You no longer have to color within the lines. In today's world, the interconnected global economy has erased boundaries with the help of ecommerce. Formerly provincial businesses have taken the international route to success by setting up operations and offering products and services in key overseas locations. Consequently, it's easy to understand why content providers get the itch to go globe-trotting.

Spurred by an entrepreneurial drive and the prospect of higher profits, many American content-creating companies look beyond their borders for fertile terrain and attempt to map out a plan for success. Some make it-others don't. But the ones that stand the best chance of surviving and thriving typically scout the territory carefully and recognize both the opportunities and the challenges of operating abroad.

Fish-Out-of-Water Factors

In many ways, expanding into non-native nations is easier today, as international trade restrictions have been eased and more consumers across the planet are digitally connected to devices and online channels. But that doesn't mean the hurdles aren't high. From difficult language translations, shifting economic conditions, lack of internet access, and hardware and software issues to changing governmental regulations, monetization and payment obstacles, and piracy threats, publishers have to overcome many barriers abroad.

The first key to success is translating your brand and its products to a foreign market--literally and figuratively. It's not enough to use language translator software and hope for the best; experts recommend enlisting linguistic professionals who can parse through your content and ensure more accurate translations that are sensitive to cultural and vernacular idiosyncrasies indigenous to a particular area.

"One of the biggest hurdles we see is the need to communicate in language, in context, to a global audience with messages that have been built around U.S. audiences. The need to localize becomes a challenge, regardless of the vertical or product," says Paul Parreira, CEO and founder of the New York-based Co. Cue, which localizes and builds content in-language for American-based companies seeking to expand abroad.

Another big barrier to entry is the fact that many countries, including China, Burma, and Muslim nations in the Middle East, censor and bar access to content that espouses political ideas or opinions at odds with the government. They may also block content deemed morally questionable and sexually suggestive. Privacy concerns overseas can also be tricky. China and South Korea, for instance, require users to register for various internet services using their real names.

"While these laws may limit fake reviews and forced transparency to the consumer, they can pose a massive risk for identity theft. They also have unfortunate side effects such as fear of reprisal and termination of your accounts because you spoke freely and the government did not agree with what you had to say," Jess Tiffany says, president of Marketing and Networking University in Minneapolis.

Of course, the bottom-line issue is the bottom line: Monetizing content abroad can be difficult, depending on the territory, as consumers in some countries balk at paying for anything online, and accepted forms of ecommerce payment can vary. The Netherlands, for instance, relies predominantly on the iDEAL payment system, while WeChat is popular in China.

Despite these concerns, it's worth taking a closer look at a few different regions of the globe to examine the publishing possibilities, prospects, and pitfalls.

Spotlight on Europe

When content providers and publishers dream of expanding into overseas markets, they often look first to Europe, where many companies have carved out a successful content business. This is particularly true in Germany, which continues to be among the top five publishing markets globally and No. 1 in continental Europe, boasting several of the world's biggest publishing houses, including the Holtzbrinck Group and Bertelsmann.

Katherine Allen, business development director for Information Today Ltd. in Oxford, U.K., says Europe can be a worthy content destination, provided you can cater to many different cultures. "There are 23 working languages in the European Union, and you also have some countries with multiple languages within them, such as Switzerland and Belgium," Allen states. "It gets really complicated, and you have to determine if your content is going to stick to English or target another language."

Additionally, "there are huge cultural differences between what somebody sitting in London or Paris may be interested in compared to somebody in southern Italy or Greece. You can't assume Europe is one great homogenous entity, because it isn't," she says. "There are common interests we share, such as music and football teams, that bring us together. Publishers need to find those points of common interest, carefully target their audience, and make sure that their message is appropriate for them."

Complicating matters for publishers in this region is that the European Commission (EC) has imposed or proposed a number of strict rules, including a proposed overhaul of copyright laws to enable easier purchasing and legal use of content across the block of European Union (EU) countries. Dubbed the "Digital Single Market Strategy," this proposal would allow online subscriptions to services and paid digital content to become portable and accessible across European borders.

In recent years, major digital content players such as Facebook, Google, and Apple have been under the microscope in Europe due to regulatory squabbles over antitrust issues, privacy concerns, and taxation. In fact, Google was recently slapped with a record antitrust fine of more than $3 billion from the EC, which charged the company with infringing on EU competition rules by unfairly favoring Google services such as Google Maps and its search engine.

The EC is also considering new rules to better manage how online players-such as Amazon and Facebook-operate in the EU. It is also proposing new copyright rules that could obligate businesses such as Google to compensate online publishers when their content is used, including content in Google News-its news aggregation service.

Spain and Germany implemented new "ancillary copyright" restrictions mandating payment to news publishers from third-party online aggregation services that publish excerpts in tandem with story links. But the new laws backfired, as Google nixed its Google News service completely in Spain, and German publishers relented on ancillary copyright after they realized Google would discontinue posting excerpts from their news articles.

To further muddy the transatlantic waters, in 2014, Europe's highest court granted citizens the "right to be forgotten," an important privacy ruling that requires search engines such as Google to comply with requests from users to delete links to their personal information. The impact of the law on publishers is still being interpreted by experts, but some fear it may be used to suppress information of importance to the public-including information about elected officials.

Despite these and other challenges, Europe can boast of many publisher success stories. "Consider the success of Daily Mail and The Guardian," says Allen. "The former has become the most visited newspaper website in the world while also globalizing a lot of their coverage. And if you look at The Guardian, they come at it from quite a quirky British perspective. That's a lesson for publishers to learn: Don't try to be something that you're not. Build on your individuality rather than trying to be all things for all people."

Padma Gillen, partner at London-headquartered Scroll, an agency that provides content services for the British government, says European consumers have low patience for poor-quality content. "They want something easy and quick to read, intuitive to find your way through, and easy to find in a search," says Gillen. "And you always have to have a call to action that invites users to take the next step so that you're building a relationship over time and trying to encourage them into the next stage of engagement."

Expanding Into Asia

For many publishers, China continues to be the most alluring overseas market, due in large part to its population of more than 1 billion people and robust economic growth. Penguin Random House, Oxford University Press, Central South Publishing & Media Group Co. Ltd., and HarperCollins are among the big name publishers now operating in China and contributing to what the International Publishers Association estimates is a $24 billion book market.

But companies eager to set up shop in this land of opportunity must take heed: China recently imposed new restrictions preventing foreign companies or foreign joint ventures from publishing and disseminating online content within its borders without approval from the government. Foreign-owned businesses are allowed to collaborate with a Chinese partner to publish online content in China, but only with government permission.

"Generally speaking, any digital content hosted outside mainland China by a non-China-based entity could be at risk of being blocked from Chinese consumers if seen as inappropriate," says Joonas Jukkara, Shanghai-based content marketing manager for Dezan Shira & Associates and Asia Briefing, publisher of Asia Briefing. "Now, any entity posting content online without a proper license is at risk of having its website taken down. However, it is yet to be seen how this would affect publishers who are hosting their content outside of the mainland. Some of the larger news sites-such as The New York Times and Bloomberg-have been blocked before, and Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms remain completely blocked."

Jukkara says the ambiguity of these new restrictions makes it risky for foreign publishers/content providers to rely on Chinese audiences to build a sustainable content model. "In our case, we benefit from being based in China and closer to the source of the information. When covering an opaque market such as China or India, having operations in these countries is crucial to ensure that the audience gets correct and up-to-date information," says Jukkara.

Asia Briefing also doesn't rely on advertising revenue or a paywall; instead, its content aims to capture potential leads for the parent company. "American publishers are often very good at making the front end of their platforms user-friendly, but they could learn from publishers working in more emerging regions when it comes to creating new monetization models," says Jukkara. "Find ways to use your current strengths and package them so that they remain attractive for the customer."

Tapping Into Other Territories

Content success stories can be found in many different corners of the globe-as well as cautionary tales. South Korea enjoys a robust publishing industry-with its book market worth more than $3 billion a year, a figure that is anticipated to grow by up to 30% during the next few years-according to the media research firm Nielsen. Indonesia boasts around 1,400 publishers, including Agromedia, Gramedia, Penebar, Erlangga, and Mizan, which have contributed to publishing 32,000 titles in 2014, based on Nielsen data. Turkey has experienced even larger publishing growth, thanks in part to a sizable young population-with the nation hosting 1,800 publishing houses churning out 40,000-plus titles annually to produce a sales volume exceeding $1.5 billion a year, per the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Mexico, meanwhile, is being explored by many publishers/content providers today, including Grupo Planeta and Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. These and other companies seek to capitalize on the fact that Spanish is the world's third most commonly spoken language. They're also enamored of Mexico because Argentina is under the yoke of new import/export market regulations, and Spain has suffered a 40% decrease in publishing industry revenue following the global financial meltdown, according to Nielsen data.

On the other hand, the Arab League, consisting of 22 territories and countries, can be a difficult region for publishers to make progress in. "Printed content is censored and requires government approval before printing in Saudi Arabia," says Yasser Bahjatt, author and founder of Yatakhayaloon, a small publishing firm based in the United Arab Emirates. "Before a publisher is allowed to publish a book, he is required to submit manuscripts to Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information." As you might imagine, that kind of government control does not bode well for digital content.

Getting paid for digital or print content in his part of the world can be a frustrating experience. "Consumers in Arabia are not comfortable with online payments or even paying for digital content and very few even have credit cards, which are highly regulated by the Saudi government. The perception is that online payments are not secure, and the concept of credit is negatively perceived because of religious beliefs about interest," says Bahjatt, whose company recently had a bestseller, HWJN, which sold 150,000 physical copies, but only 1,000 digital copies. "We think it's a psychological thing-consumers do not feel a value for content if they cannot physically hold it."

For a good indication of where content providers are likely to enjoy the most unfettered access to consumers without excessive government interference, experts recommend looking to countries ranked near the top of the 2016 World Press Freedom Index (

Stepping Out of Your Content Comfort Zone

Think you've got what it takes to effectively catapult your content brand outside of your familiar red, white, and blue turf? The good news, say the experts, is that U.S. companies can bring many positive qualities to an offshore publishing push. The bad news is that many details can get lost in translation, and it can be downright difficult to build and nurture a completely new audience.

"America has really high standards of flagship journalism, high-caliber writing, and strong investigative reporting commitment to building a story," says Allen. "A lot can be learned from the entrepreneurial nature of America's culture and the attitude of not being afraid to fail, trying new things, and moving on if they do fail." However, a can-do spirit can only get you so far.

Ultimately, building a sustainable content model abroad requires careful due diligence, proven publishing tactics, and a strong investment in the necessary resources. "Be original and post daily on subjects and products that resonate with your audience. Don't try to compete only with U.S.-based websites-build a unique voice around your product," Parreira says.

Lastly, be prepared to change with the times and the topography. "The secret to success for any digital publisher is the ability to adapt," Jukkara says. "The content has to adapt to fit the needs of the audience, the operational side has to adapt to fit the possible infrastructural challenges of the region, and the business model has to adapt to the regulatory and competitive environment."  

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)