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Click Culture: Exploring the Effect of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions on International Search

Across the world, there are different ways to communicate. Messages that work in the United States, a historically individualistic culture, may be disastrous in a more collective culture like Japan. International retail marketers should understand cultural nuances to create successful paid search programs that click.

Thankfully, Geert Hofstede conducted extensive research into the field of cross-cultural communications in the 1960s. His findings have influenced various fields since then, including business marketing.

At NetElixir, we’ve utilized the principles of his findings to gain valuable insights into the purchasing behavior of consumers around the world. Any business looking to succeed in the international market should consult his theory before creating an initial global search campaign. NetElixir is one of the few search marketing agencies to build this model into our international client campaigns.

Why do we take it so seriously? We’ve compiled a summary of Hofstede’s theory with insights into behavior, within various countries and cultural groups, as it relates to paid search.

Cultural Dimensions Theory and Real-World Insights

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication. It describes how a society’s culture influences the values and behaviors of the people within that particular group. It can be applied to a collection of scenarios to better understand the actions and beliefs of diverse cultural groups.

Hofstede began his research in 1965 when he founded the research department at IBM Europe. He surveyed 117,000 IBM employees about national values and then compared their responses to the results of similar surveys conducted in 50 other countries and three regions. At the time, it was one of the largest cross-cultural studies ever conducted.

His observations on the major differences between cultures were published in a database that numerous fields still consult to this day. As you can imagine, this includes the international business (specifically marketing) and communication industries.

While it was originally developed with the intention of studying employee values, Hofstede has since expanded the study’s reach to be more inclusive. The theory now includes the study and analysis of six specific dimensions related to human values:

  1. Individualism-collectivism
  2. Uncertainty avoidance
  3. Power distance (strength of social hierarchy)
  4. Masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation)
  5. Indulgence versus self-restraint
  6. A long-term orientation that covers aspects of values not discussed in the original framework.

The following screenshot depicts the major differences between short-term and long-term societies, all of which can relate to the six dimensions mentioned above:

There’s a scoring system within the Cultural Dimensions Theory that Hofstede uses to rate countries in each of the six dimensions mentioned. One (1) is the lowest score and 120 is the highest. Knowing this, you can look at any country and see how they’re rated in each value dimension, in comparison with the other countries within the study.

For example, North American and European countries score very high for individualism. Canada has a rating of 80 on the scale, whereas Eastern countries score very low in this area. Guatemala has a rating of six (6) versus the United States which scored a 91. These higher scores from the United States and Canada determines that their values are grounded more in collectivism.

In individualistic countries, people are prone to make their own decisions and act in looser groups. Collectivism is more group oriented. They rely on others to help make decisions and are better aligned with families and tight-knit groups.

The following graph shows which countries are more individualistic versus collectivist, with the bottom countries being more individualistic (think the U.S. and the U.K.) and the top countries being more rooted in collectivism (i.e.: China and Mexico).

So How Does This Model Apply to Business Marketing, and More Specifically, Paid Search?

As I mentioned, there are specific industries that are most interested in Hofstede’s theory, with international retailers being one of the top fields. This is due to the ability to apply all the principles present in the cultural dimensions to the field of business marketing. Furthermore, you can gain incredibly valuable insights, especially regarding purchasing behavior across a myriad of cultures.

Customer behaviors fluctuate depending on their geographic location, especially in terms of paid search. You can no longer use a one-size-fits-all approach to international marketing if you expect to be successful. The dimensions of individualism versus collectivism affect purchasing decisions. Since each group holds dissimilar values, individual societies tend to be more price-sensitive. For example, Caucasian collective cultures care more about status, i.e. brand influence.

For example, a consumer in Germany won’t react the same way to a call-to-action (CTA) that someone in the U.S. would. The same goes for other aspects of paid search, such as landing pages and keywords. The following are some paid search insights and best practices that stem from Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions.  

Cultural Insights and Recommendations

Landing pages

All landing pages should be localized. Simply put, all advertisements should be in the local language and all content needs to take into account cultural differences and sensitivities. If you perform these tasks, your SEO will improve. Google will recognize that your page has been optimized and your ads are less likely to bounce. That being said, there are exceptions to this and it’s important to do independent research and make note of your findings, too.

For example, a 2015 Google study found that only 1 in 5 Hispanic searchers will look for a Spanish site after landing on an English one.

In addition, if your business is located in a culturally diverse location, it may be worthwhile to advertise in common languages present in the area. Use a search query report to find out which language(s) people are using to find your business.

Localized Keywords

Use specific words for different cultures, i.e. “cell phone” for the US, “mobile” for the UK, and “handy” for Germany. This can easily be determined by running a keyword report to find out what keywords people are using for search for your business. You could use using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool to find out search volumes for words within specific locations. Create a list of a few important keywords for your business in the language you want to test and review the volume.

Tailor your CTA Across Cultures

Customers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) don’t like ads written by non-native speakers which are then translated by a machine. People from France prefer searching in French when browsing or purchasing products online. Capitalizing the first letter of a word increases your chances of the ad standing out in Germany.

Check out the User Locations tab in Google AdWords to find out where people who are clicking live. Then, make it a best practice to learn their culture in order to optimize your CTAs to engage them.

image credit: support.google.com

For example, the following shows insights into the purchasing behavior of several contrasting cultures as well as some strategies you can follow to fulfill their differing needs and expectations:

International Business Best Practices

Separate your campaigns by different languages

Anytime you want to conduct a language experiment on your advertising campaign, separate it from other campaigns so the results don’t skew your existing efforts. Don’t use the same budget, as your results will vary across cultures.

If you decide to incorporate another language into your advertising, don’t forget about separate dialects  

In Spanish alone, there are six words for “bus” depending on which Spanish-speaking country you’re looking at. This is important to factor in when choosing keywords to incorporate into your campaign. Enlisting the help of Google Translate or a native speaker could ease this process.

Know which countries prefer mobile vs. desktop searches and plan accordingly  

Most international users are more likely to search from a mobile device than Google, whereas users in the United States prefer to search from mobile but convert from a desktop. 68% of Hispanics searching on Google use a mobile device. (You can see these differences in the screenshot below.)

As the screenshot indicates, there was recently a large boost in mobile ad performance in Brazil, whereas, desktop search was up 10% in Japan. To reiterate, it’s critical to know what country your consumers are searching from and then study their search behavior extensively to target your campaign better.

In the end, understanding cultural differences is a significant aspect in the success of international business, especially in terms of paid search. Know what cultures you want to target and make an effort to understand their values.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory can aid you in understanding the underlying values of different cultures in comparison to other countries. It’s up to you to conduct your own research and experiments to determine the best ways to reach your target audience. Keep in mind that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work here. You’ll need to take the time to tailor campaigns to meet the changing needs of people in different geographic locations.
Join us for our May 12 webinar, The Future of Search Marketing, with our CEO, Udayan Bose, and guest analyst, Collin Colburn from Forrester. Learn how Hofstede’s theory can help spell success for your future. Register for our webinar today!