Cultural Boundaries in Internet Marketing: High-Context & Low-Context Marketing Strategies

Although the internet has connected the world as a medium for communication, it has not changed the person bound by the culture they are a part of. At first, internet advertisers found the internet to be a great way to standardize their advertising process; it was now possible to target multiple countries with one fell click of the mouse.

Now, however, it is not possible to have an effective online campaign and not customize your strategy for different areas of the world, or even different areas of your own country. One of the big factors that you’ll need to consider when adjusting your campaigns is context – in other words, how much you need to tell your customers about your product as opposed to how much you need to show. Knowing this will be a big step towards communicating properly with your targeting audience through your display ads and landing pages. Context marketing can make all the difference in your ability to scale your branding to different regions and countries.

Low-Context: Images, Text, and Telling it Like it is

Low-context marketing is what we’re used to as English speakers, so what you would generally find effective and appealing in advertising is what this audience would like as well. Low-context cultures are those that require that you tell it upfront – little is left up to the context of the situation, the location, or the time. Ambiguity is not tolerated, so clear and simple landing pages with a strong call to action are necessary in order to retain your target audience.

Some countries that lean towards low-context are the United States, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland.

Consider these preferences when building your ads:

  • More words
  • Clean
  • Straightforward
  • Strong call-to-action
  • Clear image of the product

Facebook ads are an example of simpler ads that are focused on what the ads is saying rather than the picture in it. While flashier ads are considered more likely to get attention (and get clicked on), many low-context people find these ads annoying. A balance has to be struck between having an ad that draws attention to itself, yet not so much that people are repulsed by it.

High-Context Marketing: Visuals, Sounds, and That Flashy Stuff You Find Annoying

When you’re planning on expanding beyond Anglo-English cultures, your advertising strategy needs to change, lest you bore your target audience. High-context cultures are all about the situation, and respond much better to ambiguity, especially if it has some flair to it. Whereas low-context cultures prefer more words (to a certain extent), high-context cultures prefer more images.

China, Japan, Turkey, and Mexico are some countries that lean towards high-context.

When building your ads, think about these features:

  • Colorful
  • Large pictures
  • Celebrity endorsements
  • More dramatic angles of product

In contrast, take a look at the ads on the front page of Weibo, which is considered China’s version of Facebook. Not only is the page itself busier (and Weibo even has little one-eyed mascots!), but the ads are larger and have much more movement to them. They are similar to Myspace ads, but someone from China would be less likely to find these obtrusive.

How Companies Can Do It Right

Even companies that were once considered the prototype of standardization are taking these ideas and changing their advertising strategy to match it. Some of the biggest companies even change up their product lines to appeal to an international audience, and one of these is McDonald’s. Consider their landing pages (in this example, the front page):

Chinese McDonalds: The natural center of the landing page is a giant image of a product. There’s also a video playing on the page, with minimal text (most of which is accompanied by an image)

United States McDonalds: The natural center of the page is text (It’s a fresh new world with the Premium McWrap), with a smaller accompanying image of the product. There isn’t any movement on this version of the landing page.

Both pages are advertising new McDonald’s products, but they are giving off very different vibes that appeal to their core audience. There are always exceptions to this (check out low-context Germany’s current McDonald’s page), but the layouts generally tend to fall along these guidelines.

United States Only? You are Not Exempt

Although most people in the United States are considerably low-context, with the proportion of minorities increasing in the US (especially high-context Spanish speakers), it’s necessary to include high-context advertising strategies in your mix.

Additionally, the Southern United States tends to lean high-context, whereas the Northern part of the country tends to be low-context. In order to effectively target these segments of the population, it’s important to take the above guidelines into account.

The Case for Learning a Language

Just learning a few phrases in the language of your target audience can make all the difference for your marketing strategy. Often, the culture influences the language, and vice versa. For example, have you even thought of dropping the pronouns off of your sentences, and saying “Ate the pie” instead of “I ate the pie” or “He ate the pie”? It sounds a little bit strange for a low-context language, but for a language like Japanese or Spanish, it sounds natural to say it that way as long as no clarification is needed.

Why is knowing this important for your advertising strategy? Creating an ad is more than just translating the words into another language. Often, when directly translated, an ad will come out sound unnatural, even if it is grammatically correct. The most effective ad strategies are ones that best relate to the target audience’s wants and needs, and knowing the language in conjunction with the culture is a great way to connect. How context is used is only one facet of culture, but becoming aware of how it comes into play can increase the effectiveness of your ads and landing pages in your advertising strategy.