According to an American Express study, fewer than 5 percent of American businesses have exported their products or services to foreign countries. To Ed Marsh, founder of Consilium Global Business Advisors, this represents a huge untapped opportunity. Doubly so because there is now a very easy way for businesses to reach international customers.

Marsh will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Global Opportunity Breakfast on Tuesday, October 27, at 8:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. $40, $25 members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

“Companies that decide to go international in the past used to have to do a bunch of research first. They used to have to make an informed decision, stick a pin in a map, and say, ‘this is where we think the opportunity is and we’re going to go after it,’” Marsh says. Then followed the long process of investing resources in building the international business, flying personnel all over the world, diverting resources from domestic projects, making costly mistakes, and finding out if it was all worth it in three to five years. “That’s a very risky and speculative way to do it,” Marsh says.

For smaller firms, Marsh says digital marketing is the way to go to attract international customers. Marsh advises that companies don’t set up a foreign office as a first step in an international venture. Instead, he says, companies should make it easy for international customers to find them. Once a few international clients come in, then the company can identify specific markets for expansion, and target expansion with local language websites.

Digital marketing includes websites, E-mail marketing, social media, and search engine optimization. “When I visualize it it’s more like creating an online center of excellence around the topic where a company has expertise and helping other companies succeed,” Marsh said. “You develop thought leadership and help potential buyers find you by optimizing your content really well and creating opportunities for visitors to convert to identify themselves for some additional information.” The idea is to nurture a recognition that your company has expertise in its field.

Marsh was an early practitioner of digital marketing and has used it throughout his business career. He was born in Germany, where his father was an Army doctor. Marsh followed a military career himself, serving as an infantry officer after graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1988 with a degree in history. After the army, he followed what he describes as a “serendipitous series of jobs” in business-to-business industrial sales, working for a German capital equipment manufacturer and other companies before founding a distribution company for industrial products in India.

Marsh, now based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, says he discovered the power of digital marketing in the early 2000s when it consisted of little more than E-mail and websites. Today his approach is more sophisticated.

The key is to make oneself visible to people who are looking for your product or service. “It used to be that if somebody was selling something, they would blast information out and hope that by random chance their cold call or their magazine ad would happen to collide with the 3 percent of buyers who happened to be thinking about something at that time,” he says. “It’s inherently inefficient and particularly ineffective now that we’re all inured to most of those kinds of messages. What works is to accommodate what buyers do, and that’s open up a search engine and start looking.”

Doing this effectively starts by understanding the problem that your customers are looking to solve and offering expertise about solving that problem. “It’s important to stop flogging products and services directly,” he says. Once the visitors start coming in, then companies can use data analysis to determine who internationally might be interested in their services. Then they can make more refined efforts to go after those markets.

For example, if a company sold construction equipment and noticed a lot of interest from South America, they might tailor a specific pitch to the needs of Latin American businesses. While North American customers might be more interested in the labor-saving aspects of machinery, Latin American customers might be looking to improve the speed of their work. There might also be differences in management structure between the two markets. After doing some research, the company could set up a Spanish language website for Latin American businesses.

Marsh says there are very few businesses that have no potential to expand globally. For certain highly regulated industries it may not be worth it, but for everyone else, international growth can happen at relatively little cost, he says.

“If you start out really doing domestic and U.S. marketing very effectively, I think without exception, you can reach international markets,” Marsh says. “Every client I’ve seen do this has been amazed at how much international traffic they generate.”

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