The Technology Barrier for International Digital Marketing

Old PhoneThink back ten years and think about the consumer technology on offer. No doubt it’s vastly different to the current offering. Now think back another ten years and it’s no doubt even more different.

Technology has changed the way we communicate with each other, the way we plan our lives and the way we spend our time. Mobile, along with the internet has created a 24/7 approach to communication, allowing us to chat, question, inform and argue whenever and wherever.

Internet connectivity has spread all over the world and coverage will no doubt improve greatly in the coming years. New technology like mobile has made the internet far more accessible as now people can get online with just a phone, rather than a £2,000 computer.

Along with the increase in mobile and internet penetration across the globe, we have to take into account the technological differences. Not all internet connections are as fast as they are in the United States and Europe. Not all screen sizes are the same size. Not all countries have more smartphones than feature phones.

Some technologies are available in all countries but only popular in some. This is true when it comes to payment services. There are parts of Africa in which mobile payments are far more popular than card and cash payments, so offering card payment in those places would be less advantageous than offering mobile payments.

The important thing to remember here, when planning your digital marketing campaigns is to not create campaigns that rely on the use of a certain technology that is either unreliable or unavailable in your target country. For examples, if you use QR codes (not that I’m a fan of these) in a country in which smartphone penetration is low, but feature phone penetration is high, there is a good chance that you’ll have a very low response rate.

If you are directing customers to a web page with lots of video and graphics, but targeting the campaign at a country or city with poor internet speed, you’re likely to have a lot of frustrated customers, and a low conversion rate.

Equally, if you are targeting a country at the forefront of consumer technology, if you use old technology without even touching on more modern approaches, you may seem outdated. However, this is something that you can always measure, as if you still get conversions through the older approaches and technology, it’s worth continually using them. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

As I will explain in more detail in this chapter, it is vital that you have an understanding of the available, popular and reliable technologies in each of the countries you are targeting.


The first thing to consider is the hardware that is common, reliable and in-use amongst your target customers in your target country. There have been studies to show the penetration of various pieces of hardware in countries around the world, so the data is often there for you to refer to before starting your campaigns.

Let’s look at mobile penetration first of all. This is the amount of mobile phones in the country compared with the amount of people. As some people could have more than one phone, it is possible to have a penetration of over 100%. Also, mobile penetration includes all types of mobile phones, including feature phones and smart phones.

First, let’s look at China. With a huge population, China has boomed recently in terms of technology. The country has its own smartphone manufacturers including Xiaomi, creating affordable smartphones to consumers in China and other countries.

According to Worldometers, the population of China in 2016 was a huge 1.38 billion, or to be more precise, 1,383,332,323. According to Statista, the amount of mobile phone subscriptions in China in December 2016 was 1,321,930,000. So that’s 1.32 billion. We can already see that the mobile phone penetration must be close to 100%, but not quite. When we calculate the percentage, we can see that China had a mobile penetration rate of 95.56% in 2016.

What can we learn from this? The most obvious thing to take away is that if you are targeting a campaign at Chinese consumers, make it mobile-friendly. This isn’t the full picture, however as we need to see the smartphone penetration too. There may be countries with a 90-100% mobile penetration rate but only a 10% smartphone penetration.

According to Pew Research Centre, China has a smartphone penetration of just 58%. Still this is over 50%, and is significant (compare it to the United States at 72% and Uganda at 4%). We also need to take into account that the urban areas are likely to have higher smartphone penetration that the rural areas. But it is still worth considering more traditional forms of mobile marketing including SMS when targeting non-urban Chinese consumers.

Internet penetration is another useful statistic. Again, according to Pew Research Centre, China has an internet penetration of 65%. This statistic is important when looking at the approach to take. I.e. do you take a traditional approach or digital?

Let’s look at another country: The African country of Nigeria. According to the 2014 population was 177,155,754 with 167,371,945 mobile phones, giving it a mobile penetration rate of 94.6%. According to Pew Research Centre, Nigeria has a smartphone penetration of just 28%, showing us that there are lots of feature phones, but not so many smartphones. Pew Research Centre also reports that the internet penetration is 30%, meaning campaigns using SMS and very basic internet services may be the way to go when out of urban areas or for as much coverage as possible.

In contrast, we can look at the penetration rates of the United States. According to the 2014 population was 317,874,628 with 327,577,529 mobile phones in the country, giving it a mobile penetration of 103.1%. According to Pew Research Centre, The United States has a smartphone penetration of 72%, and an internet penetration of 89%. When targeting the United States, using the latest technology could be the best option.


There are two main parts to this section: Firstly, the on-device software and secondly the online software.

The on-device software includes internet browsers and operating systems. For example, if you know that a certain internet browser is used by everyone in a certain country, you need to make sure your online campaigns and websites display well on it. If a certain operating system is popular in a country, then apps would need to be designed for it. If you are targeting somewhere in which Android isn’t used by anyone, then promoting an app for it isn’t going to be very useful. Instead you need to create apps for the operating systems that are in use.

As for the online software, the most popular search engine in that country is something that is likely to have a big impact on your digital marketing strategy. I’ll go into this in more detail later on as I cover international SEO, but it is worth knowing as much as possible about the most popular search engines in the countries you are targeting.

Social media sites are important too. This is another area in which I will cover in more detail later in this book, this time in the international social media marketing section. Not all countries use the same social media sites as we do in Europe and the United States, so this is something that you’ll need to take into account.

The level of sophistication in the social media websites can vary too. For example, some networks offer live streaming, but others don’t. Some offer video, others don’t. You’ll need to know whether the most popular social networks in your target countries allow for this sort of media before creating your strategy.

How do I use all of this information?

The technology that is used by your potential audience in any country you are targeting can have a big impact on the outcome of your campaigns, so you need to adjust your strategy to suit. The areas that you need to look at in detail, and adjust for each individual country are:

  • The communication tools (email, advertising, social media, SMS etc.)
  • The type of content (images, video, text)
  • The length of the communication
  • The size of your campaign content (in bytes)

The communication tools you use should initially be based on what is used on the country you are targeting. So if there is a high mobile penetration but not many smartphones and a low internet penetration then SMS may be the preferred method over email.  If people have smartphones, but the trend is to use just mobile apps, rather than using an internet browser, then a mobile app could be the way forward.

The type of content depends a lot on the speed of the internet. If you are targeting people who typically have poor 4G coverage and very slow internet connections, then large video files may not be the best way to go. However, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have good internet speeds (generally) so for someone to watch a video on their 4G connection, it isn’t likely to be a problem, and could have more impact than just an image.

When it comes to the length of the communication, this doesn’t necessarily mean that longer text isn’t good to use due to technology, but if you are choosing to use SMS for example, as the mobile rate is high but internet and smartphone penetration low, then you need to limit your communications, so wouldn’t be able to simply copy and paste the sales pitch or marketing content from email campaigns used for other countries.

When looking at the size of your campaigns, think about the internet speed and reliability in your target country. If you are targeting a country with an app, and that country has slow internet, then your app needs to be small.

About the Author

Patrick is a digital marketing consultant with around 10 years' experience, covering SEO, PPC, social media, email and user experience.

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