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

Andre Oentoro
Cultural Dimensions

Across the world, there are different ways to communicate, both actively and passively. Messages that work in the United States (a historically individualistic culture) may be a disaster in a more collective culture like Japan or China. International retail marketers need to understand cultural nuances to create successful paid search programs that "click.” Thankfully, Geert Hofstede conducted extensive research into the field of cross-cultural communication, and his findings have influenced various fields, including business marketing, since the 1960s.

So why do I take this so seriously? This is extremely important to consider when working with international clients. Below is a summary of Hofstede’s theory and some insights into the behavior of various countries and cultural groups important when it comes to paid search.

Cultural Dimensions Theory and Real-World Insights

Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication. It describes the way that the culture of a society influences the values and behaviors of the people within that particular group. It can be applied to a variety of scenarios in order to get a better understanding of the actions and beliefs of various 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 he compared their responses to the results of similar surveys conducted in 50 other countries and 3 regions. At the time, it was one of the largest cross-cultural studies ever conducted.

His observations of the major differences between cultures were published in a database that many different fields still consult to this day; the international business (specifically marketing) and communication industries being some of the most interesting.

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 6 specific dimensions relating to human values:

  • Individualism-collectivism
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Power distance (strength of social hierarchy),
  • Masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation)
  • Indulgence versus self-restraint
  • 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 6 dimensions mentioned above:
Ten differences between short-term and long-term

There is a scoring system within the Cultural Dimensions Theory that Hofstede uses to rate countries in each of the 6 dimensions that he analyzes. A score of 1 is the lowest and 120 is the highest, and knowing this you can look at any country and see how they’re rated in each value dimension in comparison with the other countries in 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 6 vs. the United States which scored a 91), thus determining 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 much more aligned with families and tight knit groups.

The following graph shows which countries are more individualistic vs. 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 (ie: China and Mexico).

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

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

Customers behave differently depending on where in the world they are located, 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 dimension of individualism vs. collectivism affects buying decisions because each group holds different values - individualistic societies are more price-sensitive, for example, while 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, and 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 have been discovered and which stem from Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions.

Cultural Insights and Recommendations

Landing pages

All landing pages should be localized; all advertisements should be in the local language and all content needs to take into account cultural differences and sensitivities. If you do this, your SEO will improve and 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 your research and note them.

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

Localized keywords

Use specific keywords for different cultures, ie: cell phone for the US, mobile for the UK, “handy” for Germany. This should be easy enough to determine if you run a keyword report to find out which keywords people are using to search for your business. Wordstream suggests using the AdWords Keyword Tool to find 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 check out the volume.

Tailor your CTA across cultures

Customers in the EMEA don’t like ads that have been written by non-native speakers and then translated by a machine. People in France only use French when searching for and buying products online, and capitalizing the first letter of a word increases your chances of the ad standing out in Germany. Check out the user Locations tab in AdWords to find out where the people live who are clicking on your advertisements, and then make it your business to learn about their culture in order to best optimize your CTAs to engage them.

For example, the following are also some insights into the purchasing behavior of several different cultures as well as some strategies you can enact to fulfill their differing needs and expectations:
Purchasing behavior of several different cultures

International Business Best Practices

Separate your campaigns by different languages

Any time you want to conduct a language experiment (or any experiment for that matter) on your advertising campaign, you’ll want to separate it from your other campaigns so that 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 different dialects

In Spanish alone there are 6 different words that mean “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. Consider enlisting the help of Google Translate or a native speaker to ease in 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 a desktop, whereas users in the United States prefer to search from mobile but convert from a desktop. 68% of Hispanics who are searching on Google do it from a mobile device.

In the end, understanding cultural differences is an important aspect in the success of international business, especially in terms of paid search. Know which cultures you want to target with your business 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, and then it’s up to you to do your research and conduct experiments to determine the best ways to reach your target audience. Just remember that a “one size fits all” approach won’t work here, and you’ll need to tailor your campaign to meet the differing needs of various countries.

Amanda DiSilvestro is the Editor-in-chief for Plan, Write, GO. She has been writing about all things digital marketing, both as a ghostwriter, guest writer, and blog manager, for over 10 years. Check out her blogging services to learn more!

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Andre Oentoro is the founder of Breadnbeyond, an award winning explainer video company. He helps businesses increase conversion rates, close more sales, and get positive ROI from explainer videos (in that order).


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