3 Steps to Cracking International Growth

Cracking international growth is critical for any product that aspires to grow to hundreds of millions or billions of users. One of the key challenges with growing internationally is you can’t rely on your own intuition and experiences the same way you can when trying to grow in your native country. When I joined Pinterest, it was predominantly a US based service and had only just begun the process of starting to grow internationally. Over the next few years however, the company figured out what it took to grow the product internationally and mid last year we crossed a major milestone when over 50% of our active users were based outside of the US. In this post, I’ll cover the three fundamental problems a service needs to solve to be successful growing internationally and how to solve them.

The first and most basic problem a company needs to solve is localizing the product. At the most basic level, this means setting up a system to translate every line of text in the product. What people new to growth sometimes fail to appreciate is how much work it takes to really do this well. The words used in the product are the words new users read to understand the value of the product and how to use it. If the descriptions in the product don’t make a lot of sense, users will have a hard time figuring out how to use it and will ultimately be more likely to churn. At Pinterest, we saw a powerful example of how significant of an effect localization can have on comprehension and growth when we changed the text on the “Pin it” button to instead say “Save.” In user research, we had found that the metaphor of pinning things to corkboards wasn’t as prevalent in some cultures and therefore the entire metaphor of Pinterest as a product didn’t make as much sense. After changing “Pin it” to “Save,” we saw significant increases in Growth metrics in non-English speaking countries. As a result, we’ve started to take a very metrics-oriented approach to localization by building Copytune, a framework that allows us to test copy and pick the best performing variant on a per language basis.

The second problem is getting product/market fit in international markets. Just like any new startup needs to reach product/market fit when are first starting out, you need to revisit if you have product/market fit in important international markets when you begin to expand globally. One great example of this was when Uber added a cash payment option in India because many Indians did not have bank accounts or credit cards. Another example was when Facebook added blood type as a profile field in Japan because the Japanese believe that blood type imbues a lot of traits on a person’s character and is an important part of modern Japanese culture. It could even be as simple as improving performance so the site doesn’t take 20 seconds to load. For Pinterest, we ran several user research studies in key markets when we began expanding internationally. We discovered that while the website was properly localized when an international user signed up, their homefeed would be full of American pins with English descriptions. For us, reaching product/market fit was about updating our algorithms that powered search, homefeed, etc. to ensure that we surfaced locally relevant content. In other words, when a French user searched for recipes, they should find suggestions for local French cuisine unless they explicitly tried searching for international cuisines.

The final problem is building out your playbook for how to unlock Growth in a new country. After a startup first starts to gain traction, they go on a discovery process to figure out which growth channels work for them (SEO? Emails? Notifications? Paid Ads?, etc). Nailing international growth requires figuring out how to scale your tried and true growth channels to international markets. A great example of this again comes from when Facebook expanded into Japan. Facebook relied heavily on viral invites, but Japanese users initially didn’t send many invites. After doing some user research, they discovered that Japanese people were much less likely to send an invite to their friends asking them to join the service because they were worried their friends would find it bothersome or rude. However, when Facebook changed the language from “invite your friends” to “announce you joined Facebook,” they saw a big uptick in invites. Japanese users did not perceive announcing their presence on the service to be rude in the same way they perceived asking a friend to join the service. Other companies have had success in Asia when they adapted their invite flow and added locally popular messaging platforms such as Line, WeChat, Kakao Talk, etc. as options in their flow. You ultimately want to build up a playbook for how to tackle analyzing and building up your growth channels that you can then repeat on a country by country basis as the company starts to expand.

International Growth is a tough problem, and I’m only able to scratch the surface in this post. When I joined Pinterest, I was eager to learn how to scale a company internationally since my previous Growth work at Shopkick had only been based in the US. What I’ve learned is that success growing internationally requires taking many of the lessons from scaling in your native market and then figuring out how to adapt them to different countries and cultures. It requires nailing comprehension, making sure you have product/market fit for each country, and figuring out how to adapt your growth channels for individual markets.

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