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Seeking Korean Partner/Consultant to Promote ESL Website, Part I (How To Market Online to Korean Consumers)

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "How Can I Market My Business Online to Korean Consumers?"

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The Internet has opened up possibilities for new business models, and many new online businesses are sprouting up in the field of teaching English as a second language. It's not hard to understand why. Rather than fly native English speakers around the world to live in unfamiliar surroundings to teach English to locals, instructors can now connect to students over Skype and educate without travelling. It's a great way to reduce costs and avoid other cultural and logistical difficulties while delivering value to language learners the world over.

With falling barriers to entry, the field has gotten crowded though, with thousands of websites cropping up to offer these virtual/remote English lessons. Over the years, my team and I have had the privilege of translating a few of these sites to Korean so that our clients can connect to the market in Korea for ESL instruction. Unfortunately, a nice website that communicates well is only the first step, as the following message from a previous client makes clear. 

Hi Steven, My name is ________. Last year I had you do the translation for my ESL website. I was impressed with your service, and knowledge of Korea, so I wanted to reach out to you on something. So far, I've had a real tough time attracting business in Korea. Early on I had foolishly spent money on Google Adwords, and Twitter advertising, which didn't generate results. Not to mention large amounts of time with social networks, and the like. When I found out about the popularity of Naver & Daum, I hired a professional SEO service to optimize my site, along with "guest blog posts". After that, I saw a small uptick in traffic, but still not converting into new clients. It's been frustrating, and depressing at times. I'm willing to the spend the time and money, but I feel like not knowing the Korean language and culture is putting me at a disadvantage....

 I answered my client as follows.

It's nice to hear from you. I remember working on the Korean localization of your website and I'm glad to hear that our service met your expectations. I recall that your attitude to the localization process put quality above cost and I believe you when you say you're willing to spend the time and money to make the endeavor work. In fact, as someone who has spent a ridiculous amount of money and effort on online marketing efforts of various kinds, I have a great deal of sympathy for your situation.

You asked near the beginning of our business relationship about the value of having Korean text alongside English YouTube videos and about whether it would be effective in attracting Korean students. I just dug back into my archives and found my following reply: 

"It's a tough call, especially as you're jumping into a very competitive market. If you've got the marketing strategy in place to support the YouTube funnel, then of course, the Korean text can be an asset. If you're not sure what kind of traffic you can pull to these videos, you might put that cost off until later. I've seen more than one businessperson (myself included!) spend a lot of money to get all set up only to find that the marketing is lacking." 

In advising you, I'd like to first discuss some insights about online marketing in Korea. At this point, I should point out that I don't think this will ultimately be cost-effective for you in your business, but the following does describe a starting point for understanding how a successful campaign might be put together.

You mention that Google Adwords was a waste of money. It all depends on what niche you're in, but for ESL, I'm sure the bid prices on keywords are through the roof and too many non-converting visitors will drain your bank account quickly. The only way to make it work is to have a deep sales pipeline with an integrated range of goods and services that you're marketing effectively to those who click on your Adwords ads. Top advertisers on major keywords are prepared to lose money on the initial leads in order to harvest value over a longer period of time.

I'd be interested to know how you operated and targeted your Google advertising. Did you do it yourself? Regardless of what Google says, Adwords is not for the faint of heart, and not just because the tools are complicated (and getting more so everyday) and the underlying algorithms secret. I would even say that Google's representations of their system to novice advertisers are even misleading and incomplete. But as you may have found out, working with a competent (or even incompetent!) SEM professional is expensive, and even if your consultant does know what he/she is doing, you often won't get the level of focused and sustained attention you need to make it work. 

In fact, in your market, there are bound to be a lot of competitors, some with deep pockets (thanks to cash flow from offline, successful English institutes in Korea but without a sustainable strategy), just throwing money into the marketing effort. This makes Google rich, but leaves everyone else paying more than they should.

Furthermore, running a Google Adwords campaign in English isn't going to get you very close to your market since your potential students probably aren't doing most of their searching in English. That means your ads need to be localized, too. But since Google Adwords isn't a set-it-and-forget-it approach, you can't just get your ads translated once somewhere and then throw them up online. The ads must be constantly monitored and optimized, not just from a standard marketing perspective but also in terms of language and culture, which makes it a high-touch/high-specialization/high-cost adventure. (BTW, I've written about a surprising aspect of character limitations that applies to Korean ads on Google Adwords.)

Besides, even if you do get your online marketing program going effectively on Google in Korean for Korean consumers located in Korea, you'll then be reaching... just 10-15% of the search market. As you noted already, the movers and shakers in the Korean market are still Naver (with about 60-70% of the market) and Daum (with around 20-30%).

You said that you tried SEO for the Korean search engines, but these native Korean portals also run their own proprietary advertiser tools modeled on Google Adwords. The interfaces are in Korean and the complicated Korean government-mandated requirements make it next-to-impossible to register to advertise as a non-Korean. I tried it about a year ago on Naver just to see if I could, and I barely managed to sign up, but I still had to register as an overseas marketer since my websites are owned by my US corporation, which meant that the process had to be jury-rigged to get me through the ad approvals every time. I ultimately never did anything with it; just too much trouble. This means you would ultimately have to work with a Korean agency to get directly to Daum and Naver, and to do that, you're looking at talent of dubious competence and high cost and you won't be able to transparently monitor the process.

At any rate, if you do choose to move forward with online marketing to Korean search engine users, I would recommend the following approach which, done right, would minimize your costs and maximize your effectiveness.

Stage 1 - The online advertising interfaces of the Korean portals are primitive compared to the Google system and I don't recommend you start with them. Instead, work with an SEM provider who is qualified to advertise on Google in English and supplement this with a Korean language consultant who can localize and adjust ads as instructed by the SEM professional. Keep this up until you've got a strong campaign going that generates profitable leads and until you've exhausted the potential that Google is giving you in its 20% of the Korean search market. Be sure you have Google Analytics installed on your site and know how to use it; you'll need that both to optimize for Google, as well as for Stage 2 below.

Stage 2 - Once you've wrung out all the value from Stage 1, you're ready to attack the Korean portals. Do this by working through an SEM professional in Korea. You won't need the best expert here (good thing, because they're hard to find!); just someone who knows the nuts and bolts and has an account that is authorized to to resell advertising for foreign advertisers on the Korean portals. Make it clear that you'll be providing the optimized ads and keywords from your Google campaign and so only minor optimization within the Naver and Daum ecosystems will be required. Then feed the ads, keywords and other demographic information directly or through your Korean language consultant to the Naver/Daum seller and tell them to set it up.

Normally, advertising on the Korean portals would be a black box, since you won't have easy access to what's going on there. But because you'll have the results of your Google campaigns to benchmark against, you can simply watch carefully through Google Analytics to make sure your Korean campaigns are generating results on par with Google. As you continue to optimize your Google campaigns, you can have your Naver and Daum campaigns updated as well.

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Regarding marketing on SNS, don't bother unless you're prepared to engage in time-consuming conversation with your market. On the other hand, there are umpteen online "cafes" which you could join on Daum or Naver. These are online meeting places that bring together groups of people interested in the same topic. Some would be focused on learning English and if you were to make your presence known in these spots, such as by sharing value in the discussions, you might be able to get closer to your market. However, I haven't tried it and I don't know how practical it is because of the Korean-language interfaces. Done strategically, it could at least would get you into an under-served area away from the crowds at Facebook and Twitter. Even so, these are still vibrant online discussion forums in Korea today.

As for general search engine optimization, well, there's so much content out there now in the ESL field that I don't know how you'd ever get heard amidst everything else. Ultimately, I think you'll need to reach out to your market; not hope they find you through organic SEO. 

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** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "How Can I Market My Business Online to Korean Consumers?"

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