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Balkans business culture: lessons from 5 neighboring countries

Balkans business culture: punctuality, taboos and more

Business culture plays a major role in international business. A good knowledge of foreign business culture is very important in establishing initial business contacts. It also helps students looking for placements and internship opportunities in European countries to integrate faster into working and social life.

One of the main tasks of the Passport to Trade 2.0 (#P2T2) project was the development of European Mobility Framework (EMF) website content related to the cultural and business environment of five European neighboring countries from the Balkans region – Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Turkey, and Croatia. Country specific research and the preparation of the EMF proved a lot of business culture similarities among the countries in the region.

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Balkans punctuality in business meetings

Time keeping in business has always been an important issue. Punctuality for meetings is taken seriously as it indicates respect for your meeting partner and shows that you value their time. Generally, up to 10 minutes late is acceptable, over 10 minutes late necessitates a phone call to your meeting partners to let them know that you are on your way. If you are over half an hour late it is probably worth re-scheduling the meeting. In the private sphere of life people in these countries have a more relaxed perspective on time, where a 15-20 minutes delay is to be expected and not unusual; in part this is also due to infrastructure issues – buses and trains tend to rarely run on time.

Balkans business dress code

Business representatives pay meticulous attention to their appearance. Therefore formal dress code should be adhered to and is not to be taken lightly. Formal for men would mean a jacket with shirt and tie or a suit and for ladies, a formal dress or also a suit. Business people in the Balkan region like to show their business counterparts that they value the chance to meet with one another face-to-face to develop business relationships.

Balkans taboo discussion subjects

While the number of taboos in the five countries is decreasing, business people should pay attention to some issues that are considered inappropriate and should be avoided. In Turkey family is considered sacred and should not be disrespected. In Croatia it is advisable not to talk about money or personal problems since it is viewed as a sign of weak character. The Romanians believe strongly in fate, chance and luck. Respect their habit to wish themselves luck in any action undertaken – even seemingly mundane actions like sneezing and hiccupping can take on a superstitious meaning. (when selling, buying, hiccuping, drinking, sneezing and even instead of “good morning”). In FYROM,if you have been invited to a business meal your host will continue to give you food and drink and insist on paying for you; it is considered impolite to refuse this hospitality.

Body language in the Balkans

The non-verbal language has also a lot of cultural resemblances.  Quite often people in the region stand close to business partners during a conversation. An arm’s length is generally considered an appropriate amount of personal space when speaking, particularly when interacting with colleagues and acquaintances. Compared to other people in the region the Bulgarians have different head gestures to indicate “no” and “yes.”  Shaking your head from side to side signifies “yes” and an up and down movement means “no”. In Turkey people tend to greet each other with a two-handed handshake or by a kiss on both cheeks.

Balkans customs of gift giving

Gift giving is generally not practiced. Small presents like souvenir representing the business partner’s country are acceptable. A gift that relates to the home country is preferred in the regional business etiquette.  In the five countries the first meeting is more social than business related. Business partners need two or three meetings before they are able to decide if they are going to do business or not. Establishment of personal relations with a client is very important before doing business. Business lunches and dinners are considered more of a social occasion and a good way to develop relationships. Meals are generally very rich. The hosts in the region will often put more food on the table than can be eaten. They are proud of their cuisine and like to show off.

In general, people in the region are very hospitable, friendly and helpful. If a foreign partner wins their trust, they can rely on successful long-term business cooperation.

Social Media Results: Lessons from social media optimisation in practice

Social media is increasing in popularity for business as well as private use. What would be a better way to see how we can achieve results from social media than by administering a survey that targeted social media users around 31 European countries? The aim for our survey was to get at least 50 responses from each country – 35 from students and 15 from small and medium enterprises (SMEs). So, overall we aimed to achieve 1550 responses to an online survey.

With internet penetration in European Countries being over 63% of the estimated 821 million people, and over 250 million estimated users of Facebook alone (Source Internet World Stats surely it can’t be that difficult to reach at least 1550 responses to a survey which asks them to share their views on social media usage and etiquette. Our survey was designed to be as short as possible and electronic, allowing participants the flexibility for filling it in when it is convenient for them.

Social media optimisation – networks selection

We developed a project Twitter account [] and a Facebook page [] with a plan to regularly post project related updates and develop a community of interested people in the project and its results. LinkedIn was also considered but since there are so many different professional networks which exist for professional networking in Europe and the consequent lack of access from members for example in Xing in Germany and Vladeo in France it was dropped. Additionally, both Facebook and Twitter allow members to see the message without having to sign up to the service thus making it more accessible to our target audiences of the project. Similar considerations would be applicable to any SME considering engagement on social networks in Europe unless you are targeting a specific country and community of members.

Social media strategy

Our initial strategy was simple – identify the relevant networks and post messages on these networks to ask for the survey participation. We have soon realised that this simple strategy did not work. For example when using Twitter and speaking to anyone who is talking about #Estonia to signify that we are contributing to the conversation on Estonia we did not get many replies. So we had to change the strategy. We realized that it was essential to develop first the relationship with individuals in that country and then to ask them for help. This was simply done by re-tweeting some else’s comments about their country and speaking to them directly about a topic that was of interest to them. For example if we identified someone who contributed to the #Estonia hash tag we then addressed the twitter account directly using their @name to get their attention. By using someone’s user name did get results. People were engaging with us back and asking for more information about the project. Once the lead was created via Twitter we have then taken the conversation to email and through email and were necessary using Skype and Telephone to clarify any points needed.

Social media strategy results

So, the lessons from our project when you are considering your social media results are as follows:

  1. Be clear what you want to achieve as a result of your social media engagement (in our case it was to raise awareness of our project and gain responses to an online survey)
  2. Select the social networks which your target audience are likely to use (beware that in Europe there is a variety of specialist networks don’t just expect all to use Twitter and Facebook!)
  3. Engage in conversations with others first to establish a relationship – reply to others questions, contribute to the topics that they are interested in – develop your social capital with them. People are more likely to help you once you have helped them.
  4. Use networks specific community building techniques – for example on Twitter – Re-tweet tweets of others, create lists of people, follow people and tweet them directly using their @name
  5. Only once you have established a relationship and understand who the other social media user is ask them for help – in our case it was to fill in an online survey. In your case it would be develop a business opportunity etc.
  6. Thank and recognise people for the help you receive – we have a list of voluntary advisory board members as well as three Amazon vouchers which were used as a “Thank you” to randomly selected volunteers who have helped us in the project –

The key finding which is perhaps not surprising after all is that our results show that in countries where no personal networks of the research team were present there was a complete lack of response, suggesting that there is a need to develop networks initially before meaningful information exchange can commence. The project was successful in attaining more that the set target of 1550 responses but the 50 responses per country were difficult to achieve.

Read more about this project and the results of the survey in this article – Aaltonen , S, Kakderi, C, Hausmann, V and Heinze , A Social media in Europe : lessons from an online survey , in: 18th UKAIS Annual Conference: Social Information Systems, 19-20 March 2013, Worcester College, Oxford, UK.

You could read the article also in Italian.

The benefit of collaboration: P2T2.0 met EVOKE and WEB2llp projects.

The best way to optimise the value of Passport to Trade 2.0, to strengthen its impact and to exploit its outcomes to other contexts, is to create a pro-active valorisation strategy.

This strategy consists of planning and implementing concrete dissemination and exploitation actions, from the outset of the project, interacting with potential beneficiaries, exchanging good practices and learning from other LLP project experiences along the way.

As part of this pro-active strategy, P2T2.0 partners use the main Social Networks in order to promote the project, its objectives and the mid-term results. Through these channels interesting contacts, such as SMEs, students, VET organisations, institutions and various stakeholders have been found. Partners have reached these potential beneficiaries of the project  by starting to interact with them during the project’s lifetime.

In the meanwhile, interesting collaborations have been established with two LLP projects:  Evoke and Web2LLP.

The EVOKE project aims to prevent student drop outs in Vocational Training by improving  career guidance through transferring and adapting the methodology for evaluating the effectiveness of services and by transferring of the method of social return on investment. For further information visit

The Web2LLP project aims to boost the dissemination strategies of Lifelong Learning projects resulting in more coherent, participatory and sustainable project activities in the European lifelong learning area. For further information visit

The collaboration promotes and sustains the respective projects’ activities, and in particular, supports the evaluation of the training material, and the exploitation of project outcomes.  It is also  effective for sharing knowledge, exchange good practices and learning from other LLP project experiences.


The use of social media to grow your business.

On the 4th of October, during the 3rd meeting in Thessaloniki, Passport to Trade 2.0 partners organises a workshop with Greek students, companies and other stakeholders.

Use of Social Media to grow your business workshop is available on

Questions raised during this workshop steered the main  discussion and below are the main ideas:

Does social media work for all businesses?

Social media work only for those businesses where their target audience is connected to the internet and uses social networks. If you are a business targeting remote villages in rural Greece who are keen to buy a tractor – where we are certain that they have neither internet connection nor access to social media channels – we can’t help your business by engaging on social media.

How do you keep up all the publishing?

There is a common misconception that a business has to always publish content. The best content comes from your customers – empower them and reward their behaviour for doing so. For example, if you are selling cakes and want your customers to review your cakes for you online you might want to have a completion on your Facebook page where your current customers refer their friends to take part and through this action you can generate content from them and learn about their interest and their taste better. There are a number of creative contest ideas which could work on many networks including FaceBook.

How do you persuade managers who don’t even use email?

By showing real results. Which manager wants their business to fail? Internet and email are common communication platforms for businesses who no longer look for a competitive advantage it is becoming the norm. In several European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands and Norway are highlighted as countries with highest e-readiness in Europe. If you are a business in these countries and don’t use email you are at a major competitive disadvantage. However, as mentioned in question 1 it depends on your industry and your customers.

How much should you invest in social media?  

It depends on your business and your business objectives. Social media is not only for sales and marketing development – it can be used internally to encourage operational efficiencies as well as externally to provide customer support. If you are using social media internally, for example for all internal company communications via social media such as discussion forums the real budget for social media can be measured on the technical support and training as well as the benefits that you can receive as a consequence of better knowledge management in your organisation.

If you are developing social media strategically to grow sales you will need to consider and test your market with pilot projects and evaluate if you can generate a Return on Investment. The bear minimum that a business should consider investing in social media in terms of customer support is the time for monitoring social media channels for example for Facebook and Twitter comments – which can be done relatively simply via TweetDeck; or if you are a hotel review websites such as TripAdvisor etc. It was found from past experience that customer complaints raised through social media are best dealt with courteously and in good time before they become difficult to manage.

Are there any existing methodological guides to plan strategically social media marketing?

Social media marketing follows the same management science principles as you do when you decide upon conventional marketing operations. First set planning objectives related to your business mission and history, business or revenue model, products & services and target audience. Then define your social media goals. Examples of such goals are: Validate a new product or service using social as a research platform. Develop buzz and interest around a new product. Engage users in social to generate relevant and targeted traffic to your site. Gain market share by leading customer/client service through social media. The next step is to find your SMM voice (segmentation). One of the key factors to ensure your success in social is to create and implement a voice that resonates with your specific target audience. For each audience type, break down and research age, income, location, and reasons for possibly buying your products/services. Then you must the appropriate social media mix. Choosing your social tools appropriately is an essential piece of your online communications plan. So choose wisely which of the social media type will satisfy a specific marketing objective.

How is social media marketing monitored?

In finding, creating, and delivering social media content is important to create a permanent mechanism that will monitor:
– the frequency of content delivery & response to social engagement.
– the types and specific topics for content creation.
– the ways to increase audience engagement.
– the events that can drive social media marketing
– the social success metrics (number of followers, number of fans, volume of traffic back to site, number of tweets, etc.)
– the specific Social media etiquette rules

We are looking forward to the next workshop in Romania and hope that you will be able to share your questions with us.


Social Media etiquette and work placement Survey.

During the last few months an online survey of European SMEs and Students has been developed and distributed in 31 European countries.The results will be used to update existing information about these countries on the Passport to Trade  2.0 website.

The questionnaire targeted to SMEs had 248 respondents: 66.2% were SMEs owners or employees; almost 19% were non commercial educational or training organisations, and marketing or business development agencies. In order to analyse responses on placements, previous experience, such as past offering of a working placement for domestic or international students, was considered. The findings were that universities themselves as well as the internet are considered as the most popular sources of information regarding placements (81%), while student organisations and public agencies have been rated as less significant.

SMEs would be strongly interested in acquiring information on placement options available in each country, associated practicalities (e.g. salary, banking, visa requirements etc) as well as sources of funding for international students who are willing to undertake a placement in their company.

Facebook and Linkedin are seen as the two most popular social networks among SMEs; however many variations among countries were noted. The main purposes of using social media are overwhelmingly to increase exposure of the business (more than 80%), generate leads and develop partnerships etc. More than 80% of the respondents stated that they would like to be informed on: guidelines on how to get the best out of using the main social media networks, legal aspects on the usage in different countries, an on line do’s and don’ts and the cultural differences in the use of social media.

1.347 students responded to the survey: 54% are at the moment studying or working abroad and have studied/worked abroad in the past; 34.3% would like to study/work abroad. The majority of them would appreciate the existence of a single source of information on student placements abroad.

Internet and websites specializing on international studies/placements are the most significant sources of information.

Other useful sources of information are universities and friends, however events organized at ‘home’ university are not considered to be of particular help.

Facebook is the most popular social network followed by YouTube; others such as Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter and Xing are still limited. For students, acceptable on line behaviours included the use of a real picture and of the real first and last names for users’ avatar. Unacceptable behaviours constituted criticism of others in abusive terms, posting pictures of other people without permission, swearing and using foul language etc. Students considered significant for training regarding social media, the following aspects: the legal aspects for different European countries, the guidelines to main networks’ use, the social media used in different countries and the do’s and don’ts in social media use. In particular, the main cultural differences in the use of social media acrossEuropedepend on:

–         the political environment, the lack of freedom of expression and censorship etc.

–         the legal environment, such as the existence of regulations for the removal of material with abusive and violent actions, the removal of material which is protected by copyright etc.

–         language and the different meanings of specific words in  different countries

–         the religious beliefs of the majority of people in a country

–         the openness of a culture and the degree of morality of a society etc.