Marketing across borders
Building global marketing strategies is like baking a cake.

You can’t copy and paste a marketing playbook when expanding into a new market. But you also don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel. It’s all about finding the balance between a global approach and speaking to your audience at a local level. 

Monica Austin is a seasoned marketing executive who has spent her career figuring out that balance leading marketing teams at globally renowned brands like Meta, Calm, Netflix and now Linktree.

We sat down with Monica to discuss the driving forces behind her career choices, how building global marketing strategies is like baking a cake, and the importance of context in communication and decision-making when you have a culturally diverse team working in different time zones. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

You’ve had an amazing career at big brands like Calm, Netflix, Meta and now Linktree. What’s drawn you to those roles?

When I look back on my career, it’s been made up of a couple of things. One is just really relentless hard work and some luck. What I realised quickly was that there was no ladder. What drove me instead was curiosity. One of the things I tell everybody in my team to have is a lot of curiosity and a growth mindset. That took me to places where there was disruption and unique and interesting challenges.

When I got to Facebook [Now Meta], they had almost no relevance in entertainment with celebrities and influencers. And a lot of my peers in the studio entertainment scene were going, What are you doing going to Facebook and Instagram? But I knew it was the future, and I had a small part to play in bringing some of that relevance to the table, which is now just part of their playbook. 

Similarly, when I joined Netflix, it was starting to become a notable consumer brand in the US but was virtually unknown outside of parts of Europe. It was a massive, high-growth opportunity. Linktree feels very similar in terms of a real disruptor in the category with a big opportunity ahead. 

Are there any particular marketing campaigns that stand out as highlights?

Picking a favourite campaign is like picking a favourite child, of which I have two, and they’re both my favourites!

I was really privileged to work with Disney and J.J.Abrams on the launch of the new Star Wars. We did this in partnership when I was at Facebook and built the first-of-its-kind VR experience. It was the first big film partnership we did at Meta. It was a wow moment. 

At Netflix, the list of favourite campaigns is long, but I had one that was like pushing a boulder up a hill, and it’s now become part of their ongoing strategy. I created the first sub-brand for them: Netflix is a joke. It started with a huge, earned-first idea to make fun of ourselves and call ourselves a joke with billboards all over town. It rolled into a broader campaign all around our standup lineup. 5 years later, they just had a comedy festival for Netflix is a Joke. Looking back, it was hard to get that campaign off the ground, but seeing it come to fruition and what it is today is worth it. 

You are marketing to Linkers, but Linkers are such different types of people. How do you think about talking to the individual?

This is the marketer’s challenge. One of the things we’ve been focused on is getting out of conversations about features. We can talk about features all day and updates to the product. We’ve done that in the past–it’s great information Linkers should have–but it doesn’t emotionally connect with anybody. 

The other thing we’ve focused on is the verticals we want to build for: Music, creators and small business. Even within those verticals, it's still really broad, and you can start building everything and everyone. 

What we’re now trying to get to is a much higher-order level of thinking, which is what problems or jobs-to-be-done do our Linkers have that we need to solve, and how much can we get at the behaviours and motivations behind them? We can then start to point the arrow in the right direction. What we found  is folks come to us with the same set of challenges. They want to unify, engage and grow their digital ecosystem and be able to do the things they care about, which is monetisation and mobilisation of their audience. From there, we can get into who we’re building for and why. 

On the marketing side, I think about a hierarchy structure where we’ve got our business and comms narratives that we want to seed over the course of, say a half or a quarter, with goals associated. For socials, we think a lot about channel-specific strategies and seeding out our messages, but we also know that we want to build the foundation with Gen Z, our future consumers who probably aren’t aware of us or aren’t using the product today. We really want to speak with an authentic voice to that audience and are making good progress in that direction. 

For the rest, we focus on connecting to a couple of marketing pillars that we want to win and that our product connects to authentically. One is speaking on behalf of the creator and showing our expertise and that we’re a trusted resource for creators to come to. That helps us narrow in on the types of activities and the types of messages that we want to get across, all with the overall goal of driving word of mouth.

You’ve got to know who your ideal consumer is and have a persona of who they are. We’re going after the hustle creator who has a side business. One of my favourite examples is Ellen Bennett, a wonderful founder, and she’s her own kind of creator and influence. She has her business; it has its own presence. She has book deals, brand deals and partnerships. She has a big digital ecosystem, and she’s a real hustler. We want to build for someone like her who is connected to our goals and mission. We’re constantly talking about who our Linkers are, what their problems are, and where they are and making sure we’re continuing to build for that.

What should marketers consider before expanding marketing activities across borders? 

When I joined Calm, they had solidified themselves in core English markets–US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK–as the number one mindfulness and sleep app in the marketplace. The goal was then: How do we expand beyond our current markets?

I started looking at English-adjacent countries, like parts of Europe, which have the most similarities to the UK and US audience we were already doing well with. Where is there already a market for a similar product that we have, meaning they have local players, like a meditation app, a mindfulness app, a sleep app, etc. That data was quick and easy to find. Germany, France and parts of the Nordic countries had some local players, so we knew there was a market for our product. And so one of the things to start thinking about is where there is an existing base and potentially already product-market fit. 

At that time, we also started some rest-of-world growth-based marketing–essentially performance marketing–to test whether we’d get any signal from these new markets. We weren’t spending significant amounts, but we were using it to try and understand things like price sensitivity, messaging, our value proposition and if we were meeting the market's needs.  

The other thing we did, which was a much bigger undertaking, was once we had a signal and decided to expand into some of these markets, we went, Okay, we’re going to focus on the markets that already have an existing competitor, and we're going to go hard in there because we know there’s already existing demand. 

At that point, we did some additional research and segmentation to understand the consumers and their needs. 

What are some of the marketing challenges you’ve encountered when you’ve entered a new market?

Before I joined Calm, they had done a go-to-market in Japan, and they figured out there was a real mismatch in product-market fit and there wasn't a real demand. They did a big launch and a lot of activity in the market with PR, social and paid, but the LTV/CAC was upside down. After additional research, we figured out that mindfulness and sleep mean something very different in Japan than it does in other parts of the world. If we had that additional layer of information, we probably would have made a different decision. 

Another example from Calm was we did a go-to-market in Brazil, which had a different set of challenges. The big one there was pricing and packaging, and also payments. The problem wasn't that there wasn’t demand or a willingness to pay. But when it came to an app-based business, the ability to pay with a traditional payment mechanism was very different in Brazil, and we needed the Business Development team to go in and figure out the payment solution.

Even in English-speaking markets, there’s nuance to how people speak, joke and everything in between. Do you have any advice about how to speak and act like a local brand?

We’re working through this at Linktree today as a global product, built and centred in Australia, but the US is our biggest market opportunity and TAM we can go after. We need US boots on the ground who have been in high-growth organisations, understand the customers and can deeply connect with the creator economy and influencers.  

One of the things I always lean on is my experience at Netflix. As we started to expand, we wanted people to feel that Netflix wasn’t a tech brand; it wasn’t a Silicon Valley company. Instead, Netflix was a Spanish brand or Neftlix was a Brazilian/Australian/UK brand, etc. That meant you needed a deep understanding of your local consumer, their sentiment and awareness to build from a local first mentality. In the early days, that meant we first went in with comms and socials through scrappy agency partnerships. We gave the agencies our global playbook, strategy and roadmap of product and content initiatives to see if they could make some noise on the ground in a local voice that would connect to sentiments and give us things we should watch out for. 

Over time, we started to build out local teams. This is a bad analogy, but global teams are responsible for the building blocks–the foundation, the strategy, the campaign or the initiative. They’re baking the cake. The local team is responsible for icing the cake, decorating it, and bringing the local flair to it. The best-case scenario is where you’re baking and decorating the cake together, building a campaign that you know will connect with the audience. 

The challenge for the global team is when you build for the globe, you end up building for no one. So building a core that is translatable into other markets is important, and having a real baton pass where local teams can pick it up and go deep based on consumer insights and data to bring it to life in a way that feels Spanish, Brazilian, German, or French. 

When did you feel like you had enough signal to put boots on the ground?

At Netflix, we had some pretty clear benchmarks we were looking to hit. It’s a big company now, but at the time, it was relatively small, and there was almost no awareness of not only Netflix but also streaming. 

We’d first go in with socials and comms to get a read. Then, we were looking at the data to understand what content was driving subscriptions. At a certain threshold of subscribers, we’d pull the trigger and know it’s ready and is a sustainable market with an opportunity and additional TAM to go after that would warrant boots on the ground. 

In other parts of the world, like APAC, which had a competitive set where lots of other players were trying to get established first, stealing playbooks and going hard, we went in as a competitive initiative. We saw more churn than subscribers at the time, but we felt it was important to have boots on the ground there. 

A lot of roles were for government relations and legal. Because streaming was a new category, lots of regulators and regulations were coming in, and some were harsher than others. As you can imagine, when you’re talking about things like free speech and a US company coming in and making content for the globe, there’s a lot of nuance to consider. So, it was less about marketing and PR in the beginning and more of a legal team because we needed representation to ensure we wouldn’t get blocked and banned in certain countries. 

How do you think about coordinating a marketing team across geographies and ensuring they’re taking the global messaging, directions and frameworks and bringing a local voice to it?

There are lots of different ways to do it, and everyone has their favourite decision-making framework. 

At Linktree, we’re a remote-focused organisation and have no plans to change that. As I mentioned, we're focused on having boots on the ground where we think we can help rapidly expand our efforts to capitalise on our momentum and product-market fit in the US. And that includes scaling up our product engineering and marketing resources and our partnerships team in the US. The way we organise those teams is something we’re constantly discussing. We haven’t hit a moment where we feel like we need to put a tremendous amount of rigour into this, but there will be a point at which we do ask ourselves:

  • Do we want cross-functional teams in the same time zone working together on an initiative? 
  • Do we want teams that can work asynchronously based in one Geo?  
  • Do we want core functions to always sit in Australia, like people, legal and HR, and then eventually have the rest of the teams decentralised across the US or other markets? 

We’re getting to the point where we’ll have to put pen to paper on some decisions. 

At Netflix, this was a constant state of discussion. It was a pendulum that swung between centralised or localised. The first assumption was, Hey, we need to extract the knowledge base that we have of how this company works. Netflix was a very culture-forward, classic tech company.

Culture's hard to replicate market to market. You almost had to have worked at the “Death Star”, if you want to call it that, to understand how the culture worked from the inside out to be able to replicate it. That was part of the secret to the business's success when it came to rapid expansion, growth and brutal, performance-driven at all costs.

The goal was to start with a centralised model, and the team in Los Angeles would drive everything. And then we’ll have local teams that can execute on the ground. 

What I think Netflix did well was they also tested a GM model. A lot of businesses love a GM model where you’ve got a central leader who has all of the business units that roll up into them that can make decisions, and that helps with a lot of local nuances and being able to make decisions fast on the ground. We tested that in markets like Japan and parts of APAC. We found that the centralised model, where everything ratcheted back to the US team, worked better in our high growth years because we could connect the dots on context for what other markets were learning, and each market didn’t have to go through the same trials that another market already had. 

My team was roughly 140 people with multiple functions and had global and local folks. The number of times we reorganised, reprioritised and looked at ways we could optimise and drive efficiency was many, and we did that until it became too disruptive to do so. That’s something you have to be cognisant of: Change is the only constant, but there's a point at which there are diminishing returns to continual optimisations, especially when you’re rolling out something or have roadmaps and initiatives that you need to be mindful of.

What's key is that the Executive team has a strong and aligned perspective. Without that, you're going to have constant flux at the local level. If everyone is aligned on the operating mode, whether that's centralised, GM-based or some mix of the two, that's what matters the most. 

How did you conduct segmentation and customer research remotely?

At Calm, we partnered with a small agency to conduct that research. We picked a few countries to start with and then expanded from there. We did 9 countries in 6 months, focusing on getting early insights into priority markets that we could apply quickly. 

We’re doing something similar at Linktee. There was an existing agency that did some segmentation work, and we did a follow-up on that work, which is something I think is really important.  Segmentation work needs to be fresh, especially if you’re starting to expand globally.  At some point, you may decide to hire that resource internally. At Linktree, we made the first consumer insights hire and he’s going to be responsible for continuing to refresh our segmentation work and running our own surveys and research in partnership with our product insights team. 

What data did you use for reporting and for getting insights into and making decisions around each of each of the markets? 

As an example, at Linktree, we have our core four markets that we focus on and then run rest of world media. And we’re looking at a couple of things in the data. One is just pure signups and account creation. For engagement, we measure something called monthly engaged Linkers.   We’re always looking into competitive snapshots to understand our pricing mix in those countries. We do this on a quarterly basis. 

We’ll also pull social and comms data and a competitive/market landscape on a semi-frequent basis to determine if we’re missing something and what benchmarks to set to understand if we want to go after some of these markets that are growing quickly.

When it comes to running a global team, how have you managed operational and cultural differences?

I tell everyone to move to Hawaii because it’s the perfect time zone between the West Coast of the US and Australia!

One of the reasons I joined Linktree was after talking to the co-founders–Alex, Anthony and Nick–I felt I spoke their language. There was a camaraderie. I’m from the Midwest, and Midwesterners and Australians connect; we have a similar sensibility. That’s not necessarily true of the coasts of the US; New York, and LA, or say Silicon Valley. 

A lot of people say, “What do you mean you speak the language–they speak English?”. But there’s a nuance. There’s a difference in the way they approach things. Australians have a much healthier work-life balance, and it’s an expectation. I’ve come from big tech companies where they don’t give a damn about your work-life balance; it’s all about performance and impact. It’s not that you can’t work hard play hard–that’s very much part of US culture–but the balance isn’t part of US culture. 

And so I find there will be friction between teams asking, “Why isn’t this person online?”. And it may be 8pm where the person is they’re trying to reach, or it’s Saturday, and they’re like, “But it’s only Friday for us.” Then they realise they need to work with a deadline of, say Thursday our time, Friday their time, to better collaborate and work together.

I start later in the day so that there’s more crossover with Australia, and I know a lot of folks do that in LA. We leave it up to them as needed for a project without setting a mandate that they need to do it. But this is where it’s really important to document your work, using memo-based formats and updating your team so they can come online, get the context they need and carry it forward. 

The other interesting cultural nuance is how we give and take feedback. Australians are very blunt and straightforward, but when it comes to a working environment, it’s more collegiate and friendly. When you need to give specific feedback, it gets hard, and that was an experience I had at Netflix too, as we built out global teams. We had a culture of feedback, and some cultures look at feedback as a slap in the face, while others really embrace it. Understanding those differences and bringing folks together and pointing out good intent, that it’s about how we collaborate and the end goal is the project, not personal, helped us bridge some of those challenges.

Are there any specific tactics, resources or platforms you use to fill in context gaps?

I have a love-hate relationship with Slack. But one thing it can be effective for is updates and making sure there’s a communication trail. We try to provide as much context as we can in project channels, and we’ve got a system where we use tags to notate if something is just an FYI, i.e. you need to know this, but there’s nothing action, versus things that are actionable, we notate as critical.

We’ve also built a document as part of our memo-based culture where we memorialise decision-making, which we do through a DACI framework. It’s a simple mechanism to understand if it’s a one-way door decision or a two-way door decision, who are the stakeholders that need to be involved and making sure there’s time in advance for folks to get aligned and ultimately ratify and make a decision so that teams can move forward. 

The idea of context, not control, has helped us so much at Linktree.

For example, if we’re trying to answer the question of how to make the website look local, there are lots of nuances with language and words that are really important for it to feel like a local brand. Just this morning, we were talking to Alex [CEO and co-founder at Linktree] about a campaign, and he was questioning some of the language in it. Dave, our Creative Director who sits in LA, responded, “We just wouldn’t say that in the US." You have to lean on the local teams to make a call–we’re just setting the highest level of context so those teams feel empowered to make the right decisions, even if it’s about copy or something small; it can make a big difference. 

Key takeaways

  • Balancing global and local: Expanding into new markets requires finding a balance between a global approach and speaking to the local audience. It’s about adapting strategies to connect with diverse customer bases. 
  • Coordinating global teams: Align on your operating model, figure out a decision-making framework and build in a practice of documentation and memo-based updates.
  • Managing operational and cultural differences: Work-life balance, feedback styles and communication preferences changes from one geography to another. Building mutual understanding and a team operating rhythm helps bridge these gaps. 
  • Choosing your markets: Conducting research, assessing competition and some scrappy test and learn activities can help you determine whether you’ve got product-market fit and demand in that market, before you fully launch and put boots on the ground. 
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