Scaling An International Marketing Team Across 50 Countries With SEMrush’s Olga Andrienko
Sean Lane: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Operations, the show where we look under the hood of companies in hypergrowth. My name is Sean Lane. I have a question for you, have you ever worked at a company that has expanded internationally? To be honest with you, I haven't. Here at Drift we have plenty of customers overseas but no international office presence, and prior to Drift I've only worked at organizations that sell here in the U. S. So the concept of expanding into international markets, figuring out how to market and sell to them, and provide strong customer experiences inside of them, is quite literally a foreign concept to me. But it's in our not so distant future here at Drift, so I figured I better start studying up, which is why I was lucky to meet today's guest, Olga Andrienko. Olga is the head of global marketing at SEMrush, where she leads a team responsible for marketing in over 50 different countries. On today's episode, we're going to learn what it takes to carve out a niche for yourself in each and every one of those markets, how to listen to your customers from halfway around the world, and why Olga once referred to SEMrush as the Ford of digital marketing in Germany. But first it's helpful to have some context on how Olga runs her international businesses, specifically the methodologies driving her team, both here and abroad. At SEMrush Olga has implemented an agile marketing methodology, transforming the popular agile concept that's typically used by engineering teams for her own use, but still maintaining this really strong balance of both autonomy and alignment within her teams. A quick note before we jump in, I recorded this episode from home in the early days of coronavirus quarantine, and I didn't have my normal mic set up yet, so the quality when I jump into the conversation isn't the best. All right, onto Olga and agile marketing.
Olga Andrienko: Agile marketing is a transformation and adoption of agile to a marketing department, which might not necessarily just be exactly what is written in a manifesto, but we try to implement this as much as possible. So what we definitely incorporate is small tests, versus big experiments, versus big bang campaigns. So we always try to allocate smaller budgets to some various tests and various campaigns, and we rarely do something really big and this is what really... Well, if you have small budget, and if you have a great idea, you don't have to approve that as much as when there is, what? 20, even$ 50,000 that you need to really prove, and then share the expectations and the results that you want to achieve. If you have lower budgets, then your hands are not tied and a lot of teams, they just don't go up to me. We agree on the budget that they... obviously in the beginning of the year, and then they operate with this budget without me approving each campaign. So that really makes it super fast for my teams to execute and it was even faster. So it's really, I think also important to mention that our agile marketing is evolving it was only... So now we're... The whole SEMrush is 700 people and we started implementing when we were like hundred and 20 overall, and then marketing department was 20, 30 people, now we've grown to 100 which also makes things more complicated. So when you operate with 30 people, then it's also easier and then you trust everyone, you give everyone the opportunity to decide as much as possible. When you start scaling, then agile just really gets a bit more difficult because I now have a lot more decision- making power than I used to because I need to coordinate everything else with other team leads. So for the companies and for marketing departments that are, I would say 30, 50 people agile marketing is definitely something that they have to try and embrace. And then for the... Well, when they grow and then it's over a 100 people and different team leads, then some of the decision making power should go from the team level to the team lead level.
Sean Lane: So when I think about the autonomous product and engineering teams here at Drift and how they're made up and how they work, they're usually some combination of engineers, designers, and a product manager. In agile marketing, I asked Olga how she has structured her teams at SEMrush and how they organize the work that they do.
Olga Andrienko: I give example of the team that... So when I only had six people and I was the team leader of a funny team that was called the Rest of The World, meaning that we had regional division and we were taking care of a lot of campaigns except I think seven. Well Nordics, Netherlands, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Latin America, they were all my markets. We had to manage campaigns for a lot of countries. I was the team lead that was managing the campaigns or the tasks within the team, and then at the same time we always had scrum master. And there's just something about agile marketing as a philosophy, but you should always adopt some framework. So scrum is a framework, and agile really goes well with scrum. So scrum is just a workflow to say so. What we did, we had three week sprints and sprint is just an amount of weeks or it was, usually for a sprint it's two or three weeks. So every sprint starts with planning and we just used the huge sheet of paper, post- it notes, and we put names and we put also countries and then we ensured that we knew who was doing what for the countries. And basically we allocated two hours on Monday to write down everything, and then we put post- it notes and then we had standups. So it's just a small meeting that was hosted each day. And during this meeting, everyone is standing and one person can only speak for two minutes. So they say what they were doing yesterday, what they were doing today, and are there any setbacks or challenges, and if they have then immediately during this time, someone offers the solution and they're going to discuss it after the standup is done. So everyone has those two minutes and that way we ensure that the team is aware of the progress of each team member. And at the end of the sprint, we had the review. So we were reviewing the tasks that we had on this sheet of paper, that's called planning. And also we digitalized it and put in a spreadsheet so we knew who was responsible for each task, and then we just in Excel table label it done, not done, removed, postponed or stuck and then we had a retrospective. And retrospective, I think is the most important part, and I actually think that retrospective should be incorporated even in a private life, because I think it's just good because the team is healthy only if it does the retrospective. The easiest way to do this meeting, and it's a private nobody can attend the meeting except for the team members, so we highlighted what was great during the sprint and we said, thank yous to what the team members, I shared how happy I was about the results of the campaign, or if some other team helped us or anything, anything that comes to your mind, and then we removed all of the stickers and we wrote down everything that we were not happy with. So if there is anything that we were stuck with, or there was some internal problem within the team or something was happening in the market that upset us and anything. And then we identified the main pain points, because if you see that three team members highlighted the same things, then we obviously... You just cluster all of those post- it notes and identify three main issues, and everyone just picks three problems out of everything that was mentioned, and those three problems should then be discussed, and then we discuss the potential solutions and also the person that will be responsible for taking it further, and those three main issues move on to the next sprint.
Sean Lane: Okay. So to recap, Olga's team uses this agile methodology with four key steps along the way, the sprints, standups, a review and ultimately a retrospective. But that was with her early team, the Rest of The World Team as she called it. It only had six people on it, now she oversees a global team of over 100 marketers, but they're still using this agile method at SEMrush today. So when I asked Olga how she has managed to scale her team all while maintaining this approach, she told me that they've once again, broken down everything from the team structure, to campaign planning into two major groups, English speaking countries, and the rest of the world.
Olga Andrienko: When it comes to English speaking marketing, we used to have the U. S. And UK team, and then also my rest of the world team, for example, we had Australia and Canada and South Africa and all other countries that aren't speaking English, India and now it's just really difficult so we stopped, we just removed those teams. We just have the team that takes care of social media, then takes care of the communications with opinion leaders. Then there's also email marketing team, PPC team is separate. So the English speaking world is defined by channel, non- English speaking world is really more, just go dependent.
Sean Lane: That's super interesting. And then a lot of our listeners are in operations or in marketing operations. Are there different marketing operations folks embedded within each one of those teams or are they more of a centralized resource?
Olga Andrienko: Depends on the channel. When you have a lot of emails being sent out, you need a centralized decision- maker. So email team is really separate from this regional marketing, because if each team starts sending different emails to our audience, then they're going to... We won't have a lot of subscribers left, I think within two months. So there should be a team that accumulates all the efforts and also prioritizes what needs to be sent out and the same with paid advertising, they have a lot of requests on what needs to be advertised, and then they also see, depending on the product, if they see that the conversion is high within the product, or that we get a lot of sales from a specific country, then the priority would be higher for the product or the country or both. And then if a small product within a SEMrush or, well we need local campaign for Netherlands, then the priority would be lower compared to example, the product campaign for U. S.
Sean Lane: So while the English speaking market may have centralized resources, a lot of these country specific markets operate completely on their own, which brings us full circle back to the rest of the world. Today Olga's team is responsible for the SEMrush brand in over 50 countries. And for someone like me, who has never worked in a business that has any international offices, this is wildly interesting. I wanted to go back to every single decision. How did you market differently? How does the messaging change? Do you have to have offices in every single place you sell? How did you pick where to go in the first place? Like I said, I'm a novice here.
Olga Andrienko: So we started expanding aggressively, I would say four years ago or so. And I probably have to start with how I pick the markets that we decided to pay attention to. So I looked at obviously revenue, and growth and we identified the baseline at the point where we wanted to... I cannot name the numbers, but I think it was just... Okay, I see top 10 markets, that's fine. I also see then another 10 countries that bring the highest revenue per month. And then obviously well top 10 countries would already, they definitely get their own team. So those are the countries that, for example, U. S., UK and Australia, they're our top English- speaking markets, and so U. S. And UK got their own teams instantly, and then France, Italy, Spain, for example, they were the top European markets. And then we looked further and we also analyzed our position on the market. So for U.S. Obviously there was Moz and couple of others, but we still were within top five, I guess, six, five years ago and it was obvious that U. S. was growing. Then in Europe, well for example in UK, UK is the country where all of the European software companies want to have presence, so that's the bloodiest markets. Then we looked at our competitors more. And for example, in Germany, the majority of our European competitors, they are located in Germany. So for us, we knew that we'll probably won't make top one ever, but that is strategically very important, so that's why Germany-
Sean Lane: Did you go towards your competitors or did you try to avoid them?
Olga Andrienko: We have different approaches and we were not using the same tactics, but we just thought that we definitely need a team and we definitely need to localize, we need content, we need communication in Germany. And I asked funny question to my German team. So I flew to Germany once myself, and then I started watching. So I just looked at cars going on the road, so four cars were German and then suddenly there was four, then also four cars, German, and then suddenly that was Renault or something else. So I just went to my team and asked," Can you identify who drives the Fords and Renaults in Germany?" So there are people... Germany is really, really, really loyal to their own products, so they definitely will choose their own cars that are produced by German manufacturers and other products also that would be German based. But there are people living in Germany choosing something else and as being U. S.- based, then I thought," Okay, there are people that have different mindsets, and we have smaller markets so probably that's every fifth person that would choose SEMrush, but there's still those people who make different decisions, so these are our customers."
Sean Lane: I'd love this analogy, the Ford of digital marketing. I can imagine galvanizing an entire team around this concept as you're breaking into a new market. All people need is that angle, that opening. I'm excited about it and I wasn't even there, now that's good marketing. But there wasn't a one size fits all or a cookie cutter approach that Olga and her team could take, they had to carve out their place in every single market they entered.
Olga Andrienko: So let's say the biggest company in our market in Germany is Searchmetrics and that's an enterprise solution, and our plan is 100 or 200 bucks. So we won't compete with Searchmetrics in Germany, we have to go to those local businesses that cannot afford to buy a tool that is worth a couple of thousand, but they would definitely be able to buy a tool that was worth$ 200, so that's the difference in the markets. And also Searchmetrics only SEO and then we were offering, by that time also, advertising, and content, and social media. So definitely, this is the niche that we needed to tackle in Germany, so small and local business was our niche. In Brazil for example, we started doing marketing through PR, and we were featured in main newspapers, our data was on TV and also we started working with opinion leaders. So there, we had a lot of social proof, but what we had to do once in Brazil, when they had biggest crisis we lowered, we had the special prices for Brazil because they were not able to afford$ 100 at all.
Sean Lane: So you've literally carved out different messaging, different positioning, different place in relation to your competitors in every single one of these markets, it's not consistent across each of the markets, that must be pretty difficult.
Olga Andrienko: Yeah, that's why we had a lot of teams doing that. In U. S., Our brand is called SEMrush, and in UK, that would be SEMrush, and if you hear our mention in France, it would be foreign language, ourselves we say SEMrush, but when I will be talking to client from UK, I will be naming our brand differently. So we even went to... we localized to our best ability.
Sean Lane: So with that, I'm curious, you clearly made this bet on this hyper- local messaging. Does that also mean that you have to have presences inside of each one of these markets? Do you have offices and local marketers in each one of these, or can they be handled from different locations, for example, one office in UK handles all of Europe, how do you think about that?
Olga Andrienko: That? We don't have offices in all of those markets. So we have three offices in the U.S. and we have big European offices in Prague and then development offices in Russia and Cyprus. So these locations were not... Obviously, well U. S. has headquarters in our biggest markets, but Prague is just a nice city where it's easy to relocate people from all over Europe, and it was just a decision that was not based on any revenue we get from Prague. So I believe that, and by the time we actually were becoming market leader in SEO in U. S., I was not traveling to U. S. at all and I had moved to U. S. at this point. So my team was working from Europe, and I am sure that now with the power of online marketing, you don't have to be present in the country to win this country over.
Sean Lane: So I guess, how did you go about learning, right? So your example about the Brazilian market reacting much more powerfully to PR, how do you go about learning that lesson from however many miles away?
Olga Andrienko: Trial and error. So that's where agile marketing really helps us, and also we have one of the principles as customer focused collaboration. So we really listen to our customers and that helps us a lot. So we react to feedback immediately and we work with opinion leaders and that's how we tapped into other markets. So we just worked with clients who were influential and I don't mean that they had to be really huge, bestselling authors, or they had to own the biggest stages. So I'm talking also about micro- influences. The between a regular happy client and a client who is an influencer, the influence is a lot more critical, and they share a lot more feedback and they want you to change. So that is I think really powerful, not only because of word of mouth, but this is a powerful connection that you can build with people in the local market who would help you adjust locally and ensure that your product is tailored to market specifically. I was sending messages on LinkedIn when we were, for example, entering Australia and India, then I was sending messages saying," Well, hi," and I was not offering anything. So I just said," I work for a SEMrush, we are a search marketing tool, please let me... Well, if you have any ideas, how we can help and serve Indian SEO community better, I'd be happy to chat." So I actually was just asking for help or for some input, and that's what has gotten us to a really, really good place and then has built a lot of connections for us because we were never asking for promotion, and we were always asking for the input. And influencers are people who want to help, and then who wants to change the world for the better, that's why they become influential. So that's a really good trigger for them also to participate because they also feel that they can influence a big brand, and them it's just something that's their bread and butter, that keeps them motivated. And suddenly, the aftermath of this is, that they started chatting about us because they felt emotionally invested. So it's a win- win situation when they feel that they've made some really big impact. And the same time you get this help from local market.
Sean Lane: At Drift, we talk about the idea of hand to hand combat. It's essentially converting customers and the people we interact with into brand advocates one experience at a time, one email, one phone call, one extra touch that someone didn't expect. Olga's doing the exact same thing here in a way that will create powerful advocates for SEMrush all over the world. Now, of course, expanding to over 50 countries, doesn't come without some pain. So to help all of you and me of course to avoid this future pain, I asked Olga what she's messed up along the way.
Olga Andrienko: In regards to mistakes, really painful was our intern... Well, our internal mistakes are most painful, and that's poorly localized or translated email that got us in the bad places, and we got really a lot of criticism for language in Italian and in French.
Sean Lane: And so do you end up just hiring local native speakers to be able to solve that problem or how did you rectify that?
Olga Andrienko: Yeah, we have a native speakers in each team, but it's a never- ending struggle because have a lot of communication. If there's a blog post written and then you also have social media channels, you have email, newsletters going. So that's just a lot of content, and sometimes if there is global news that's coming from English speaking product marketing, and it's been localized by email team, and then if the regional team hasn't really checked, what's been written, then it's a nightmare.
Sean Lane: Before we go, at the end of each show we're going to add each guest the same lightning round of questions. Ready? Here we go. Best book you've read in the last six months.
Olga Andrienko: In the last six months. I enjoy the one that I'm reading now and that's about podcasting. So it's a one and only book that I've found that's called Make Noise. And also, I really love the book by Ben Horowitz. His most famous book is Hard Things About Hard Things, and then he's written another one that's called What You Do Is Who You Are and it's about the company culture.
Sean Lane: Yeah. The Ben Horowitz book is making the rounds quite a bit at Drift right now, but I'm going to have to check out this podcasting one, it's a pretty timely recommendation. All right, next one, favorite part about working in marketing?
Olga Andrienko: Talking to people, I think. I can do it for free for the rest of my life.
Sean Lane: Least favorite part.
Olga Andrienko: Internal conflicts when different teams have different targets, although the end goal is the same, but while one team is measuring themselves by organic traffic, the other one is measuring them by conversions and they have the same channel, let's say it's blog, and aligning those team is through conflicts, and that is least favorite part of my job.
Sean Lane: Whenever you want, you can come back and we can do a whole separate episode just about that topic by itself.
Olga Andrienko: I think a lot of team leads now just maybe feel they have the same pain.
Sean Lane: Yeah, totally. Someone who impacted you getting the job you have today.
Olga Andrienko: My previous CEO Hannes Saarpuu, he was the CEO of a bus company I was working for. He has really influenced the way I think and treat my job, my team, and the company I work for.
Sean Lane: That's amazing. And last one, one piece of advice for people who want to have your job someday.
Olga Andrienko: Say yes, even if you're scared. Well, it's just, I never had any issue opening any door I wanted just because, even if I was afraid to take some challenge, I just closed my eyes and just went and asked for it. And a lot of times I just did something without permission, and if I was sure that was the right decision and I just fought for it. So I think that if you want to do something, or if you just not sure but it feels like the right thing, just say yes, do not be afraid. And probably another advice too, put company first. I think that's also something that got me through my darkest times in my career when I had to fight for the decisions or I was the one who was chosen to be promoted is because I always had company's interests first and my personal ones second. It really feels, and it really shows. A lot of people say that it feels like SEMrush is my company, and if owners or managers feel that you care that much, then you will be the first one who they promote.
Sean Lane: Thanks so much to Olga for joining us on this episode of Operations and thank you to Philippe from the SEMrush team for helping to set up that interview. We were coordinating time zones and movement all over the world, so thank you so much to both of you. If you enjoyed this show, please leave us a six star review on Apple podcasts, six star reviews only. It really helps other people to find the show. Also, if you're enjoying listening to these episodes and you're not subscribed, please subscribe. It'll show up in your feed automatically every other Friday, if not so much for the content, show up for the amazing new cover art that we just got. Shout out to Michelle Balaban and Dan Meyers on our marketing team for putting those things together. Dan took all the photos, Michelle did the amazing design, it's incredible, incredible work, so I thank you both so, so much. All right, that's going to do it for me for this episode, thanks very much for listening, we'll see you next time.