The 3 Cs of Successful Brand-building: A night out with Etsy’s Linda Findley Kozlowski
“The world could use more dialogue,” Etsy COO Linda Findley Kozlowski noted last week as she addressed our rapt audience of female operators from leading NYC Tech companies, including Dia & Co, Casper, Glossier and Slice. Communication has always been top of mind for Linda. She got her start in PR, where she helped companies navigate crises, IPOs, scandals and some good news, too. Linda learned some valuable lessons along the way, most notably about how companies use media to spin their stories, and ultimately decided she’d rather work within a company to prevent those crises than manage them from the outside.
Thus began Linda’s transformation from journalist to operator. In recounting her experiences at some of the most influential companies in the world - Alibaba, Evernote and now Etsy - Linda gave us a glimpse into her proprietary formula for building strong brands with loyal followings. Ultimately, she says, it boils down to fostering open communication, mobilizing communities and never losing sight of your customers.
Linda’s first foray into operations was at Alibaba, when she accepted the role of global marketing lead - a role that (laughably, now) felt like a bit of a gamble. It was 2009, and an incredibly pivotal moment for the company. Alibaba had 22,000 employees at the time and was in a highly acquisitive phase as it sought to expand beyond China. With a rapidly growing global brand, it was critical that Alibaba not lose sight of its audience.
To accomplish this, Linda focused her efforts on cultivating two-way conversations with customers. This open dialogue, as Linda talks about it, is the key to a company’s success; it’s how they get to know their customers, how they frame their marketing, how they build community, and how they maintain engagement with their audience. This was a far cry from the way she’d seen companies use media to tell their story in her PR days, and Linda became acutely aware of the important distinction between advertising (essentially talking to people) and marketing, which calls for a more open communication between a company and its users. “No business can survive unless you have an intimate and ongoing understanding of your customer base,” Linda said. “You need to truly understand your customers so that you know how best to serve them.”
The other side of the marketing equation for Linda is community engagement. Evernote was able to harness the power of communities from very early on, largely because of its open API and high degree of customizability for local preferences. By the time Linda joined the team in 2012 - first as the Director of Market Development and ultimately as COO - 50% of its customers were outside of the US. The Japanese community, especially, had become extremely passionate about Evernote, giving rise to an unprecedented inbound distribution model. Some of Japan’s largest companies, including Samsung and Deutsche Telecom, picked up on Evernote’s loyal following and began preloading their devices with the platform, shelling out huge sums to offer their customers pre-paid one-year Evernote trials. Thanks to those partnerships, 9% of Japan’s total population was using Evernote by the time Linda left in 2015.
Establishing two-way communication and community-building have been integral to Linda’s role as COO at Etsy, where she’s responsible for all revenue-generating activities. When Linda joined the company in Spring 2016, Etsy had been operating without a formal marketing department for 11 years. It was a network of passionate sellers creating unique and inspired items for an interested but not hugely loyal following of buyers. The company’s seller population grew organically and very rapidly across the globe - and now tops 1.9 million - but customers weren’t quite as aware of the company’s mission. Many came to the marketplace to shop just for one-off items.
Linda’s top priority now is to make Etsy a way of life for its customers, to figure out how to engage Etsy’s community of buyers and sellers and keep them coming back on a regular basis. The best way to do this, she says, is to create a continuous customer experience across every touchpoint: product, support, marketing, partnerships, communications, and international expansion. By creating a cohesive customer experience, you can mobilize your audience, align them with your mission, and build a truly loyal following.
With 33.4 million buyers and 1.9 million sellers in nearly every country around the world, this is no small feat. In addition to the new initiatives spurred by Etsy’s marketing team - including seller studio visits and customer engagement support for sellers - Linda has been digging deep into her own marketing toolkit to really get to know Etsy’s customers. Already one-and-a-half years into her role, and with plenty on her plate, Linda makes it her business to get in the trenches herself and touch base with at least several customers each and every day. She visits local sellers when she travels abroad and has become a devoted customer herself, having furnished her entire apartment with Etsy goods. Maintaining constant contact with your customers to truly understand their needs and pain points is the only way an ecommerce company can stay ahead of the game, Linda says, and she’s dedicated to leading that charge.
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The thing that keeps Linda ticking, both professionally and personally, is passion. She’s always pushed herself to seek out opportunities that genuinely move her, that inspire her to wake up each day excited to work and to achieve bigger and better things. It’s this same passion that Linda strives to cultivate in her customers and in those around her, and we thank her for giving us a glimpse into how she’s been able to make that happen. “Companies are inevitably going to grow and change,” she explained. “The trick is to scale the business without losing your personal touch.” Millions of customers at Alibaba, Evernote and Etsy couldn’t agree more.