Refinery29 has been one of the pureplay smash hit success stories since their launch eleven years ago. Now one of the largest US publishers for young women, they reach over 400 million women a month in over 100 countries, talking to them about the issues that matter to them most, from fashion and beauty to politics and feminism.

The job of bringing the American brand over and articulating it to the UK audience fell to Kate Ward, vice president of international at Refinery 29, who has managed to grow the brand over 600 percent in the UK since 2015.

Speaking at Digital Media Strategies 2017, Ward was quite clear what set Refinery29 apart as a success story:

“There’s a long history of women’s media, especially in print. What makes Refinery29 different is our mission and approach. There are so many titles that are just fashion and beauty, but we do technology, politics, careers and feminism alongside that and try to bring everything together that our audience care about.”

“We are unashamed, and passionate about representing young women; their perspectives and their diversity, and being a platform for young talent.”

A global voice

The Refinery29 team of journalists, filmmakers, editors and designers take an unusual two-pronged approach to ensuring their content is as inclusive as possible.

The first part is in the writing itself, as Ward explained:

“We have a really stringent global editorial guide about how we talk to our audiences. One example is that we don’t assume sexual preference when we write. So if there’s an article about what to do on a Friday night, we won’t set the scene where you’re cuddled up with your boyfriend.

“Another example which is hugely important is in our beauty content. We won’t walk about summer, going out and getting bronzed, because that makes an automatic presumption about race.”

That’s not to say that Refinery29’s content is generic, but rather it takes a more personalised approach.

“We won’t put out an article about ‘Ten pairs of jeans to wear now’, because there are so many different body types and tastes in jeans. Instead, we’ll do ‘Ten jeans to buy if you’re short’. It’s much more specific, and our readers can see straight away whether it is relevant to them.”

The second part of the inclusive approach is one which many may not consider particularly important, but which has been pivotal in Refinery29’s success.

“We take real, honest care over our imagery,” Ward explained. “When we’re thinking about photoshoots, we don’t use professional models. We use our own team, which represents a wide variety of different body sizes, ethnicities, skin and hair types.”

This has played into a major partnership: ‘The 67% project’, which Refinery29 launched with Getty Images five months ago. Ward expanded on the premise behind the project:

“The 67% project is driven by simple insight that in the US, 67 percent of women are above a (US) size 14, but have less than 2 percent of media representation. We took the approach of ‘How do we take ‘plus size’ and normalise it?’

“We launched a ‘No Apologies’ collection of stock imagery and illustrations to more accurately reflect the women who make up our audience. It also strengthens the stock imagery archive of women of all sizes doing normal, day-to-day activities.”

The project has translated through to all Refinery29’s imagery; distinctive, bold and representative. The effort has paid off – Ward says that 77 percent of their audience can pick R29 imagery out of a line-up.

“That’s really important for us and we’re really proud of it. The visual language is completely at the heart of our brand.”

It is this heart which ties the Refinery29 brand together so strongly across the different social platforms, which the publisher uses to cultivate their audience. Ward explained how they draw these audiences together under the Refinery29 umbrella:

“While we have tremendous scale across Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Facebook etc., we also have great loyalty in terms of subscribers and return traffic. Engagement and loyalty hold hands with scale and creating that influence we see with the Refinery29 brand.”

Bringing the brand to life

Like many publishers, Refinery29 have brought their brand to life with pop-up events, which informs their digital strategy.

“The question we keep in the forefront of our minds when it comes to the role of events is ‘How can we take that digital loyalty and bring it to life?’ We say ‘URL to IRL’ (In Real Life)!”

The ‘URL  to IRL’ approach was put to the test at New York Fashion Week, with the brand’s female-powered immersive funhouse 29Rooms. The house is an exhibition of concept rooms, some where you can pick up phones and listen to women’s stories, and others of VR and technology experiences.

“We had 15,000 people visit those 29 rooms over the week,” Ward explained. But it was not just the physical visitors which made the difference.

“100 million users on Instagram saw pictures that those people had taken. That’s 1 in 6 people seeing our brand purely through content created by visitors to the event. Social allows us not just to connect with our audience, but to empower them to become content owners within themselves.”

It’s not at all surprising with these figures that Refinery29 have a solid grasp on exactly who their audience is.

“There are a few characteristics that define our audience. This generation of young women are more conscious about global trends than ever before: they have a global perspective. They are part of a 24 hour day; a content cycle which is truly global.”

Having offices in New York, LA, London and Berlin means that the content can be shared across timezones, creating a network effect. Ward emphasised that the local voices are just as important as the global in creating compelling stories, especially when making the American brand work in the UK and Europe.

“We keep asking ourselves, what are we saying about the world in which our audience lives? What are we saying about the values and the subjects that matter most to them? And how does this translate to their experiences and what we create for them?”

This also carries through to what Ward calls ‘micro-communities’ within the main audience.

“Each of our writers is aware of which community they are building content for…there’s a power of the niche, and we love talking about those niche interests and highlighting them. Those micro-communities then band together to create really significant communities.

“We do that by social listening and by interpreting the data in sophisticated ways. It’s a brilliant mixture of art and science.”

Inspiration, value and trust

As well as creating over 120 stories a day for their vibrant, passionate audience, Refinery29 also has a healthy branded content business, which has been received warmly by their audience, and is not afraid of leading that relationship with brands.

“2 in 3 of our audience say they trust a brand on the basis of what they’ve seen on Refinery29,” Ward said. “Our branded content is clearly marked, and our audience appreciates it.”

“We have two boxes it has to tick to meet our standards. Firstly, it has to inspire, much like the 67% project with Getty. Secondly, it has to be valuable and useful, such as how-to’s or ‘service’ content. Brands don’t get put off by this approach; they choose us because we speak authentically to women.”

“There’s no chance that we’re going to stand still or preserve anything. We’re always looking to the future in terms of the editorial content, in terms of being a platform for great ideas, and pushing ourselves to do even better.”