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Refinery29 – for the millennial-minded woman

In 2005, four friends in New York set up a digital media and entertainment company for young women. Today, Refinery29 has more than 450 employees and claims a global audience footprint of 550 million. Mary Hogarth talks to Sarah Raphael and Gillian Orr about the challenges of bringing the brand to the UK market.

By Mary Hogarth

Refinery29 – for the millennial-minded woman

In November 2015, Refinery29 launched a UK edition with Sarah Raphael as its editorial director.

“We launched with a small, but extremely talented team and a mission to offer smart young women interesting, relatable content that really spoke to them in their everyday lives,” explains Sarah. The team, who worked closely with the US founders, editors and vice president of international in the UK, spent a long time strategising around the UK editorial. It was crucial for the launch team to figure out their raison d'être in the UK as well as how content would differ from the US site.

For any new concept, developing key questions is a crucial tool. For Sarah, these were: who did we want to be, what did we want to say and which issues were we particularly committed to reporting?

“We also looked at how could we work together to create an international brand that women respected all over the world,” says Sarah, adding that Refinery29 UK was lucky to have the US division to learn every aspect of the business, from editorial to marketing, from social to branded content.

“Every question or concern we had, there was a tried and tested answer in the US, so of course this was instrumental in the success of the UK business. We wanted to show young women that we appreciated how broad their interests were, and to offer them a new perspective on these topics.”

Sarah says the brand was brave with its launch content, not afraid to take risks and try things out. A key component of Refinery29’s success was that the team listened to their audience – an approach that always pays dividends no matter what the platform. “More importantly, we supported women who had previously felt left out of the media and under-represented in mainstream press by giving them a platform to share their stories.”

Early feedback from users indicated that the team had hit the right note. They were extremely positive. For Sarah, the comment that most stood out was, “Refinery29 is like talking to a really good friend”. “That assured us we were doing something right. Editorially, we’ve progressed, advanced and adapted a lot in the two years and three months since launch, expanding our team with fresh talent, realising our impact and potential, but our core mission will always be the same: to support, encourage and inspire women.”

An eclectic mix

What stands out about Refinery29 is its eclectic mix of editorial. Gillian Orr, who was features editor at launch but who has recently been promoted to content director, tells me that they make no assumptions about their audience be it sexuality, race or economic circumstances.

But who are their core audience? Gillian identifies users as “millennial-minded women”, explaining that they use this phrase because while millennial as a term generally encapsulates people aged 18-35, it doesn’t necessarily account for women who fall outside that band but share similar interests as those under the millennial banner. Their core users, it seems, live across multiple platforms.

“So, we aim to be everywhere she is,” reveals Gillian. Whether that be providing quick hit Instagram stories on her commute home, daily beauty-orientated content on our Snapchat page, or longer reads they catch on desktop or mobile, covering topics varying from calling out sexual harassment to talking about body hair.”

All content on the site is specifically designed with this demographic in mind. It is real, engaging and articulately written with a creative approach to added value. For example, one of my favourites is Money Diaries, which is very popular among users. It takes an in-depth look at a reader’s finances for the entire week. Yet, unlike some money publications, there is added value in this content with relevant links and tools to inspire plus there is an appropriate mix of sources. In accordance with Refinery29’s strong editorial values, the team is careful to sources submissions from all income brackets and regions of the UK for their Money Diaries section.

“Millennials are much more financially literate than they’re given credit for and Money Diaries is the kind of frank content that caters to that: it doesn’t judge the spending or savings habits of the individual, but creates a healthy open area for education and debate. A recent one saw a young writer spending way over her budget and getting Ubers everywhere; the internet was divided into those who thought she was being irresponsible and others who thought she was a hero.”

With technology and consumer habits continually changing, digital media is often difficult to get right. Part of Refinery29’s success she attributes to experience drawn from longevity and the ability to stand out from the crowd. “Refinery29 has been running for more than twelve years honing a strong editorial voice and striking aesthetic,” says Gillian, adding that more than three-quarters of the brand’s audience can recognise Refinery29 imagery in a line-up. “I believe this sets us apart in the market and has built us a loyal following.”

Challenges and market positioning

So, what have been the biggest challenges of launching in the UK? According to Sarah, building an audience and establishing a reputation was a daunting task.

Their aim was to become the go-to publication for women’s issues and perspectives. “I think we’ve achieved that goal,” says Sarah who is quick to credit her amazing team. “While some people did read the US website in the UK before we launched here, getting these readers on to the UK site was a challenge. Acquiring more and more users as well as finding ways of being seen by people who had never heard of Refinery29 – well, that was hard.”

The team had to start all their UK social channels from scratch, which she admits was tough. How did they overcome the many challenges of such a launch including cross-platform, financial and existential? “By looking at our mega-successful sister across the pond and learning from the founders and editors how they overcame very similar challenges when they started in 2005.”

Now firmly established, where does Sarah see the platform in terms of market positioning? “Competitive sets used to be very vertical categories, but with the convergence we’re seeing in the media, that field has expanded. We see ours stretching across the women’s market with the likes of Stylist, Vogue, Broadly, Debrief and The Pool, as well as increasingly with other entertainment and lifestyle titles.” Sarah doesn’t see the print market as a challenge and thinks there is a place for both mediums. Refinery29’s ability to adapt is one of the brand’s core strengths, she says.

“As a digital-first brand, there isn’t the weight of a 100-year legacy over our heads, there’s nothing holding us back in that sense. Our founders – and the leaders of the business – encourage us to adapt, try new things, think big and experiment in all areas of the business so that yes, the model changes, the strategy changes, the platforms and CMS are tweaked and improved all the time.”

Consistency is core to this brand’s identity. “The mission is always the same and our brand values – to deliver relevant, authentic content for women – also remain the same.”

Those with experience know the secret of any global brand is to take a collaborative approach. For Gillian, this means sharing resources with their New York, LA and German platforms. “World events are neither local nor global anymore – the internet changed all of that – so whenever something big happens in the US, we want to reflect it in real time, but with a UK perspective. You can hear the voices of our journalists in their work and we welcome the international take on that too.”

Another unique point is Refinery29’s strong, aesthetic design, which Gillian tells me has been developed over many years by the co-founder and executive creative director, Piera Gelardi. “Piera has bought such a vibrant, innovative look to everything. We’re lucky enough to have an incredibly talented UK art director, Anna Jay, who commissions a range of photographers’ and artists’ work to accompany our editorial. This ensures everything fits comfortably in the Refinery29 look.”

From my perspective, a key aspect is the brand’s innovation and vibrancy coupled with the can-do attitude of Sarah and Gillian, which no doubt filters from the top down. “To be able to talk to and inspire women about everything from their careers to clothes to politics is such a joy,” says Gillian. “We’re living in a terrifying, exciting, important time as women and I feel Refinery29 is the perfect place to grapple with what this means.”

Moving forward

What’s in store for the future? Sarah says her long-term vision is “to be the brand women turn to and trust for opinion, education, advice, inspiration, understanding and entertainment,” while continuing to offer a platform for marginalised voices.

While sharing that vision, Gillian’s focus is developing new ways to tell women’s stories positively. “We want to do more editorial themed weeks, as they allow for an immersive experience of a topic and of our brand. We increasingly want to connect with our readers offline so experiential events is a key place for growth in the business generally, following the success of 29Rooms – a large-scale interactive art installation curated by Refinery29 running in New York and LA.”

I’m impressed with Refinery29; there is a quality and passion about what they do. The platform is not only aesthetically pleasing but also works intuitively. I see the brand continuing to evolve through a mix of innovation and vibrancy, coupled with an understanding that their audience’s needs are continually changing.

In December, Sarah Raphael took on a new role as editor at large.