How Refinery29 Finds And Sells To Millennial Women

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Destination Refinery29Refinery29 started out as a fashion blog, but it’s since expanded its vision: It plans to be the go-to source for millennials on the subjects of beauty, travel and points of view on subjects ranging from dieting to news coming from Ferguson, Mo.

It's also a high-growth company. The digital publication has 15 million monthly uniques, according  to Google Analytics data as well as its social following. A significant chunk of its traffic comes from what it calls “loyals,” people who visit Refinery29 nine days or more a month; loyals account for 40% of total users. Many of these loyals subscribe to Refinery29’s newsletter, so driving more people to the newsletter is a priority.

The next step for Refinery29 is looking for millennial women across the globe. It plans on opening shop outside the United States in the near future. It’s also expanding its advertiser base. Refinery29’s core of beauty and fashion brands is expanding to travel brands and advertisers like Home Depot, which is pursuing DIY women.

There’s still room for Refinery29 to grow at home, however. The United States has about 40 million millennial women. Refinery29 reaches 15 million of them, according to its visitor statistics, so “there is runway for another 50% growth,” estimated the company's CRO, Melissa Goidel.

To help create more loyal subscribers, Refinery29 uses Adaptly. The native advertising tool helps brands manage campaigns across social platforms with scale. On Adaptly, brands can buy media on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon and upstarts like Kik.

The way Adaptly CEO Nikhil Sethi views it, “native is not a new channel. It’s a replacement for current media executions.” The only difference is that native formats are like “large pools of rebellious children,” since each format is different and needs to be tailored for each platform.

Plugging into different native environments takes tons of time engineering. But with everything in one place, brands get a global view of all their social campaigns. One of Adaptly’s most powerful features is its ability to automatically reallocate funds to a better-performing platform. Features like that make it popular among Fortune 100 and high-growth companies, according to Sethi.

Creating An Advertising Story On Facebook

Refinery29 wanted to grow the amount of its loyal subscribers, which the site looks at as a “health index,” by encouraging people to sign up for their monthly newsletter. But it wanted to do that in Refinery29 way.

“We don’t want people to sign up without that connectivity to the brand, and that brand trust," Goidel said. "We’re building our brand. That should be a dating process, and not just going for the close.”

In May, the company decided to test the effect of sequencing its creative on Facebook. Working from a Facebook Custom Audience of the most  active 5% of their email subscribers, it created a lookalike audience to receive the targeted ads.

One group of prospects would receive three messages encouraging them to sign up with Refinery29. One group would receive the messages in a “sustained” way. The other would get the messages in sequence over the course of the 12-day campaign.

Though all had links to sign up for the newsletter, the first and second messages focused on brand awareness and consideration, and only the third was a true call to action. The results were striking: Subscriptions increased 56% among those who received the sequenced creative.

Refinery29 users were most receptive to a soft sell. The best-performing piece of creative out of the six created was the “consideration” post, featuring sample content from Refinery29: “Wonder how those French girls get so pretty? Get daily beauty inspiration delivered to you (link).” It was the second piece of content in the sustained CTA campaign, and created more than three times as many view-throughs compared to the other ads, and three times as many subscriptions.

How Refinery29 Does Sponsored Content

“We’re much better storytellers than ad boxes,” Goidel said.

Refinery29 approaches advertising on behalf of its site the same way it approaches advertising for clients. Sixty percent of its advertising campaigns have some kind of custom creative, like a co-branded display ad or sponsored content. It’s consistent with the publisher’s focus on brand campaigns, not performance advertising looking at reach. While in the early days Refinery29 accepted ads through Glam Media, now the only way to advertise on Refinery29 is by going direct, though Goidel wouldn’t rule out workflow-focused programmatic solutions.

When working with a brand, Goidel said she likes to focus on KPIs like perception, awareness and brand lift over click-through rates. They often work with the communications departments of brands, not agencies.

“We look at engagement with the content and time spent, but we’re not about the biggest reach at the lowest rate. We do things like how to become a more relatable brand and change the conversation” around a brand, Goidel said.

Neutrogena did a video showing how to create an asymmetrical braid for its Triple Repair Hair Care system. Beneath sponsored content, there’s an option to “Shop This Article."

Where display can be a success is in the growing trend toward “always-on campaigns,” Goidel said, not splashy launches followed by quiet periods. Brands are realizing that people are not buying when a new shampoo hits the market, but when they need to replace their bottle of shampoo or an old cell phone. She sees retail in particular as embracing that viewpoint.

Those plans for expansion aren’t unchecked. Since 60% of Refinery29’s content features co-creation, the company reserves the right to be picky about those running on the site. Goidel reserves the right to say no to advertisers that don’t fit the brand, naming diet aids like Slim-Fast as one category that doesn’t fit with Refinery29’s mission.

The other route Refinery29 won’t go is doing deals designed purely to deliver impressions.

“Reach is commodified. You can buy cheap media to get reach. People know a sales pitch a mile away, but they’re also looking for solutions, and cues,” Goidel observed. “They’re going to be buying shampoo anyway, so the question is why should it be your brand’s shampoo? A trophy shot of a shampoo [in a display ad] isn’t going to reach you, but native content will.”

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