Refinery29 Banks $20M To Build Content-Infused Universes For Brands

refinery29-guysRefinery29 has raised $20 million in Series C funding from Stripes Group to expand its category coverage and technological clout. The round brings its financing total to $30.4 million.

What began as a grassroots fashion discovery portal for emerging brands and designers in New York, the city where high school friends Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano launched their company, now counts H&M and Samsung as clients and has grown a team of 120 creative editors and engineers.

Von Borries and Stefano want Refinery29 to become a source of content and inspiration for Millennial women while simultaneously generating unique brand experiences for marketers to connect with its audience of 30 million unique visitors per year.

The co-CEOs sat down with AdExchanger to discuss growth and their platform.

AdExchanger: How have you evolved?

PHILIPPE VON BORRIES: There’s been this amazing evolution from our origin as a tiny-dot-on-the-map company [in 2005] that we started by scrabbling a few thousand dollars together. Today, we’re very much a vibrant media company. We attract 10-12 million millennial women online [per month] through content and that’s an audience that’s tough to reach across multiple devices. They’re elusive. They’re on desktop, mobile and other devices. They don’t necessarily go to a URL. As a media company, you have to craft your message and experience to cater to a million different places where that consumer might ultimately exist.

Attribution modeling is a huge topic among marketers, especially where mobile measurement is concerned. How do you view it?

JUSTIN STEFANO: Attribution modeling is one of the most difficult things for retail brands and also premium publishers because it’s very difficult to attribute sales back to awareness marketing. It was the same thing with magazines and TV. What we’re doing is starting to migrate down the funnel. We just launched a portion of our site called Shopping, where we’re basically taking every product and every piece of inspiration our editors write about and making it shoppable on our site.

Eventually, you click out and it takes you to the retailer’s site, but it’s pulling or drawing our audience further down the funnel. That’s one of our first steps in affiliating information to sale, but there’s not a silver bullet for this yet. The other area we’re focusing on closing the loop is in the offline world. It’s creating ways for our users to save, clip and bookmark things for later so when they walk in a store, they are inspired to buy or purchase through push notifications in-store. We see that being a pretty wide-open space no one is focusing on in our niche.

How are you competitively positioned in the parallel worlds of content and commerce?

PHILIPPE VON BORRIES: There are very different KPIs for engagement vs. transaction. I think what we’re trying to do is collapse the funnel in driving someone from awareness all the way through to intent. I don’t think there is a great analogy for it out there in the world. I think what’s important is we clearly play in the media space, but are trying to do something new with it.

Upon entry to the Refinery29 site, visitors are prompted with an email signup. Where have you seen the most return from a user-acquisition standpoint?

JUSTIN STEFANO: It’s email and social, which are the main drivers of our business today. Philippe and I made a very conscious decision late in 2007 or early 2008 to focus maniacally on email acquisition and to worry less about traffic growth. It allowed us to build up a defensible relationship with our consumer. As the places where people consume their content have changed, we’ve always tried to build up defensible communities inside of those channels so that we can message them and keep them coming back to the site and engaging with them. It’s one of the most personalized ways you can reach people — in the places where they’re spending their time.

PHILIPPE VON BORRIES: We’re excited to leverage greater personalization and recommendation. Our email file is at 1.25 [million] and social spans over a million. We publish over 80-100 pieces of original content every day from fashion to beauty to wellness. There’s a massive opportunity to drill down personalization for better discovery onsite.

How can brand marketers leverage Refinery29? Where’s the brand opportunity over time? 

PHILIPPE VON BORRIES: We did a really cool thing with the H&M Festival Tracker from February to September. As you probably know, music festivals have become fertile ground for new trends and all new things happening. With H&M, we tied the brand to our festival coverage. The way we look at content, we almost create this sort of content laboratory to see what works and what doesn’t work. With H&M, we created a big environment around Festival Tracker, a special mobile site and probably 150-200 pieces of original content from street style at the festivals to music coverage to coverage about H&M to special new products. We essentially created a six-month universe around the festival, the street style, our audience and the brand.

JUSTIN STEFANO: One of the things we focused on was building out native product integrations into the content, and those had 37% click-through rates with over 10 million impressions over a six-month period for festival tracker.

We [also] did a program with Samsung called Thirty Under Thirty where we, across five different local markets, picked 30 different creative influencers and people in those markets who were pushing the envelope. We had an editorial process to select them and our editors went through whom they wanted to include. It ranged from chefs to tech people to professional athletes and did a really beautiful creative shoot. Samsung wanted to showcase the functionality of the camera and the video functionality for the Galaxy when it launched. For each one of the photo shoots we did, we shot these really cool behind-the-scenes videos and photos and documented everything leveraging the Samsung Galaxy phone and then we created a custom module that went at the bottom of each piece of content that was a behind the scenes look into the photo shoot. It was really effective because we took the most engaging piece of the content [the behind-the-scenes look] and turned it into a branded experience. People talk about native advertising these days and there are so many variations and levels of it. We’ve stopped calling it native advertising and call it brand-infused content.

Do you typically have agency dealings or is it brand-direct?

JUSTIN STEFANO: It is really client-by-client. Some clients we operate exclusively through the agency and sometimes its direct-to-brand, but usually it’s a blend of the two. Any time it’s custom or brand-infused content, the brand is very involved and the agency may structure or broker the deal.

Let’s talk monetization vs. user experience. What’s the right mix?

JUSTIN STEFANO: One of the things that we decided a while back is we wanted the same KPI for content as we did advertising, which means the advertising and the custom content has to be really engaging for the user. The idea is to make those marketing programs fun — something that actually enhances the experience as opposed to interrupting it. I think you have to understand what your consumers want and create marketing experiences and programs that enhance it.

What’s your 12-24-month plan?

PHILIPPE VON BORRIES: The first thing is expansion into new verticals. We have an origin as a fashion and shopping site. From beauty, wellness, home, entertainment and even news are all categories now that are creating vibrant conversation on Refinery29. I think it’s about bringing world-class video, editors, content and establishing ourselves as the de facto lifestyle media brand for millennial women out there. The second piece is mobile and technology. We’re really big believers in HTML5. We don’t have an app, but we’re releasing an amazing product in November that pushes the boundaries of what a media experience is in a mobile browser.

What it does is essentially borrows the experience of a social news feed you’re used to from Facebook and Instagram and ties it back to our discussion about personalization and technology driving a better experience. To us, it’s this hybrid between committing ourselves to an experience that you’re so used to from your interactions with all social platforms on a daily basis with technology that drives better discovery and experiences to really sort of own the space where 45% of our traffic is [now] coming [from] and close to 60% probably will next year.

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