Among websites that focus on lifestyle, news, culture and entertainment, Refinery29 stands apart, embodying what it means to “Internet or Die.” Smart, informed and with a wealth of verticals across a variety of topics, what decisions were made internally at R29 that allow it to stand apart?
Why thank you! We are proud to be “Internet or Die.” ?
I think brand differentiation starts with the core of a brand and the mission and values it stands for. To differentiate Refinery29 as a brand, we started wayyyyy back in 2005 when we first founded the company as a digitally native style destination (being digitally native was novel then!) We launched with a really unique focus—one that many said would never succeed—to concentrate on independent makers and celebrate individuality and inclusivity. We looked at the traditional fashion media and said, why does fashion content have to make you feel bad about yourself? We created content designed to help people discover their own unique style (vs telling them how to dress), to feel good about themselves (vs pushing an inaccessible idea of “aspiration”), and to find inspiration and resources to fuel their best lives. That core of celebrating individuality and fearlessly inspiring confidence continues to be a north star for us though we have expanded to many topics outside of style and to work in tons of new areas.
To continue to stand apart over the years, we have focused on challenging convention, starting important cultural conversations, and going into territory where others didn’t dare tread. We also have a Forever Forward motto that drives everything we do—a mentality of constant exploration and evolution.
How has the evolution of content creation—be it on your site or on social—helped get R29 to where it is today?
When we got into the digital media space, it was a bit of the Wild, Wild West… There wasn’t a roadmap or much competition to speak of. That allowed us to experiment and get a head start. Being at the forefront as content creation evolved was critical in us growing our business. We started experimenting with branded content (aka native advertising) back in 2006 when it was still a new, which allowed us to stand out.
Our continued exploration of new platforms has kept us relevant to our audience and allowed us to help guide our brand partners in their own content creation.
Refinery29 won a Webby this year for “The Skinny”—a multimedia content Web series combining humor and seriousness in an attempt to unpack the culture and politics surrounding eating disorders. What compelled you to work on this project?
We were compelled to work with Jessie Kahnweiler on “The Skinny” for a number of reasons. Firstly, because we love to help amplify the voices of unique creators. Jessie wrote, directed and starred in “The Skinny” and we were proud to give her a platform to amplify her work. We felt that the project really aligned with our desire to start meaningful conversations others may be afraid to have so publicly. We don’t shy away from tough topics because we know that taboos fuel shame and shame is antithetical to the confidence and empowerment we aim to help our audience achieve. With “The Skinny” and RIOT, the YouTube channel we recently launched that focuses on women in comedy—we are tackling tough topics through humor and in an effort to open new conversations and help combat the stigmas around issues like eating disorders and mental health.
The Internet changes so rapidly that it’s essential to keep innovating to stay relevant. What are you doing right now to help R29 continue to standout?
The Internet can’t be stopped! The amount of change that we’ve seen since we launched is INSANE IN THE MEMBRANE!! To stay relevant takes constant brand evolution, challenging yourself to try new things, staying super aware of trends and competition in many areas of the industry and a ton of hard work.
At Refinery29, we push ourselves to be constantly testing, experimenting, and evolving in ways big and small. I tell my team, “If you’re sick of doing something the same way, it’s time to switch it up.” It takes each and every person at Refinery29 continuing to innovate their individual areas to push us forward as a whole. On that note, we look for ideas from all different corners of the company and from the audience to help keep things fresh. I host brainstorm sessions in my office, called the “Peach Pit” brainstorms (in honor of my beautiful peachy-pink walls) where anyone from the company is welcome to come present new ideas and topics for a group to discuss. I love seeing the mix of Peach Pit attendees—ranging from our engineers to photo editors to data analysts. Open door processes like this gives me insight into the passions and seedling ideas that are incubating among the people who are truly immersed in our brand.
You’ve been at R29 since the very beginning. What lessons are you applying to new ventures such as R29’s newsletter, which won a Webby People’s Voice Award in 2016?
Our newsletter was one of the very first extensions of the brand and one that continues to drive huge engagement and loyalty for us. Our content lives across so many platforms, and our homepage is constantly changing and updating with new stories, so the newsletter allows us to highlight some key stories that we want to ensure our audience doesn’t miss. The curation of that content is key.
Another insight we continue to operate on is the idea that the Refinery29 brand can manifest in so many ways. We are driven by mission and values, and the brand can extend its message and conversations into new formats from scripted video content like “The Skinny,” to experiential activations like 29Rooms. It’s important that we don’t feel confined by one expression or medium, which means we can have fun as we continue to experiment and extend the brand to new places. Risk taking and imagination have been key to our growth.
As a leader in your field, what makes a project or company stand out to you? Can you name a recent digital project or campaign that really caught your attention?
I am always drawn to projects and companies that have a unique and differentiated POV that feels really authentic to them and who are unafraid to be wholly themselves. I also love work that challenges stereotypes and convention. For example, I love what Man Repeller is doing. Leandra has a really great voice that’s all her own.
I loved the We’re The Superhumans Paralympics ads (the best TV spot EVER IMO) which skillfully framed its differently abled cast by showing them not as disabled, but as super powered beyond belief. I was also totally blown away by “Embarrassed”—a powerful and hyper creative visual poem about breast feeding by British poet Holly McNish.
What emerging digital trend are you most excited about right now and how do you see it changing the future of your business and the Internet as a whole?
Video storytelling is totally transforming our business and the Internet. There are tons of really unique new formats to craft narratives with—from Instagram stories, Facebook Live, to 360 VR and new technology driven creative tools such as Google Tilt Brush.
I’m also really happy to see diversity and challenging stereotypes being adopted by bigger brands and media outlets. About time! Inclusivity FTW.
Thanks, again to Piera. Follow her on Instagram and check out all things Refinery29 on their site. If you haven’t watched “The Skinny” yet, do so here and ICYMI—Piera was profiled as part of our Judges Spotlight series recently as well.
Stay tuned as we introduce the rest of our Internet Or Die partners as part of the 21st Annual Webby Awards. Don’t forget, the Final Entry Deadline is December 16th, 2016—Enter today!
Image Credit: Jonathan Grassi for Refinery29