Content Marketing All-Stars: Jessica Novak of Refinery29

By NativeAI / October 10, 2014


Pop quiz: Refinery29:

  1. Is a leading source for fashion and lifestyle content
  2. Connects with more than 10 million site visitors each month
  3. Has content strategy down to a science (really)
  4. All of the above

Read on to learn how Jessica Novak approaches content strategy at Refinery29, from selecting brand partnerships her readers will love to making small layout tweaks that drive big results.
How do content marketing and branded content play into Refinery29’s overall content strategy?

Refinery has done a really great job of building a loyal readership of millennial women. It’s a natural extension of our brand to partner with the companies and brands they love. But we’re also really picky in terms of who we partner with to ensure brand alignment and make sure even our branded content is within our brand filter. It also needs to provide a service to our reader and perform on the same level as our editorial content. At the end of the day, we make sure we work with partners that understand that we speak with our audience in an authentic voice, and value that sensibility rather than change it. 

Many would love to achieve the level of customer loyalty that Refinery29 has. How do you approach content in a way that keeps people coming back and talking about you?

I think our strength is that we’re really genuine. We don’t dumb it down and we also don’t click bait because our reader can really tell if they’re being gamed. We respond to our readers’ comments, we start conversations around our stories. We also try to write about what’s on her mind and trending in the world around her. Something that’s really important is that we don’t cover everything. We’ve built a really strong brand voice and if it’s not a good fit, we either won’t cover it, or we’ll cover it in such a way that it’s different from what they’re seeing on other sites and still consistent with our brand. We approach topics—especially the controversial ones—in a way that’s accessible but smart and really straightforward and head-on.


It used to be more common for brands and editorial to be strictly kept as separate entities, but that’s clearly changing. What would you say to someone who still thinks the presence of a brand makes content less authentic?

Our branded content is sometimes more engaging than our pure editorial. If you find a brand that’s aligned with your reader and your voice, it can be a very seamless integration. I think the most successful partnerships are with brands that want to align with our content anyway, so it feels organic. Another upside is that branded content allows our editorial and creative teams to produce on a higher-than-average budget level in terms of original photography, art and talent, so I think there can be significant elevation there. We use use brand dollars to finance our dream scenarios. Again, we apply the same testing strategies and editorial lens, so these stories all look and feel like what our readers are used to seeing, rather than something that feels branded.

Do you have any personal content marketing do’s and don’ts?

Definitely do more of what’s working. Don’t try to resist if that changes over time, because it will. Do try to anticipate those changes in advance. Another big “do” at Refinery is to partner really closely with editorial, weaving data into the process on both sides and making marketing and editorial more of a partnership and not separate departments. That’s worked really well for us here. It allows us to pivot quickly and we’ve built a process that really allows us to experiment more and visualize really quickly what we’re seeing in the data.


What metrics are most important to Refinery29?

Visits, page views and engaged time are the three big ones that we look at. We also look at shares and comments on social. We have benchmarks for our email click-through rates, we have benchmarks for what a good story looks like for page views. We can definitely parse out a high-performing story or an under-performing story. 

How do you view the relationship between content and social media? What would you say are the keys to making the most of your social presence?

I think Facebook has become the new homepage for most publishers. And if it’s not the new homepage, it’s definitely the second homepage, and that certainly hasn’t been lost on us. But I think the key on social is to bring the right content to our fans at the right time, and packaging it in a way that inspires clicks and shares. I talk about packaging, I talk about the image-headline-callout combination that’s so important. We’ve seen that small tweaks to the way we present a story can really make or break how it performs. I think success on social is in part due to a really strong editorial voice, which I think our social team has perfected over time, but also this real-time partnership between social and marketing to find the perfect timing and messaging for every story. We do a lot of testing on social and there’s a lot of conversation about how to position every story.


What steps do you take to keep innovating in the way you present content to your audience?

We’re constantly iterating and testing, whether it’s introducing new templates or testing different ways of packaging our stories. We look at what’s working currently and try to apply that to other categories and present topics that we know resonate in different formats.  We are also constantly researching our audience and applying deeper reader insight to what we choose to test and how we evolve.

I think it’s safe to say you’re winning at the email newsletter game. What would you say are the essential elements of a successful email, from the subject to the content?

For a successful email, you want a subject line that makes the reader open the email, obviously, but also something inside to make them click through. And you don’t want to over-promise. You don’t want them to be disappointed. We’ve found that more variety and number of stories in our emails provides a higher click-through. And the subject line is our gateway, so it has a huge effect on our click-through rates, too. Two subject lines for the same story can perform extremely differently. We’re constantly testing those. We’re also really cognizant of the variety of stories in our emails and we know what works on different days. For example, hair stories perform really well on Saturdays. But our real strength has been in testing the stories that go out so we’re really giving her what she wants to read every day. The best story, not just the best subject line.

Let’s talk about the content marketing goldmine that is the Intelligence blog. How did the idea come about?

Most publishers are dealing with similar challenges, and we’ve been having the same conversations over and over again with our peers in the industry. So we decided to open up the conversation by creating a place to share the best practices that were working for us. It’s a really exciting time in media right now, and we want to lead the charge, and as publishers navigate the distribution channels, A/B testing tools and more competitive digital landscape in general.


Posts like “How an Email Redesign Increased Our Engagement by 20 Percent” prove that the smallest tweaks can make the biggest difference. How would you guide someone who’s doing everything by the book, but can’t pinpoint why their content strategy still isn’t working?

I would first say that there really is no book. Each publication’s readers can be really different. If you’re doing something by the book and it isn’t working, test out new books until something sticks. We’ve tried many different processes—design tweaks and processes that didn’t really work—and the true success is recognizing when something isn’t working and being able to apply the learning to something else. 

How do you see the world of branded content changing and growing in the future?

I think it will get more competitive, not just for content views, but also for readers’ time. I think the stakes are raised as the reader becomes more savvy. Now more than ever, it’s important to hold branded content to the same standards as editorial. Ads will still be important, but I think true engagement lies in native and in finding those new and innovative ways to integrate brands into a seamless reader experience. At the end of the day, branded content will be turning into better content overall.

Written by NativeAI / October 10, 2014