Today's digital audiences are fickle, and for good reason. Over the last few years, there has been an increasingly competitive battle for people's attention, and there is more noise than ever as brands clamor for the all-important commodity of attention. The more of someone's day that you can capture, the more time that someone spends with your brand, and the more likely these customers are to go to you for their needs.

At Refinery29--which describes itself as "a modern woman's destination for how to live a stylish, well-rounded life"--the goal is not just about putting out the highest volume, but also finding the right channels and mechanisms for distributing its message. Co-founders Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano have built a strategy around making their platform "sticky" so that users keep coming back.

Small metrics, big impact

Over the past few years, many digital media companies have focused solely on building scale, scale, scale, scale. But now they have to build engagement, a valuable relationship and long-term connection with the user, and to provide them with something that's going to impact their lives in a meaningful way.

"It's not just about people reading a story in that moment," says Stefano. "It's about, 'are you still thinking about that story three days later and talking about it with your friends?'"

This philosophy sometimes means moving from the measurable to methods that are less so. The benefits of some initiatives may be more difficult to measure, but that doesn't mean they're not improving your brand.

Case in point: "The Skinny," a Refinery29 digital TV show produced with Jill Soloway of Transparent, which catapulted Refinery29 much deeper into the world of Hollywood. It wasn't designed to get millions of views; instead, it was about getting engaged views. In fact, significantly longer and more engaged views than the site's average. The Skinny was critically acclaimed, which will undoubtedly benefit the business in the long run.

Connecting in the real world

One of the ways that Refinery29 stays sticky is by keeping engagement with its brand consistently high, which has meant bringing its digital brand to the "real world." In fact, von Borries believes that "the connectivity that you build as a brand with the users directly through this stuff in the offline world is just as important as the direct channels that you control in the online world."

The founders point out how attendance at conferences in general has gone up dramatically over the last five years because people are making these digital connections with brands and peer-to-peer, and want to meet people in real life. von Borries and Stefano could easily cut down on their in-person appearances but they don't see them as superfluous; these are opportunities to demonstrate their passion to the audience.

"We wanted people to connect with us physically, on the ground," says Stefano. "To understand what the product was and how we bring the brand to life. We actually get to shake the hands of our users and get to know them. "

The challenge that digital companies have is that the metaphorical magazine is not just lying around. You won't see a copy of Refinery29 in an airport or a doctor's office. So for digital publishers, the challenge is how to bring your brand to life when it doesn't inherently have a physical component.

Refinery29 does it through events, as well as print materials designed to complement their digital presence. Style Stalking, the fashion photography book by Refinery29's Editor-in-Chief Christene Barberich and Executive Creative Director Piera Gelardi (also co-founders), builds credibility outside of markets that might otherwise be peaking.

"It's critical," says Stefano. "Just having physical collateral that people can walk away with is important. Every chance that you have to get it in their hands makes a huge difference. We don't think that enough digital companies focus on it enough."

Focus

To stay sticky these days, you've got to built something that is meaningful enough for people to have on their smartphone's home screen. But how does a publisher actually accomplish that?

von Borries believes that the challenges in getting the Refinery app as somebody's go-to require a personal connection with the brand. "Clearly the era of one size fits all is done, right? It doesn't work," he emphasizes. "So being really diversified and differentiated in our approach to programming content is one of the most critical takeaways over the last two to three years."

To to succeed on a platform-by-platform basis, a publisher's content has to be uniquely positioned to fit the norms of each platform. Plus, you can't be everywhere at once, and there are some platforms that don't quite mesh with your goals. It takes finite resources to develop a powerful brand, so publishers have to really think long and hard about where their dollars are best spent.

"You have to find the right balance," says Stefano. "Where you have some core channels that are main 'superhighways' of getting your content out there, and then other platforms where it's just like, 'hey, let's try it out.' If it doesn't work after a while, you pull back from it."

If you love your users, set them free

Distributed reach is just as important, but the ability to program experiences on your own native platforms--experiences that give people a reason to come back--is critical. For example, the Refinery29 app sends people one push notification a day around specific franchises that have gained popular on the site. The app reaches the audience around specific passion points, at a specific moment where people actually care to read the news.

"I love those moments where you can act as a service," says von Borries. "We're thinking a lot about what service means to Refinery29, to give you what you didn't yet know existed, from a perfect outfit to a beauty recommendation."

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In a scatterbrained world, Refinery29 has successfully brought its users back time and time again, with a flair that befits its platform. With a wide range of outreach campaigns, both digital and in person, they have successfully leveraged these channels in order to develop a strong bond with their audience.

von Borries and Stefano agree that they are "always thinking about messaging." That is certainly clear. From web to book to word-of-mouth, the Refinery29 message has remained uniform, clear, and engaging. Their tagline invites women to live a life that is "stylish and well rounded," and that description perfectly encapsulates the brand's approach to content.

Published on: Apr 10, 2016