Refinery 29's Approach To Content

We talk to Jessica Novak about her thoughts on new content initatives


Jessica Novak is the Senior Content Strategist at Refinery29, the largest independent fashion and style website in the United States, as well as the fastest growing media company on the Inc. 500 list. She has partnered with Refinery29's editorial team to build a collaborative, data-driven culture that has resulted in year over year traffic growth of over 100%. She oversees editorial analytics, email strategy, and expanding R29's viral reach and is also the editor of the Refinery29 Intelligence blog, a platform for sharing R29's learnings and best practices around creating and distributing quality content. Prior to Refinery29, Jessica worked in the startup world for a fashion-focused mobile app and on the Marketing Strategy team at Bloomingdale's. She has a degree from Northwestern University.

Do you agree with the phrase that ‘content is king’? If so, why?

Yes, content is certainly King, which is why we invest so much into our original programming, photography and art. It’s impossible to develop a lasting and meaningful media business without focusing on your content, brand and voice. However, in this day and age, great content is just the first part of the story. To really make something resonate, it also has to tap into an ongoing conversation or nerve, reach a relevant audience, and be distributed on the right platforms in the right way. So content is still king, but distribution, strategy, and packaging are in the royal court.

Content is often interpreted differently from demographic to demographic. Does this mean that you can only create content that’s tailored to one particular audience?

I don’t think it’s as much about different demographics interpreting content in different ways as it is about audiences on different platforms looking for different content. Refinery29 is heavily focused on millennial-minded women, but on Facebook, for example, our reader is looking for something different and more immediate than via email or even on Pinterest. We’ve paid close attention to the nuance across platforms and we absolutely promote our content differently across these channels, tailoring assets to specific audiences and even promoting different stories at different times of day across platforms.

What do you think is the most effective way to distribute content online?

Is this a trick question? J It depends on the story, and it also depends on the goal. If it’s an amazing, image-driven slideshow and you want to optimize for reach, Pinterest might be the most effective, but if you have a timely news story that taps into reader emotion and identity, you could see a huge, immediate win on Facebook. If I had to distill distribution to one thing, I think the most effective strategy is to create great content that is inherently shareable, make it easy for your reader to find, and make it even easier for them to share with their own networks. They will do a lot of the work for you if you strike a nerve.

How did you go about choosing a tone of voice and how important has this been to your content strategy?

Our tone and brand filter is something that has been consistent since the very beginning, but since data and AB testing tools have opened up the possibility for unprecedented growth over the past 5 years, I think brand voice and brand identity are the ultimate differentiators even more so today. Refinery29 has built an incredibly loyal audience, and we owe this to our ability to maintain a strong and consistent brand over time. We look at content strategy as the intersection of art and science, with art being a consistent brand filter and editorial voice, and the science part being the social listening, AB testing, and use of data to craft content for large audiences. We focus on the area where the two overlap to promote and optimize content that is truly brand right.

What do you think is the most important type of content (videos, articles etc)?

Good content. I think video as a medium is on the rise, and this has certainly been seen by Facebook’s algorithm changes this year, but content should take the form that tells the story best. I don’t think one type of content will ever usurp the rest; there will always be an audience for long reads, slideshows, video, and quick articles. It’s about matching the format to the right stories. That said, if it doesn't work on mobile or social platforms, it's probably not going to be successful.

Are there any companies whose content strategies you particularly admire?

I think Mic has done a great job with their videos; they are great at hitting a nerve and joining ongoing conversations, and they’ve seen huge growth this year. And Buzzfeed and Upworthy of course were truly pioneers in creating data-driven content and using data science to game distribution. In the future, I’m excited to see what happens with NowThis News’s distributed strategy and Mashable’s presence on Snapchat.

What can the delegates expect from your presentation at the Content Strategy Innovation Summit?

In my time at Refinery29, I've seen a tremendous cultural shift from an editorially-driven operation to one that embraces data, capitalizes on trending topics, and tests and optimizes everything, resulting in triple digit year over year growth. We've crafted our content strategy around both art and science, balancing the abundance of new social listening and AB testing tools available with our core creativity and editorial gut instinct. This is a shift that is taking place throughout the industry right now, so I'll talk about the process, the team, and the tools we used to successfully use data to create - rather than dictate - great content.

You can see Jessica's presentation at the Content Strategy Innovation Summit in LA on September 10 & 11. 


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