Refinery29 Aims to Help Brands Connect With Women IRL

Including focus groups and workshops

Refinery29 laid off 34 employees today ahead of 2018 goals. Refinery29
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

While most digital media companies pitch new online video series during their NewFronts events, Refinery29 said today it wants to help brands connect with women offline.

Last year, Refinery29 opened The Empathy Lab, a joint program with the Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab, setting up focus groups to gather information about how power is represented in real-life conversations and digital media, with that research helping inform Refinery29’s programming and strategy.

Now, the media company is opening up the program to conduct research on behalf of brands to “help them better understand their mission, maintain their values and understand the role of empathy in today’s challenging and critical climate.”

“We’ve got to get as intimate with her in her real life as we do in her digital one,” said Amy Emmerich, Refinery29’s chief content officer, referring to Refinery29’s readers during today’s NewFronts presentation at New York’s Terminal 5. “We’ve got expertise in events and live programming, and we’re going to build out generative content models.”

She added, “It’s very simple—you bring a group of people together, you show them a really good time with real-life experiences, we pull the data and the insights. For a brand, this is how you create meaningful impact with this generation.”

“We gotta get as intimate with her in her real life as we do in her digital one."
Amy Emmerich, chief content officer at Refinery29

After the presentation, co-founder and co-CEO Philippe von Borries told Adweek the company creates workshops to help brands work through challenges.

“It’s a really interesting way for us to take our internal strategy team and export it into solving strategic problems for brands,” he said.

Refinery29 is expanding 29Rooms, its pop-up experiential program that turns physical spaces into branded content, to Los Angeles. There is also an augmented reality component planned for the experience. Last year’s activation in New York generated 250 million social interactions.

“We know that young people everywhere are looking to connect and take part in thought-provoking creative experiences,” explained Piera Gelardi, executive creative director and co-founder of Refinery29.

According to von Borries, there’s an inherent digital component to live activations.

“When you think about events, it’s broadcast moments where the entire experience is built to share,” he said. “There’s this conception about events not being scalable, but you have to think about events as broadcasting—events are the thing that anyone wants to be a part of. For us, events allow us to get 10,000 people to show up in the real world, but tens of millions get to participate digitally.”

Then there’s RIOT Writer’s Lab, a new two-day workshop created with TBS—Turner is an investor in Refinery29—in which up-and-coming comedy creators will get help from TV writers and executives like Sasheer Zamata.

Refinery29 is also getting into music. Willow Smith is the executive producer behind a music video series that pairs young filmmakers with rising musicians to create mixtapes. Once the music is created, the musicians will go on a national tour starting at the Los Angeles Music Video Festival later this year.

New video content

Refinery29 is launching new long-form video content, channels and franchises that fit under the NewFront’s theme of “Our party is women.” The publisher claims that people watch 13 million hours of its video content every month—that’s up 600 percent year over year—with 300 million streams. Refinery29’s network of social accounts and video distribution platforms reaches more than 500 million consumers globally.

In terms of new content, actors Zosia Mamet and Evan Jonigkeit are executive producers on an anthology series called Fabled that puts a twist on “the traditional fairy tale structure that has long been infused with patriarchal gender norms.”

“We obsessively started unraveling all the fairy tales and fables that we had grown up listening to, and it became very, very clear that these old stories were in need of a new retelling,” Mamet said. “So using some of the structural elements and the characters from these traditional fairy tales and fables as inspiration, we want to show these marginalized female characters succeeding by their own—our princesses are going to be bad asses.”

Other long-form and scripted projects include Girly, a documentary series that follows women who stand up and speak out in their communities, created with Fictionless Films and actress Rashida Jones serving as an executive producer.

Refinery29 is also turning its popular podcast Strong Opinions Loosely Held, created and hosted by Elisa Kreisinger, into a Facebook Page and a personal essay series. Another podcast and franchise, Unstyled Fashion Films, is being turned into a video series.

“By the time a video idea graduates into a franchise or channel, it has organically evolved with the support of an authentic and invested audience behind it,” said Kreisinger.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.