R29: Branded Content’s Proof Point

Refinery29 was an early master at collaborating with brands to create great branded content; some of the site’s most popular features — from blogging contests to in-depth profiles to funky photo spreads — were produced in concert with brands like Macy’s and Stoli, as Strategist Managing Editor Joe Lazauskas profiled in Mashable. The revenue generated from those programs was the primary driver behind the company’s rapid growth from a 4-person shop to a 65-person fashion force in just a few years.

Around the same time, Refinery29 redesigned its “Shops” experience, allowing readers to shop directly from editorial features. Co-founder Philippe von Borries told PandoDaily he expected the commerce push to generate a quarter of the site’s revenue, or $4 million, in 2012.

It turned out that collaborating with brands on content was better business than commerce for R29. The commerce play only ended up generating around 5 percent of the company’s revenue in 2012, and R29 has quickly refocused branded content, which was generating the majority of its revenue and helping the site nearly double its readership.

“It took us a couple of years to come to the conclusion that we could provide a better resource to users by focusing on discovery…versus getting caught up in the native transaction,” von Borries told PandoDaily.

Investors agreed heartily with that strategy; the company just announced a $20 million Series C round from Stripes Group. Much of that money will go towards editorial expansion: R29 will continue to widen their lifestyle content, which already ranges from cocktail recipes to thought-provoking pieces like “Women in Video Games: There’s Still a Lot of Sexism, but There’s Hope.” The editorial team plans to increase the number of long-form articles and essays on the site, while growing their community of contributors, editors, and celebrities.

Sponsored content will undoubtedly be integrated throughout this expanded editorial ecosystem. Click any four posts on Refinery29 and one is bound to involve some sort of collaboration with a brand. (I happened to land on a blogger profile presented in part by Armani Exchange.) This even happens on a micro-level within pieces. In a slideshow on “20 Weird-But-Awesome Style Tricks,” one sweater slide was sponsored. You’ll likely start seeing more long-form pieces of branded content on the site quite soon.

If you want further proof that branded content is alive and well, look no further than R29.

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