Refinery29 continues European expansion with a lighter footprint

Refinery29’s international expansion plans are coming into focus with the launch of its French edition two weeks ago.

This marks the Turner-backed digital publisher’s third European edition, launching in the U.K. in 2015 and setting up shop six months later in Germany. Both bureaus have local editorial and sales operations.

During the two-and-a-half-year gap, the publisher has learned and made adjustments: Rather than launching with a local editorial team in Paris, content that suits the French market — based on historical, social and search data — is translated from the U.S., U.K. and German sites.

“It’s not about having one bureau but having centers of excellence, hubs of people working together in an ecosystem,” said Kate Ward, president, international, Refinery29. The London bureau will lead audience development and content strategy, working with the Berlin hub that will handle execution and something called “transcreation,” per Ward.

For example, once the relevant story is found, the team will layer additional content so topics are understood across regions, tweak data, change hyperlinks to relevant language and alter the image based on A/B testing. “It’s as if it’s an original execution of that story,” Ward added.

Refinery29’s German edition launched with a combination of local and translated content relevant to local audiences; the split was roughly 60% local and 40% translated. In 2018, local content became the minority when it saw a more-than-50% increase in performance on translated beauty content, particularly around topics like tutorials and “alternative” beauty content rooted in self-expression, such as tattoos. The reason: This taps into global expertise from specialists rather than having one local writer covering fashion, beauty and style. This gave the publisher the confidence the model could scale sustainably internationally.

The international team is roughly 80 people and doubled from last year.

France has been in the pipeline since it launched in the U.K. Over the last two years, the audience in France reading English content has grown, but the company didn’t divulge how many. In total, 38% of the audience to Refinery’s owned and operated platforms are from outside the U.S. According to Comscore, in April in the U.K., Refinery29 had 2.2 million unique monthly users on mobile and desktop, up from 700,000 the same period last year.

The French site is focusing on beauty, wellness and lifestyle at launch. Broadly, these have been the topics resonating with a French audience. But there’s scope for a lot more, and the publisher already has several global-facing franchises that will travel.

“We don’t think of a distinction between U.K. and U.S. content; it’s global storytelling,” said Ward. She points to global franchises like “Money Diaries” that are popular in the U.S. and U.K. Refinery29’s YouTube series “Style Out There” has a global outlook on fashion trends and has filmed in Japan, Israel and Namibia.

Refinery29 is working with Evian for its launch in France, hosting an event in Paris and content that will run in other markets. Refinery teams from London and Berlin will run events in France, which it plans to grow. Events have been a staple for Refinery29’s U.S. business, and Ward is confident the team can scale this in France.

Other U.S. media businesses like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have scaled back on their international expansion. Publishers, including Business Insider, are looking for efficient ways of growing.

“Google and Facebook are grabbing all the growth of online advertising where scale seems to trump anything else,” said François Godard, media analyst at Enders Analysis. “Digital advertisers seem indifferent to context. Competition of ‘influencers,’ who are potent advertising vehicles, is very strong. If you create a French franchise you need a French team, only a small part of your content can be translated.”

Revenue from the international business grew over 100% last year and will grow over 100% this year, according to Ward. This comes from Refinery29 branded content and consultancy from its creative agency, The29th, which launched in London last September and has clients like Walgreens Boots Alliance and Samsung. Globally, the company missed its revenue target by 5% in 2018.

The publisher isn’t ruling out future deals like joint ventures of licensing the brand to fuel further international growth, but the team was confident it could build the French audience by drawing on the London, Berlin and New York hubs.

“We’re greater than the sum of our parts, that’s the ambition,” said Ward. “We’re building a fast-growth and audience-focused and sustainable, scalable model for international. That’s central to the business.”

Image: Courtesy of Refinery29, via Facebook.

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