Why video creators need to keep it real with their audiences

Refinery29, a leading women’s lifestyle publisher, is having a breakout year on YouTube. In June, its channel won an esteemed gold play button after hitting 1 million subscribers. That translates to 3X growth in just 12 months.

Watch even one of its videos — which explore everything from global wedding traditions to the inner-workings of everyday products, and have hundreds of comments from engaged fans — and you’ll understand why the publisher has been so successful.

I sat down with Amy Emmerich, Refinery29’s chief content officer, to learn how it keeps video viewers engaged, what strategies it uses to reach women, and why shopping-as-entertainment is a big new trend.

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Oren Fliegelman: Congratulations on earning your gold play button. Why do you think your channel has grown so rapidly?

Amy Emmerich: At the end of 2016, we began heavily focusing on consistency and programming. Instead of one-off videos, we created a set of series and uploaded them on a schedule. We immediately started seeing audiences develop around them and the fan base has grown ever since.

For example, we alternate uploading an episode of “Sweet Digs” or “My Kitchen Sink,” a cooking show, every Sunday. Mother’s Day this year was meant to be a “Sweet Digs” Sunday, but we uploaded a special “My Kitchen Sink” episode instead — and our audience noticed! Fans commented asking why the order had switched.

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Viewers seem to love in-the-moment experiences on YouTube. Have you seen an appetite for these authentic videos among your fans?

Our apartment tour series, “Sweet Digs,” shows real women, who have no media training, in real homes. On a few occasions, we’ve even gone to someone’s house and noticed that they haven’t cleaned up.

Viewers notice when things come across as too polished. … You’ve got to keep it real.

But viewers don’t mind that. In fact, we’ve learned that they notice when things come across as too polished. We once did an episode using higher-quality cameras with an LA-based actress and a fan called us out in the comments. You’ve got to keep it real.

With such a wide-ranging set of series, how do you decide which are the best ones to invest in?

It can take a while to make the right decisions, because we do a lot of testing. It’s fluid, so we’ll start with several one-off videos and see how people respond. From there, we’ll expand to four-episode flights and then full-fledged series. Sometimes success happens quickly, but often you need to give it time to see what works.

Most importantly, you need to leave room for failure. You can learn just as much from your failures as your successes. We actually bake that attitude into success measurement. For example, when we’re trying out new things, we warn our leadership in advance to expect a dip in the metrics we care about. We’re building for the long term.

Can you tell us about some of your strategies for keeping viewers engaged?

We often include several layers of information and context in videos. Take our cooking series, “My Kitchen Sink.” It would be easy to just say “I used chicken stock,” but that’s not useful for someone learning to make the dish. You need to say what type of chicken stock you used, where you bought it, and how much it cost.

Another way is to create a two-way conversation. On “Sweet Digs,” someone might ask, “I’m thinking of redecorating this room, what do you think?” Or Lucie Fink or Mi-Anne Chan, two of our hosts, will ask, “What do you want to see us do in the next episode?” Some of our top videos have come from viewer suggestions, like the one where Mi-Anne only used Whole Foods makeup for a week.

What big consumer trends do you see on the horizon?

Shopping is a trend we talk about a lot — we’ve found our viewers love watching other people shop. It’s not too dissimilar from the gaming video trend. They’re really popular, even though viewers mainly just watch someone else play a game. For example, last year Mi-Anne took a fan on a $1,000 shopping spree to Sephora’s largest North American store and that video has more than 800,000 views.

The secret to a good shopping video is helping viewers really understand the in-store experience.

We’ve found that the secret to a good shopping video is helping viewers really understand the in-store experience. Whenever our editorial team live streams a new product launch, viewers want to know all about the experience: What’s it like to be at a fashion show? To watch the announcement of a new clothing partnership? To see famous designers in the flesh? The best shopping videos help them experience all that as though they were there in person.

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