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Listen: Refinery29 Chief Amy Emmerich on Navigating Digital Media: ‘The Audience Is the Boss of Me’

Refinery29 was ahead of the curve among digital-native publishers in emphasizing video as a means of keeping users engaged for longer stretches and on a more frequent basis.

Amy Emmerich, president North America and chief content officer for the lifestyle brand aimed at young women, says that that early focus on ramping up short- and long-form video allowed the company to navigate the choppy waters caused by Facebook’s now-infamous algorithm revamp in late 2017 that has taken such a toll on digital media outfits.

On the latest episode of Variety‘s podcast “Strictly Business,” Emmerich says the changes in the digital landscape during the past few years also drove Refinery29 to wean itself of paid audience acquisition to pad its monthly user base. At present, Refinery29’s attracts a monthly user base of about 30 million.

“We’ve made a concerted effort to shrink the amount of paid (traffic) that happens at this company and we’ve done so pretty successfully,” Emmerich says.

“It was a matter of adjusting our strategy to watch the decline of paid and the incline of search.” As digital publishers were examining the impact of post-Facebook marketplace swings, it became clear to Emmerich and Refinery29 leaders that advertisers were become wary of less-than-organic user growth. “Who wants somebody that you had to buy? That’s not necessarily someone you’re trying to talk to,” Emmerich says.

Emmerich joined Refinery29 in 2015 after a stint at Vice and after building up a long resume as a producer and programming executive in cable at MTV and Travel Channel, among others. The digital world was attractive to her because it seemed like “the wild West.” Even compared to the voracious programming appetite of 24/7 cable channels, running a digital lifestyle brand is hard-charging work.

“You have to be comfortable with change,” she says. “You have to think about your strategies and review them quarterly. Unlike when I was in television when it was a yearly experience.”

Emmerich’s mantra for guiding Refinery29’s content efforts — which include everything from short films showcased at Sundance to traditional TV series and feature films in development with various partners — is simple: “The audience is the boss of me.” Emmerich and her team are laser-focused on tracking what makes young women tick. Impressing tech-savvy, pop culture-loving 20- 30- and 40-somethings is no easy feat.

“We’ve birthed a generation with technology where they are all creators the minute they get a phone in their hand,” Emmerich says.

Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. A new episode debuts each Tuesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

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