In 2010, the e-commerce wunderkind Birchbox upended the beauty and cosmetics industry. Its affordable online subscription service that has garnered the young company exponential rates of growth, and subscribers have doubled to more than 800,000 since 2014 alone. The company is now in the UK, France and Spain, and there’s a brick and mortar store in New York City.
But Birchbox’s success is not solely based on the thrill its personalized, delightfully packaged mix of beauty and grooming samples and lifestyle products brings to people; Birchbox has won over its customers simply because the brand knows how to talk to them.
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The woman behind the Birchbox voice is Mollie Chen, the former travel editor who sparked founders Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp’s idea for a business that merges the expertise and familiarity of a beauty insider buddy with the ease of receiving a cosmetics counter on one’s doorstep.
Chen explained that the founding team’s divergent beauty routines inspired the voice she crafted as the editorial director: “We approached it really simply: What would we, as women, want to read? Hayley is still pretty minimalist in her beauty routine. She loves learning about things, but is going to spend all day reading about beauty. Katia loves beauty products and has always been more on the side of an expert. And I fall somewhere in the middle, but I’m kind of a geek when it comes to skin care.”
Chen oversees and shapes content that make shopping with the brand a captivatingly immersive experience. Customers can turn to the Birchbox Magazine and blog, various social channels and YouTube videos for content as wide-ranging as interviews with beauty industry insiders, lifestyle hacks, makeup and workout tutorials and news-of-the-day pieces—all presented with equal parts verve and insight. And of course the shop is always there for those inclined to purchase the box or full-size products.
Here, Chen shares the content creation strategies that keep Birchbox’s nearly 500 brand partners satisfied and has its customers coming back.
Name: Mollie Chen
Position: Editorial Director, Birchbox
Resume: Mollie joined Birchbox in July 2010, prior to the company’s launch in September 2010. Before Birchbox, Mollie spent five years as an editor at Condé Nast Traveler.
Birthdate: February 27, 1983
Education: Bachelor’s degree in social studies from Harvard University
Marital status: Single
Media mentor: “I was lucky to work with incredibly smart editors at Traveler, including Alison Humes and Dana Dickey.”
Career advice: “I’ve heard this from a few people, but you should always be learning in your job. If you’re not learning, it’s time to move on.”
Guilty pleasure: Eating popcorn for dinner
Last book read: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Describe your role as Birchbox’s editorial director.
Editorial at Birchbox is actually content. And I use the word content instead of editorial because it’s everything we say or do. It’s our brand and product pages in our shop. It’s all our marketing emails. I oversee our social media team alongside our chief marketing officer.
And obviously part of that are the articles and videos—everything works together. The voice and the content are really evident throughout every part of our business. I work with amazing editors, and I oversee our international, Birchbox Man and Birchbox Women businesses.
You were on a SXSW 2014 panel, and you said, “People should think of their brand as a person to enforce messaging and brand voice guidelines.” So who is Birchbox?
There are two things: who’s Birchbox and who’s the Birchbox customer. And by customer [we mean] if she was our friend what would we name her, what would she look like and what would her personality be. So there’s the person on the end of what you’re creating and there’s your brand.
The Birchbox brand is the savvy, approachable friend you have who always seems to know a little bit more than you and is always willing to share—this goes for both men and women. With men, we think of it as your cool uncle who gave you your first iPhone or showed you how to shave.
We want to make it clear that we’re always on board with you. We’re your buddy. We’re smart, we’re funny, we are out to have a good time and we’re self-aware. The brand itself is aspirational, but we’re never too cool for you.
How does the content team work with all the other teams at Birchbox?
Everything at Birchbox is very collaborative. There’s no such thing as a project that touches any one team, and I think that’s what I love about it. My team isn’t just a team of editors. They’re strategic thinkers who understand marketing and who think about the overall business goals.
They have a good sense of creative because they work super closely with our creative team. They think about distribution of their content because they work with the social team. Everything we do is cross-functional.
I guess a good way to think about how content works with other teams is that everyone here is after the win-win-win. So we think about it as a win for the customer: ‘I found the best product. It’s amazing and, not only did I find it through Birchbox, they taught me how to use it.’
That’s a great experience for the customer. For the brand, we want to have the right brand to meet the right customer and put that brand’s products in the right framework and context so the customers can understand them. And then for Birchbox, if those two things are working properly—if we’re connecting the right customers to the right brands, to the right content—we are winning.
[For example,] we just onboarded this new beauty company. No one knows who they are, but they are using the most amazing ingredients. Maybe we need to go talk to their founder and do a deep dive into those ingredients. And then we work extremely closely with marketing to think about the action we want the customer to take and the story we’re going to tell. [We think about] the value [we’re giving] to the customer, whether it’s an offer we’re sending them or a subscribe link.
We’re always thinking about how we can get them to click through and do what we want them to do.
What goes into creating content that, as you said, considers all three stakeholders: customer, brand partners and Birchbox?
We think about these things on a monthly basis, but also things are definitely on a daily basis. [We think] how are we going to bring [this month’s] theme to life? We start building our video and story lineup. And then on a day-to-day basis we keep a lookout for news, such as Lorde collaborating with MAC on a makeup line—is that something that our customers would love to know about?
What’s the Birchbox spin on that? Or we see that a customer tweeted a question about wearing sunscreen in the winter, and we whip up a blog post to answer them. So there’s the lineup that takes a longer view, and then there [are] the day-to-day reactions.
Birchbox has a very vocal and engaged community. How else do you use customers to shape content?
We are so lucky to have such an engaged community, and we really respect our customers. We [rely on] user-generated content—their pictures and what they’re saying about these products, and [create] an amazing gallery on our site.
What we like about this is it shows products and our boxes in the context of people’s homes and their lives. You can shop those if you want or you can just scroll through and consume.
We’re also constantly listening to [customers] in comments on videos and articles, and in emails we get. So we might just respond to them in a one-off way or we might take their comments and their questions and build out a story.
And we have a group of members called Birchbloggers who are our bloggers, but we’re not paying them anything. We sometimes send them products, but most of the time we’re just asking their opinions or reposting some of their content, using their reviews and trying to give them a bigger audience and help them succeed at their own initiatives. We want those real voices on our site.
What do you envision happening with content marketing for Birchbox and other brands, in general?
Something I’m excited about is mobile. We see that a huge percentage of our readers, our customers, are accessing Birchbox from their mobile device or they’re accessing it through our app. So that brings up questions of how do you tailor your content for an audience who’s reading on a smartphone or a tablet?
We’re thinking about not just how we want to tailor the messaging, but are there different types of content that we want to be putting on mobile? Are there different ways that people want to both shop and read if they’re not sitting at a desk?
In general, with content marketing, I think what is so cool—and I hope we’re working towards it—is what if we looked at Birchbox.com and there weren’t separate areas for the shop and for the magazine? What if it all just flowed together? That’s what I think is fascinating.
How have you grown as a storyteller, writer and editor through working in this role?
When you work at a place that’s transparent about business goals—how we’re going to get there and how everything is doing, not just how much we’re selling, but how this email’s performing, how the tech team is tweaking the site so people can find things quicker—you start thinking bigger than your own job.
I think that has likely made me a much stronger content strategist—just knowing what the goals are and being a part of setting them. So I now know a lot about marketing and brand relations, and I’ve worked really closely with our creative team.
Nothing I do is in a silo. Everything I do is attached to all these different teams at our company, and I think that’s helped me create something that’s ultimately stronger.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.