How AOL Tapped Into the Power of Mom and Became No. 1

Maureen Sullivan led the way to the top of the lifestyle heap

“West Elm!” declares Maureen Sullivan, pointing to a metal pendant lamp as she brightly describes the workplace furnishings in her chic, exposed brick East Village office in New York. The president of AOL.com and lifestyle brands since July 2012—she was bumped up from svp of brand marketing and communications—the 32-year-old Sullivan is acting like the very consumer she and her team are working hard to win over by being a trusted resource.

AOL is banking that those consumers of its growing Lifestyle extensions will aggressively, if not gleefully, share functional information—which will only beget more audience. Pew reports about 8 percent more women use social media than men, and are more likely to use Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. A Ladies’ Home Journal study showed 82 percent of women have no problem sharing what they think of products and services, and 79 percent of them bought something based on a recommendation from someone they knew. Peer recommendations were the most highly regarded source, followed by branded websites.

Sullivan believes this trend has evolved as women increasingly rely on online retailers that have layered on review, commenting and social sharing functionality to the shopping experience. Wisely, AOL has adopted some of these service-based aspects, such as the Get It Here links on StyleList’s Get the Look items so women can shave “an extra five minutes” off trying to find the look themselves online. Likewise, adds Sullivan, Kitchen Daily features a universal recipe box so users can store online recipes not only from AOL’s food website but from other locations. “It’s kind of like the [2.0] version of how your mom had a recipe box on the counter,” she explains.

The millennial mother seems to have found the right recipe for AOL’s success in the digital world of women’s lifestyle content. In just 18 months, AOL and its brands have surged from seventh in the women’s lifestyle category per comScore to No. 1 since January 2014. And, while the competition is close, AOL has held the top spot all year, thanks in great part to Sullivan’s instincts.

“We took the risk with one of our superstars and put her in a place to run the strategy and execution of women’s lifestyle. It’s paid off,” says AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. Under Sullivan’s wing, the loyal readership of mostly 18-45-year-old moms has only grown steadily for AOL brands StyleList, HuffPost Style, Makers, and Kitchen Daily, along with Style Me Pretty and its contributor network./p>

“We were slowly moving up the ranks, and then we had this surge ahead in recent months. I think it’s really exciting,” says Sullivan.

AOL has made the women’s lifestyle category a priority because there’s a lot of money to be made in the genre. Despite the recent high-profile closures of iVillage, Daily Candy and Yahoo Shine, multiple studies have shown women still make the majority of household purchasing decisions.

JWT trends strategist Will Palley says there’s another factor at play: the rise of the single mom. Pew studies show moms earn most or all the income in 40 percent of households with children under 18. He also points out that 60 percent of all bachelors and master’s degrees belong to women, meaning they’ll have better job prospects and even more disposable income to spend. “We’re certainly seeing marketers redefining their image of a single female adult,” Palley says. “Marketers are catching onto their consumer segment of buying power.”

For example, Palley says, DeBeers used to market its diamonds in the aspiration silo of the engagement ring. Today it’s selling its jewelry to women as a way to reward themselves.

From a pure content inventory perspective, programmatic buying service MediaMath says it’s seen an increase in demand from advertisers for premium lifestyle programming online, though the firm stops short of saying if brands have specifically asked for its partners AOL and Yahoo, another leading deliverer of audiences via lifestyle content.

Lifestyle’s biggest growth area may be native advertising, and Palley believes demand will only go up among women’s lifestyle publishers. AOL already counts twice the number of native contributions five months into 2014 than it attracted in all of 2013. “We provide advertisers customization and flexibility in every partnership,” says Emily Glatzer, general manager of lifestyle brands at AOL. “Our programming and product strategy is fueled by insights and focused on providing utility to our users across all platforms.”

Colleen Whitney, svp, national video lead at DigitasLBi, says the digital agency lasered in on women’s lifestyle during the 2014 NewFronts. “Partners like AOL and Yahoo have been open to integration like branded content, product placement, weighing in on a storyline ahead of time,” says Whitney, who was part of the team that bought into AOL’s new Web series My Hero starring Zoe Saldana. “There are opportunities for us to make sure the message in the story they are telling resonates with our values ahead of time.”

AOL’s branded campaigns include working with L’Oréal to create timely beauty content that lived on both sites, including offline activations, print branding and video offerings. The partnership will continue for a second year. “We were very pleased not only with the outcome of year one but with the endless potential that this partnership affords,” says Kristen Comings, vp of integrated marketing communications at L’Oréal Paris.

AOL isn’t alone in hearing the call for native activations. PureWow, which targets Gen X women, has also experienced a 37 percent increase in inbound leads and RFPs from advertisers in the last six months. Last year, 70 percent of its revenue came from native content campaigns. “Gen X women don’t want you to tell them to buy something. They want you to educate,” explains PureWow CEO Ryan Harwood. “They don’t respond to here’s a coupon. So, advertising had to evolve.” 

Practically Speaking
For Sullivan’s mostly millennial staff, a mixture of gut feelings and the power of convenience guide how they approach curating the right content for their audiences. “We’re consumers first. We think, would this make our life easier? No? Then why would we show it to millions of women on our site?” says Sullivan. “If we don’t add the practicality, we’re not helping the reader and user.”

You can see why Sullivan understands her readers. In her office, she’s replaced an ergonomic desk chair with a more traditional stylish chair with blue and white upholstery. A metal bookshelf bears horizontally stacked coffee table books, pottery and other glassware. Nestled in the corner is a retro-style stainless steel fridge, on top of which sits a decorative wine bottle with a cork jutting out.

The simple “inspiration to action” is also a rallying cry for others competing in the online lifestyle living room. “It’s an insight that many women’s content creators are pivoting off of,” says Samantha Skey, chief revenue officer for SheKnows. “They don’t want a magazine experience. They want to see it, how to reproduce it, how to transact around it and then share it. You have to provide that whole experience.”

It doesn’t hurt that engagement and social utility piques the interest of digital shops and brands, says DigitasLBi’s Whitney. “If you look at the explosion of how-to videos, it’s not just looking at what somebody is wearing on the red carpet, but how do I do that? There has to be a content value exchange with the consumer. It’s not a one-way conversation,” she adds.

Share of Share
But, instead of side-eying each other for sharing the same strategy, many publishers in the women’s lifestyle space have formed bonds. Where it would be unheard of for Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living to partner with each other in print, AOL regularly works with other women’s lifestyle publishers on both editorial and branded content. For example, PopSugar has a lot of video clips. Editor Lisa Sugar says she has no problem tossing a few to AOL to feature on its sites and taking some content from the media giant in exchange.

“Egos are pushed aside. … While you are vying to be in that No. 1 spot, it’s still obvious that women are trying to reach a bunch of different things in a lot of different places until they find the right content,” says Sugar. The women’s lifestyle brand ranks 11th overall in its category and fourth in lifestyle video, per comScore.

Sullivan attributes much of AOL’s success to its contributor network. It has partnered with more than 300 blogs and provides them with “the lion’s share” of revenue through its ad network. In return, AOL posts original content from them and learns from their experiences.

One of AOL’s contributors is Chassity Evans, a Charleston, S.C., mom who runs fashion blog Look Linger Love. Her content gets used regularly on StyleList. She’s also participated in several branded-content campaigns by writing lifestyle posts for Marc Jacobs and Johnston & Murphy. Her turn at styling a model during 2013 New York Fashion Week for the Tide runway show ended up on StyleList’s homepage. “While these partners all have strong brand identities on their own, StyleList facilitates a connection to their network of publishers with broad-reaching and engaged audiences, allowing these brands to reach markets that perhaps they weren’t connecting with before,” says Evans.

Not everyone believes this sharing of resources and native ad plays is universally positive. Altimeter principal analyst Brian Solis notes that working with other publishers in the space is just a fuzzier version of content manipulation. He also points out something often overlooked when it comes to the networks of bloggers and paid influencers who boost up editorial content as well as native advertising. To Solis, it’s tantamount to rigging the system by paying others to provide positive exposure. “You could call it all the BuzzFeed effect,” says Solis.

Staying the Course
Whether AOL’s model of making life simpler and convenient for the average woman is the best way forward remains to be seen. And it has serious competition from Condé Nast Digital and Yahoo, who are nipping at its heels. “We have the extra benefit of being able to leverage the power of our Condé Nast brands, some of the most recognized names in women’s lifestyle,” says Michael Klein, CNE’s evp of programming and content strategy for the digital channels. “Together with rich digital content, we have a solid formula.”

Rival Yahoo is rebranding its lifestyle sections into sleek digital magazines full of bold imagery and videos more about digging deeper into targeted topics than about mass utility. Yahoo Food launched in January 2013 at CES alongside the revamped Yahoo Tech vertical. The company claims that content on its digital magazines is shared two to four times more via Tumblr or email than its other pieces. Yahoo Travel, which rolled out at the NewFronts, and Yahoo Beauty and Yahoo Fashion, which will be added later this summer, are certain to inflate those numbers. The sections are led by celebrity names like makeup guru Bobbi Brown and former Elle creative director Joe Zee.

“Our digital magazines provide an opportunity to dive deeper into topics that our readers are passionate about, like food, travel and tech,” says Susan Kittenplan, executive editor of media initiatives at Yahoo.

The idea is to appeal to a younger demo, Altimeter’s Solis points out. But he worries that Yahoo has failed to understand it is aiming for a hyperconnected customer that has to want to share Yahoo content as much as use it.

While Sullivan keeps an eye on all her competition, she isn’t worried. AOL will stay focused on finding the compelling content and curation that make women’s lives easier. “For us, we have a winning strategy, and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” she says.

At least in one corner of the vast digital world—and for now—AOL is enjoying being on top of the heap.