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

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

Maureen Sullivan Photo: Sasha Maslov

“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.

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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.”

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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.

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