Cannes Lions 2013: Q&A: MailOnline’s Sean O’Neal Helps Write New Rules for Content

MailOnline aims to take advantage of the surge of interest in content marketing, aka native advertising, helping brands reach consumers on its own addictive site.

At this year’s Cannes Lions festival, MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke interviewed three of the most popular celebrities in social media: Martha Stewart, Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown, and rapper/TV/radio personality Nick Cannon. They talked about how digital and social media let celebs build and manage their own brands.

Photo: MailOnline Publisher Martin Clark interviewing Martha Stewart on stage at Cannes Lions.

Sean O’Neal, global CMO for the publisher, was also in Cannes talking up the content marketing opportunities with clients. O’Neal is charged with helping to monetize MailOnline’s U.S. traffic of 19.4 million monthly unique visitors. MailOnline is published by Associated Newspapers Ltd. and part of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, and Metro Media Group. It publishes entertainment, pop culture, and celebrity news, along with lifestyle editorial aimed at women.

The publisher recently published a survey of agencies and brands that found that 70 percent of brands and 77 percent of agencies already have engaged in content marketing, while 70 percent overall planned to spend more on it in the coming year.

The brands cited branded content as among the most effective tactics for achieving branding objectives, and 71 percent of agencies said they partner with the publishers that they are buying the media from – good news for MailOnline and other content publishers.

ClickZ caught up with O’Neal via email to discuss the changing role of celebrities in content and media.

ClickZ: How has the relationship between the celebrity and the media changed?

Sean O’Neal: There was a time when celebrities lived in a different world from the rest of us. When you wanted to speak to a star, you had to hang around a film premiere or a stage door. And if the stars wanted to speak to their fans, they had to go through someone like MailOnline to get in the newspaper or on a TV show, with their PR agent to hold their hand. And then they had a 50/50 chance of actually getting the chance to say what they actually wanted to say – and even less chance that it would eventually get printed and broadcast. But that was before the Internet.

The Internet has been credited with creating many things that have been a boon to mankind. It’s connected the world. It’s supposed to have got Obama elected. Twice. It even helped spark the Arab Spring, which transformed a region. And it has finally given celebrities a voice of their own. Stars have always endorsed brands. The explosion of celebrity coverage on the Internet – not least on sites like MailOnline – meant their role became more valuable than ever. Stars today don’t just appear in ads for products. They help craft the products. They become brand ambassadors or even creative consultants. And the Internet, especially social media, meant that celebrities could even become the brands. MailOnline is the most popular English-language newspaper website in the world, with 130 million users a month and 8.2 million a day, yet there are celebrities on Twitter and Facebook who can reach millions more people in an instant than we can.

ClickZ: What do you see as the new rules for promotion, publicity, and public relations?

SON: Participants in our panel at the Cannes Lions spoke of “transparency.” They all agreed that authenticity was more important than ever, and when it comes to promoting a product or spinning a news story, their fans are savvier than ever and can detect anything unauthentic. And transparency also means more “openness.” Nick Cannon spoke directly to the issue of the paparazzi. He said that new media has actually given him more control over his public image, because he and his wife, Mariah Carey, are able to publish their own photos, blog posts, and tweets about their life, and do so in a very deliberate way. This is actually taking some control away from the news media, and putting it in the hands of the celebrity, who is now a media publisher in her own right. So today there is a new dynamic – a three-way, democratic relationship between the public, the celebrity, and the media.

ClickZ: How did your presentation fit in with other themes, memes, and ideas bandied about during the Lions?

SON: One of the themes at this year’s festival is “Game Changers,” and there’s a great exhibition about the evolution of advertising that pays tribute to the likes of Jeff Goodby and Bob Greenberg and some of the advertising that changed the industry forever. The panelists in our seminar were selected because they are also game changers, breaking the mold of how celebrities merchandise their own brands.

ClickZ: You’re looking to monetize MailOnline’s users. What tactics do you think offer the best opportunities and why?

SON: Given our editorial focus on entertainment, lifestyle, and breaking world news, mobile and video are very powerful opportunities for our marketing partners. Our product is real-time and instantaneous; anywhere and everywhere; and visually intensive. We’ve developed a suite of advertising solutions that help marketers tap into that. And we’ve also been innovating in the area of native advertising for years. We recently published a state-of-the-industry white paper on content marketing and native advertising and will be launching several new native ad solutions later this summer.

ClickZ: How are you using the insights from the research behind that white paper on native advertising?

SON: The study was extremely informative. In addition to validating what we had already observed, that marketers are investing more and more into branded content marketing, we learned a lot of the reasons why. For instance, marketers who were surveyed said that content marketing is essentially as effective at driving brand lift as video advertising. We also learned that transparency is on a lot of marketers’ minds; the general consensus is that sponsored content needs to be clearly labeled as such. And perhaps the most interesting finding was that, despite a lot of the debate in the industry around native advertising’s ability to scale, that is actually not that big of a concern for marketers. They report seeing such a high level of performance from native advertising that, on a cost-per-point-of-impact basis, they are often more efficient than those extremely large-reach tonnage campaigns.

ClickZ: How is MailOnline different from the print version, in terms of content strategy (if at all), advertising, and/or monetization?

SON: When we re-launched MailOnline, we did so independently from the newspaper. This gave us two key advantages. First, we were not restricted by the limitations of the print medium, and could publish as much content as we wanted, as frequently as possible. The end-result is a continuous stream of content being published by 150 global editors, from London, New York, and Los Angeles. The second advantage is data and technology. We are journalists and storytellers by trade. But by leveraging real-time data, analytics, and marketing technology, we are able to get instantaneous feedback from our users, process that feedback, and optimize our product based on what is truly resonating with our audience. I think these two factors help explain why we are the most popular English-language newspaper site in the world.

ClickZ: Speaking of celebrities, what is going on with Amanda Bynes??

SON: It is an interesting story – and one which you can follow as it unfolds on!

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