An Interview with Sean O'Neal: The Secret to Mail Online's Success

May 17, 2013

Article ImageSean O'Neal is the chief marketing officer for Mail Online, the wildly popular online newspaper. Mail Online is regarded as the world's most widely read newspaper site, and turned its first profit in 2012, setting it apart from many of its competitors. EContent talked to O'Neal about some of the secrets to its success, as well as its efforts to grab an American audience.

Q: I remember being in England when I was in high school, and newspapers were including free C.D.s of pop-music in the Sunday paper. It always seemed to me, even before digital media became a force in the publishing world, that the news market in the U.K. was far more competitive and willing to try anything to reach a bigger audience than the next guy -- which has led to plenty of scandal over the past couple of years. How do you think that culture contributed to the success of Mail Online?

A: The British news business is indeed the most competitive in the world. Unlike the U.S., they don't have big city newspaper monopolies; essentially they have one city where most of the national press is headquartered and they've spent decades fighting each other to be first on the most important stories. Some papers have tried various incentives from sweepstakes to giveaways to try and capture a larger market share, but the readers tend to reward the papers they trust and which provide the best value for their money.  Yes, we're direct, competitive and newsy, and our approach seems to be popular with US consumers.  When interviewing our US readers, they consistently say that they like our broad range of news, from international hard-news to entertainment news - which is something that they don't really find with US-based publishers, which typically do one or the other. 

Q: The competitive nature of the U.K. news outlets has led to a notorious tabloid market, which lends itself well to the web where it's all about traffic. So how has Mail Online beaten the tabloids at their own games, and built such a massive audience with both sensational and more news-oriented content?

A: We have a staff of 150 global editors dedicated to the online business across London, New York, and LA. These are trained journalists approaching the news with discipline and rigor.  We publish up to 500 pieces of content a day, but then we listen very closely to what our readers are reading, commenting on, and sharing - and we optimize our content based on this reader engagement. If the more sensational stories seem to dominate our home page, it is because that is what the readers want.

Q: In September of 2012 publisher Martin Clarke predicted that over half of Mail Online's traffic will come from mobile. How are you changing your content strategy to accommodate that?

A: Our mobile traffic continues to grow as a percentage of overall visits--approaching the 50% mark rapidly.  We made an early commitment to distributing our content to readers wherever they are, however they want it, on their device of choice.  We are delivering Mail Online across smartphone browsers, tablet browsers, smartphone apps, tablet apps, and now the latest wave of "mini" tablets. 

The result is an increase in daily visits per reader, as well as an increase in time-spent per session. We have not changed our content strategy per se, but we know that stories on devices need to have a very clean look. Interestingly we see audiences accessing our content on different devices at different times of the day, so one potential idea is to further optimize stories for devices during those hours (early in the day and later in the day) when they are in heaviest use. This also presents a powerful opportunity for our advertising partners to have a contiguous dialog with our audience throughout the day, perhaps to target by day part, and not miss any opportunities to make valuable branded connections.  

Q: Is there a point at which mobile becomes the first priority? 

A: We are a completely user-centric organization.  Our readers' priorities are our priorities.  Today, the home page of our web site is where the bulk of our loyal traffic is.  If this changes then we will be ready, as we have built a foundation for multi-channel publishing.

Q: You're bringing Mail Online to America. How is the audience different?

A: The audiences are demographically and economically remarkably the same - 24-44 and affluent, with a slight female skew.  You might be surprised to know comScore shows our 18-34 male audience indexes higher for $100k+ household income than the readers of We have also conducted primary research, and both our US and UK readers respond alike, calling our site "addictive", "fresh", "international", and we continually hear that we are the first site they read when they wake up in the morning and the last site they check before they go to bed.

Q: Why do a separate version of the site, rather than just try to pull in more American readers to the main site?

A: We are really just expanding upon the main site.  We now have a U.S. homepage, but the bulk of our content is developed by an international editorial staff and made available for all audiences around the world. Frankly, we think the U.S. audience is attracted to the English "feel" of our stories. After all no one does entertaining news better than the Brits!

Q: Is it different to enter a market with established web-properties than it is to organically develop an audience within the market you already know? Will you approach this differently?

A: Yes, it is very different. But our advantage is that we've already developed the audience. As of January, MailOnline was the third largest newspaper website in the U.S. and the second most shared news site on the web. So, we've got the scale, and the audience is highly attractive in terms of income, purchase behavior, and influence. Now we are selling this audience to the U.S. ad market and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Advertisers want to be part of this exciting story. Our approach to the market will be a little different than others who rely heavily on automated, programmatic, auction-style selling. We will have a very strong human component to our ad sales.

Q: What tips would you give digital content providers who are struggling to build an audience?

A: Stay true to your vision and maintain your editorial integrity.  Do not edit for the search engines, edit for your core audience.  Building a brand is a long-term proposition and requires trust and consistency over time.