Success for Mail Online’s content strategy
In just five years, the Mail Online has gone from a standing start to become a profitable publication that attracts over six million unique visitors a day.
The online newspaper recorded its first ever profit last month after achieving an 80% year-on-year increase in revenues (the vast majority coming from ad revenue). While, in January, it overtook the New York Times to become the most popular online newspaper in the world.
So what makes Mail Online’s content strategy so successful? And what can other publishers of content (i.e. every website owner) learn from its approach?
Free online content
One of the biggest strategic decisions Mail Online took was to make its content free. With printed publications witnessing significant drops in readership and revenue over the last decade, all publishers faced a challenge to use digital effectively.
While several have opted for a paid-for approach, with content hidden behind a paywall, Mail Online has been consistent with its free policy. Those with a paywall have argued that it helps to increase online revenue through subscriptions and support print circulation, while providing a more engaged user.
However, Mail Online’s latest successes suggest the free content model has been highly effective in generating increases in both revenue and user engagement.
The reason for Mail Online’s popularity goes beyond its provision of free content, though. It has made bold decisions about the type of content it creates, the usability of the site and its approach to SEO.
Way back in 2010, the online publication’s editor Martin Clarke gave his own thoughts on why the content strategy had been successful. Among them, he said: “Mail Online has succeeded because it does what newspapers have always done; it tells fascinating stories clearly with great headlines, punchy words and brilliant pictures.
“The stories that do best for us are the stories that have always sold newspapers: human interest, crime, consumer issues, gossip, show business and political stories that relate to people’s real lives.”
It’s the show business stories – or, to quote Mail Online’s own category, ‘TV & Showbiz’ – that have drawn most of the attention from fellow journalists, bloggers and, let’s be honest, its visitors.
Whereas The Daily Mail has established a reputation for conservatism, Mail Online has taken on its own editorial policy and tone of voice; one that thrives on salacious gossip, bikini-clad celebrities and stories that provoke shock and awe.
This has been particularly important for reaching an audience in the United States, where Mail Online covers stories specifically for that market but does so using an editorial policy and style that’s unlike what the country was used to.
And it’s working. Mail Online succeeded by quickly realising that getting the most from its digital product meant attracting a broader audience than its printed sister. Numbers are all important when it comes to online advertising revenue, and Mail Online has enjoyed success by identifying a broad, valuable audience and delivering the content they want in great quantity.
It’s fair to say that the purists are unlikely to spend much time admiring the design elements of the Mail Online – and Clarke himself has admitted its unlikely to win any web design awards. Its pages, particularly the homepages, are extremely busy; its content (including lots of imagery) is crammed into every available space; and long headlines are used throughout.
But what could so easily have worked against the usability of the site has actually worked in its favour. The long headlines and photography have given sub-editors an opportunity to tell more of the story and hook the reader in, as well as supporting its SEO objectives.
Meanwhile, the content column on the right-hand side of the screen ensures that similar articles catch the reader’s eye as they scroll down the page. This functionality, and to a lesser extent the ‘more…’ and ‘most read news’ features, plays a significant role in keeping users on the site and visiting multiple pages.
Earlier this year, The Drum carried an article by an industry insider which discussed Mail Online’s approach to SEO. The piece revealed that Mail Online has a team of four junior people, whose job it is to receive all of the content from the journalists and optimise it for search before publishing it online.
It also discussed how Mail Online bosses analyse traffic on an hourly basis and follow trends on Google news, so they can write lots of articles and increase the publication’s visibility in search results; a useful tactic when going after volume.
In addition, social media has been integral to Mail Online’s strategy. Last month, the publication itself revealed that Mail Online was the most shared British media outlet on Facebook, with over 600,000 monthly shares. This is in addition to monthly mentions on Twitter exceeding 100,000.
Clarke has also revealed previously that, after Google, Facebook is the biggest source of traffic to Mail Online, accounting for around 10% of referrals.
It will now be interesting to see whether mobile and, in particular, the Mail Online mobile app can drive the content strategy onto even greater levels of success.
Of course, not every business will have the budget or resources of the Mail Online, but you may be surprised to learn that its team is much smaller than others in the sector – consisting of just 30 people in the UK, 20 in New York and 10 in Los Angeles. Yet it manages to consistently punch above its weight and come out ahead of massive titles.
This is something all organisations in all sectors should be thinking about. You don’t need the biggest budget or team to get the most from a digital platform. Nor do you have to work in the publishing sector to take content seriously.
All website owners are now publishers, and by putting a content strategy at the heart of your digital communications, you can attract and retain the right audience.
Clarke has said before that the Mail Online site was designed around the content. Maybe it’s time for other organisations to do the same.
Keith Price, senior copywriter, Rippleffect