It would be tempting to assume, especially given the unsurprising fact that the New York Times website ranks number one in terms of worldwide usage, that all of today's most viewed news websites have sprouted from prestigious, well-established, internationally-known print newspapers. Not necessarily the case. In fact, the second most viewed newspaper website worldwide is the UK Daily Mail's online counterpart, Mail Online.
Just how did this middle-range tabloid's website rise from relative obscurity to become the second most popular newspaper site in the world, and the most popular news site in the UK?
Martin Clarke, Mail Online's executive, credits his rapidly increasing traffic to his acceptance and incorporation of online social networks, specifically Facebook and Twitter, into his marketing strategy. Recent data (from Nathalie Broizat) shows that 10% of Mail Online's UK traffic arrives via Facebook referrals.
According to James Robinson's article in the Guardian, Clarke asserted that newspapers need to "stop whining so much and seize the opportunity." In Clarke's opinion, print newspapers must not resist developing their websites. Regardless of their action (or inaction), there is no stop to the growing desire for online news sources.
If the newspaper industry holds firm to its traditional print model and refrains from website development, "People are [still] going to be getting news from the web - just not from us. The web is just one big entertainment medium and we're just a part of it," Clarke added. Either he, and other print newspaper executives, can passively sit by and watch as websites such as Yahoo! cater to the public's inevitable thirst for online news, or newspapers can harness the huge numbers, in large part from social networks.
Clarke has chosen the latter, and his determination has resulted in tangible markers of success, most notably its "47 million monthly unique users in September," and its mushrooming 446% growth in traffic in only three years without spending a dime on marketing, according to Robinson's piece.
"The social networks are becoming increasingly important to us," Clarke said at the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow. "If you want an engaging site, Facebook isn't a threat or a parasite but a gigantic free marketing engine." He said that only Google directs more traffic than Facebook does, Robinson reported.
Furthermore, Mail Online serves as a strong counterexample to a popular misconception, the fear that the growth of a newspaper's website will cause the decrease of its print circulation. According to a Mail source quoted in another Guardian article by Nathalie Broizat, "Daily Mail readers who use the website buy twice as many papers. If you have a strong website and a strong paper people will consume both."
Still, one must not only look at external factors, such as Facebook's influence on Mail Online's popularity, but also internal factors: the content and design of Mail Online. The website is littered with large photographs, celebrity gossip such as November 17th's headline, "Wills it be July 8th? Bookies refuse to take bets on Royal wedding that month" whereas serious political and economic articles such as "Ireland's debt crisis could kill the European Union stone dead, EU president warns" are both scare and hidden further down the page. So perhaps the best explanation for Mail Online's success lies not in its marketing in online social networks, but instead in its appeal to the mainstream's demand for popular news that is easy to read but steers clear of the depths to which some of the red-top tabloids sink.
Finally, one must not overlook the fact that while some of the UK's news websites such as thetimes.co.uk and News of the World have recently started to require readers to pay for a subscription, Mail Online is taking the alternate approach, doling out its content free of charge. While the website is currently gaining revenue primarily through advertising, these sums are estimated to be minor - between £10m to £50m a year, according to Robinson's article. He quotes a Mail exec as having explained, "You either go free and big or pay and go niche. We think the sums add up better to go free and big."
It is Mail Online's long-term business plan that by generating a large audience base through its free website, revenue from consumers will eventually gain momentum once its soon-to-be-released iPad app hits the market. The paper also recently launched an app for the iPhone, and despite the promising sign that 70,000 people have already downloaded for the app's free 60-day trial, the question of whether or not they will subsequently pay for a subscription remains to be seen.