'50m-user' Mail Online set to launch paid-for content

Mail Online passed 50 million unique global users for October, according to the site’s publisher Martin Clarke who revealed that it has plans to launch a range of paid-for services in the New Year.

He also told the Society of Editors Conference that so far 70,000 readers have downloaded Mail Online’s paid-for iPhone app on a 60-day free trial and that the paper is set to launch a paid-for iPad app in the next few months.

The 50 million figure quoted by Clarke is as yet unconfirmed by ABCe, but it is in line with the site’s growth. It means that a UK national newspaper is for the first time set to challenge the dominance of the BBC online.

Clarke quoted an industry estimate which suggests that the BBC’s journalism output online attracted some 60m global unique users last month. And he said that according to Comscore, Mail Online is already bigger than the BBC in the United States.

Clarke also quoted figures which claimed to show that Mail Online’s free readers are significantly more engaged and frequent than News International‘s paid-for ones visiting The Times and Sunday Times websites.

On the question of paid-for content he said: ‘I’m not saying we’d never charge ever online for anything. And I’m very excited by the various micro payment systems that are in the pipeline that will give us the flexibility to offer new kinds of content that we can charge for on a pay-per-view or piecemeal basis.

“We’re planning a few experiments next year that could be very exciting. Apart from working as a butchers boy when I was kid I don’t have lots of retail experience but even I know that I’m going to have more chance of selling things in a shop visited by three million people a day, rather than one visited by a few thousand who’ve already had to pay for the privilege of getting in the front door.”

Quoting figures supplied by web metrics company Hitwise, Clarke noted that all national newspapers combined account for just 0.8 per cent of total website visits in the UK.

And warning of the danger posed by online portals such as Yahoo which also carry news he said: ‘While we’ve been disappearing up our own paywalls and weeping over regional gravy trains that long-since left the station, these digital companies have been hiring fast.”

He added: ‘But whether we pull up our paywalls or decide to withdraw from the web altogether, people are going to be getting their news from it, just not from us. And, remember, one day these companies will finally figure out how to do good news and how to hire decent people.”

Social media

Clarke revealed that when social networking site Facebook went down for two hours in recent weeks, traffic to the Mail Online homepage increased by 25 per cent compared with the same time the previous week.

He said: ‘I’m still trying to work out exactly what that means except that while we are very different sites, it seems our bookmarks are probably pretty close together on people’s screens. And that also shows us the great opportunity here – one that some people seem strangely terrified of.

‘The web is one big conversation. A free conversation. People send each other their new baby pics, the joke they heard in the pub, and, yes, a link to something they saw on a news website. On Facebook, via Twitter, or even by email.”

Emphasising the importance of social media for the marketing of Mail Online, Clarke said that 10 per cent of Mail Online’s UK traffic now comes in via Facebook, making it the biggest source of traffic for the website after Google.

He said: ‘Oh what use is that, some people say. They are not real readers, they’ll never come back again. There’s no money in that – unless we make them pay…

‘Remember, we’re dealing with a technology here, not a theology. There’s no need to start burning each other at the stake for heresy.

‘Ok, so if one of my users emails her friend a Mail Online story about X-Factor, then you’re right, she will probably read it but she may never return to my site again. And what has that cost me exactly?

‘The marginal cost of serving her that page is almost nothing and despite what you read, we do make money out of every click – a billion ad impressions a month.

‘So if she doesn’t come back I’ve lost nothing. But, much more likely is that once her friend has posted six links to Mail Online on her Facebook page in a week, then she’s hooked and has joined the army of Mail Online addicts.”

He said that journalists should see Facebook as ‘a gigantic free marketing engine, just the same as Google”.

And he noted that Mail Online’s spectacular growth from a standing start three years ago has been achieved ‘without spending a penny on marketing, promotion or paid-for traffic”.

‘Web readers to not take away print sales’

According to Clarke, 60 per cent of the 1.2 to 1.4 million British website users who visit Mail Online on any given weekday don’t buy the Daily Mail.

He insisted that there is no evidence that the Mail’s free website is taking away paid-for print readers: ‘Mail Online is now Britain’s biggest newspaper website by a mile. If the web was going to cannibalise any print title it should be ours. Because while many Mail Online users don’t buy the paper, many hundreds of thousands of them do.

‘Yet which newspaper is showing one of the most stable print circulations? Why the Mail. Fancy that.

‘At Associated we did some exhaustive research of our own a couple of years ago using over 100,000 people which suggested very strongly that Mail readers who also used the website bought twice as many copies of the papers as Mail readers who used other websites.

‘I’ll be honest, we didn’t quite believe it at the time. But it appears to have been true. Because for people who love a brand it isn’t a question of deciding whether to consume online or offline – they lap it up on both. Just in different places and at different times. And the more often you can reach them, the more often they will return.

‘The web as a whole may be a threat to print but if people aren’t reading your paper then, I’m sorry, it isn’t because they spent five minutes on your website the night before and read a couple of headlines. If you have a strong paper and a strong website your customers will use both.”

Mail readers ‘more engaged’ than those of The Times

Clarke insisted that, despite the huge traffic, Mail Online readers are more engaged with the site than readers of Times titles, which went behind a paywall in June.

Quoting figures supplied by Comscore for September he said: ‘By every measure possible whether it’s time on site, pages consumed or frequency of visit, the average Mail Online reader is more loyal and engaged than the paying customer at The Times.”

The Comscore data claims that the average Mail Online reader spent 5.1 minutes with the site in September, versus 2.3 minutes for readers of The Times and Sunday Times, and that they looked at 31 web pages, versus nine.

Clarke said that out of Mail Online’s 17 million UK visitors, some 1.8m visit the site more than ten times a month.

Future of print

Clarke said he remains confident about the future of print journalism.

‘I’ll bet you my pension that there will still be a Daily Mail printed newspaper when I come to collect it (I’m only 46 by the way) however long Mr Osbourne makes me wait.

‘Now I have absolutely no evidence for this. And it’s obvious that because of their portability there’s a much greater risk of cannibalisation from iPad type devices than there is from the traditional web.”

But he added: ‘Does nobody see the irony in a website like the Daily Beast merging with an old print product like Newsweek? Paper still has a permanence and prestige that digital media can’t match. And I predict that won’t be the last website to expand back into old-fashioned ink and paper.

‘Radio didn’t kill print, TV didn’t kill print and the iPad won’t kill print.

‘And it annoys me that so many people in this business seem desperate to write off their own industry.”

The secret of Mail Online’s success

Explaining the secret of Mail Online’s huge traffic growth Clarke said it was not down to any technological advantage.

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, showbusiness and political stories that relate to people’s real lives.

‘I don’t think we’ll ever win any web design awards, we haven’t come up with any great technological advances and we ignored pretty much everything even our own techies told us we should do.

‘We designed the site around the content and then built a web publishing system ourselves so we could edit it the way we wanted.”

Future for British journalists is bright

Insisting that the prospects for UK journalists have never been better Clarke noted that four out the world’s ten biggest newspaper sites are British.

‘A generation ago globalisation and new technology helped create the Big Bang which transformed the City of London. Digital news can do the same for our business. We’ve just got to stop whining.

‘We have gone from a world we could reach customers essentially once a day when they bought their paper. To one where we can be with them 24 hours a day.

‘We’re on their desktop all day when they’re at work. We’re in their pocket and their handbag on their mobile phone or their iPad when they’re out and about.

‘And pretty soon, when convergence between computers and TVs make it as natural and easy to watch web video as it is to watch broadcast programmes, then we’ll be on their living room walls.”

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