The reason you’re currently reading this article for free, despite the – ahem – specialist and valuable insight it contains is because The Drum has recognised that readily available content plays a key role in building large and engaged online audiences.
It's an insight that was missing at The Sun until recently. The flaw in its online proposition has long been plain to see: it has been charging for something – showbiz and celebrity gossip – that is freely and expertly delivered by everyone from internet media companies like BuzzFeed to traditional media brands such as the Daily Mail.
For a paper that pioneered and dominated celebrity reporting through its Bizarre pages to be eclipsed in online showbiz news by a site owned and controlled by the Daily Mail is, well, bizarre.
In its print guise, the Mail is characterised by its concern about the direction of modern Britain and immigration.
It was perceptive enough to realise this wasn’t particularly sharable content and wouldn’t play particularly well with 20-something ‘digital natives’ online.
The result is the Mail Online, a world in which glamorous celebrities ‘flaunt curves’, ‘leave little to the imagination’ or go ‘make-up free’, capturing the eyeballs of millions who scroll addictively through its ‘sidebar of shame’, while The Sun has been left in its wake, looking like it’s missed an open goal. The UK’s most-read print title now enjoys a fraction of its rivals’ digital presence.
How The Sun responds is crucial. I expected the return of Rebekah Brooks to deliver a much-needed shake up of the paper’s online offering and so it’s proved.
Scrapping the paywall is a smart move, but there is a big question mark over whether it’s already too late – it could be difficult to claw back showbiz fans from the Mail Online while also fending off challenges from other big hitters such as TMZ, which is reportedly considering a UK launch.
Also, given News UK’s historical affection for print media, it will need to demonstrate it has the ambition and hunger to begin drawing the 100 million unique users each month required to deliver a truly viable digital offering.
It’s difficult to bet against The Sun, however, especially given its rich heritage in showbiz reporting, which makes it well placed to become a successful online business.
It can only succeed if it matches the Mail Online's intimate understanding of how readers behave in the online space and produces content perfectly aligned with this. That means understanding precisely the sort of articles people post on social media, or email to their friends, or read to very end, before instantly clicking through to a related story.
The Sun simply hasn’t had to rise to that challenge while imprisoned behind a paywall.
One option is to produce a male-skewed equivalent of the Mail Online’s successful female-oriented formula, simultaneously differentiating the title while tapping its reputation for producing quality sports content.
Combining the celebrity power of Bizarre with the relentless content production of Mail Online, while giving football greater prominence, for example, could be smart. And, if it can find a way to make its content even easier to share, all the better. The Sun’s natural irreverence offers scope for it to behave like a mainstream media equivalent of The LAD Bible or UniLad.
However it positions itself, The Sun has a long way to go before it breaks the internet – but in breaking with a broken business model, it’s made an important first step.
Warren Johnson is founder and chief executive officer of W.