Inside the Sun's digital strategy: Why the tabloid is banking on Britain to revive its online fortunes
It is a momentous time for the Sun – the UK media’s most outspoken supporter of Brexit – with a gaggle of international TV crews descending on the paper following its dramatic "BeLEAVE in Britain" front page endorsement of the campaign to quit Europe.
The Drum walked past the cameras and up to the 13th ﬂoor of the glass headquarters of the Sun’s publisher, News UK, where it was given details of how the tabloid’s uniquely British identity will be made the cornerstone of the brand’s future strategy, digitally as well as in print.
Unlike many of its UK media rivals – most obviously the Daily Mail, the Guardian and, latterly, the Independent – the Sun has no particular ambition to exploit the global reach of English language news and to expand into the US. Draped in the Union ﬂag, its plans are tied to UK borders.
In his ofﬁce, overlooking a wet and windy south bank of the Thames, News UK chief operating ofﬁcer David Dinsmore says: “We have come to the conclusion that we should focus really heavily on the UK ﬁrst of all. Let’s get that sorted out. Before we go massively outwith our borders let’s understand what it is we are going to go with.”
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Dinsmore, a former Sun editor, is speaking at a time of a relaunch of the paper’s digital operation. While it’s still the biggest newspaper on the British newsstand (even if print circulation is down to 1.7m from 3.2m a decade ago), the Sun’s record online is chequered and it lags embarrassingly in the league table of UK online news.
"It’s not simply how many eyeballs you can get every month"
The Sun website has this month undergone a major overhaul, overseen by its head of digital, Keith Poole, who joined earlier this year from the Daily Mail’s Mail Online, soon after the Sun reverted to a policy of free access. The appointment prompted speculation that the Sun (currently 2.3m daily unique users) would try to ape the methods of Mail Online (14m daily uniques).
Poole insists the Sun will be aimed squarely at the British audience. “First of all [the priority] is the UK. A lot of other websites are getting a huge amount of global trafﬁc. Some have large percentage skews in favour of foreign (readers) and we don’t. We want to drive trafﬁc in the UK and deepen engagement, it’s not simply how many eyeballs you can get every month.” He has been engaged in “aggressive expansion” of staff and now has a digital team of more than 50, spread across words, pictures and video. But he has no desire for a US team – “no, not now” – and notes that some of the Mail’s US-based journalists are producing content strictly for an American audience.
The Sun’s UK-centric message is the one that News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks will be taking to advertisers at Cannes Lions in the next week when she heads out with her editors as the publisher launches an unprecedented push at the event this year.
The Sun needs to be taken more seriously online.
It was in 2013 that the red top followed its sister News UK title the Times in erecting a digital paywall. The move reﬂected Rupert Murdoch’s instinctive reluctance to give away content for free.
The Times, which began charging for online access in 2010, has gone “from strength to strength”, Dinsmore says, in building a digital subscriber base of 172,000 (and 400,000 combined print and digital sales). But the Sun, he accepts, has not fared so well. “We are the ﬁrst to admit that the Sun, the mass market product, struggles in that environment.” The tabloid built a 220,000 digital subscriber base but “we were spending an awful lot of money to get them and (paid access) doesn’t give you the reach you require”.
Poole is reluctant to say how much ground the Sun lost after it went behind a paywall and allowed the Mail, and old rival the Daily Mirror, to steal away the online trafﬁc for celebrity news and pictures, a ﬁeld which the Murdoch paper had often owned in print. “I wasn’t involved in any of the decisions,” he says. “I think we have seen huge growth over the last few months. Clearly, in raw numbers, we have an enormous amount of ground to catch up [but] we are very conﬁdent that we can.” The sense of lost time is apparent in his language. “It’s just the beginning,” he insists, later talking about being at “base camp”. Dinsmore speaks of the past six years as a “period of experimentation”. But News Corp has the ﬁnancial clout to transform the market. “There’s a huge amount of investment gone into this,” says Poole.
The redesigned Sun site has a greater energy and is noticeably richer with video and pictures than previous iterations. It has a new Wordpress platform, replacing the Escenic model that had been used since 2006.
Whereas Mail Online is famous for its vertical "sidebar of shame" of celebrity images, The Sun has a horizontal “rail” format, designed to enable mobile users to scroll right-to-left across picture-led stories in TV & Showbiz. You might call it the Rail of Glam and Poole hopes it will become a “hallmark” of the site. Certainly, he insists, there’s no shame in such content with the Sun’s long history of celebrating naked ﬂesh. “If you ﬂick through the Sun newspaper every day you’ve got showbiz and glam pictures mixed with serious news. It’s a proven formula so why not do that on our website too?” Other key Sun subject areas are football, sport and living.
With so many readers arriving from social media referrals to a article – rather than the home page – Poole wants to “treat every story like a Sun front page”. He says his team is “completely separate” from the print newsroom and he wants it to produce its own exclusives throughout the day.
Even so, it is clear that overall power at the Sun still resides with its formidable editor Tony Gallagher, for whom Poole formerly worked on the Daily Mail news desk. “The primacy is with the paper”, says Poole, noting that if the print team wishes to hold an exclusive it can.
“We need to up our story count,” he admits, perhaps thinking of Mail Online’s vast output, but then adds: “We are not going to just write hundreds of stories just for the sake of it, we’d like to ﬁnd the right balance with deeper stories and exclusives.”
Dinsmore says the Sun “had to go to scale” but believes that “advertising alone won’t save you – if you are creating more inventory every second, the yield for advertising has to go down”.
Which is why the Sun is hedging its bets with other commercial strategies.
Later this summer it will embrace gambling, launching Sun Bets with Australian bookmaking partner Tabcorp. “In Australia they bet more money per capita than anywhere else in the world, so they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing.” It will enhance its Bingo business by partnering with new provider Playtech, and hopes for growth in its fantasy football offering Dream Team. “These businesses operated on the side previously and did pretty well despite not getting the love they probably deserved. We want to bring them into the centre of the fold.”
Again, there’s a sense that the Sun is having to start over. “As a business you have to completely change the way that you operate and realise that actually starting a business is difﬁcult,” says Dinsmore, stressing the value of partnerships with established operators such as Tabcorp.
"There’s a moment of truth coming for the advertising industry"
The Sun is raising its proﬁle on social media, most obviously on Facebook where it has 8.3m likes across a portfolio of pages (and is exploiting its celebrity access by hosting interviews on Facebook Live with the likes of reality TV star Binky Felstead).
The Sun is the only UK tabloid on Snapchat. The bright and brash graphics-rich content, apparently aimed at a female audience aged 18-25, is “very labour intensive, seven days a week”, says Poole.
Dinsmore, whose ofﬁce is decorated with his framed cycling jerseys and Sun front pages from his days as editor, is on Snapchat (“of course I am”). He says his 18-year-old daughter has been won over by the Sun’s output on the platform, which is generating “encouraging numbers” and providing an expertise in creating specifically for the channel which it can offer to advertisers via its content marketing operation, The Bridge.
But news sites, he says, must do more to partner with advertisers.
Dinsmore recounts a bizarre story of searching online for the story of commentator Owen Jones storming out of a TV debate on the Orlando shootings and being served an advert for Muslim brides – “it provided me with 12 girls in niqabs” on an article hosted by a gay news site. “It’s bonkers, there’s a moment of truth coming for the advertising industry.”
But the Sun’s strategy is changing fast. It now looks to “super-power” the reach of its content with the help of Unruly, the London ad tech company which News Corp bought last year. “If we are honest,” says Dinsmore, “two or three years ago we were about taking a 25x4 in a newspaper. Now we are about ﬁnding your audiences, connecting with your audiences and delivering them to your door.”
Asked again if Britain’s biggest-selling paper has been slow in getting to this point, he reminds The Drum that the Sun was enjoying its most successful commercial years in 2009 and 2010. And then the phone hacking scandal and bribery allegations hit News UK like a train. “We were kind of preoccupied with a couple of other things,” says Dinsmore.
Ahead of Cannes, he argues that, for all the disruption it has faced, the Sun can yet lead the way in digital engagement with the British public. “Let’s understand what our audience want here in the UK – where the bulk of our audience is,” he says. “The one thing that hasn’t changed, as the whole world has changed in the last 15 years, is the popularity of our content. Sun stories have never been read by more people than they are now. My job is to make sure we get paid for it.”
The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell