How The Sun took on The Mail online – and won

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

It is exactly five years since Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper stable made its audacious – and we can now say almost calamitous – move to put The Sun behind a digital paywall.

News UK’s decision in August 2013 to charge for online access to the nation’s most popular tabloid – in spite of all its rivals offering open access to their content – was a matter of principle: it did not give away journalism for free, not from The Times, nor from the Sunday Times, and nor from The Sun.

Instantly, The Sun’s online engagement fell into a void. Monthly site visits fell by more than 62% in the first month. “I think this amounts to a disastrous start for The Sun’s paywall strategy,” judged media commentator Roy Greenslade, who had expected the tabloid to sustain its online reach through its offer of exclusive access to Premier League goals.

The strategy never recovered. At the end of November 2015, The Sun sheepishly re-emerged from behind its paywall and struggled to adjust its focus to the bright and changed world of online British popular journalism, where its old foe the Mirror was leading it by four to one in audience. Mail Online, which had long outspent The Sun on digital, was now ahead by 12 to one, having used the distribution power of Facebook to generate vast global reach.

That was the moment when Keith Poole, managing editor of Mail Online, crossed London to become digital editor of The Sun.

Today, he declares The Sun as “the number one web brand with the biggest reach” after it topped the Comscore rankings for UK newspaper sites for the third month in succession, registering 29.7 million UK users in June (compared to second place Mail Online’s 28.3 million). In May, The Sun registered a record 31.7 million users, close to half the national population. “I think that was royal wedding fever,” says Poole in an interview with The Drum.

Not beholden to Facebook

By any estimation, Mail Online is a behemoth in the sector. ABC figures for June still rank it at number one, with 12.6 million daily unique browsers, compared to The Sun’s 5.4 million. According to news industry body Pamco, The Mail’s family of titles had a reach of 29.25 million between April 2017 and March 2018 and were marginally in front of the Sun’s 29.18 million in the same period.

But The Mail was especially buffeted by changes to the Facebook algorithm which rocked news publishers in January. The Sun, partly because of its failed flirtation with a paywall, never had such a strong relationship with the social giant. And now it finds it easier to go its own way.

The three-year transformation of its digital fortunes has been a process of adapting quickly to changing user behaviour in engaging with popular content – a staggering 91% of use of The Sun website is via mobile – and building ‘owned and operated’ destination platforms that make its site less dependent on Facebook and other social media for traffic.

“Direct traffic to our platform is up 21% year-on-year and we want that to continue growing,” Poole says. Traffic to The Sun’s app, which relaunched in February, is up by 60%.

This direct formula has been much in evidence this summer, when The Sun built bespoke websites for its coverage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the fourth series of ITV2’s hit reality show Love Island. The ‘World Cup 2018’ site – which had its own domain name and featured its own brand logo with a Cyrillic-style backwards R – attracted 20 million users during the month-long tournament. The Love Island site included a game, called ‘The Island’, based around the contestants in the show. It attracted 220,000 players.

Explaining the tactic of having websites within a website, Poole says: “What we are trying to do is own moments and to own a moment you really need something unique and distinctive. We need a much deeper engagement with our readers and more emotional connection with them.” These temporary sites are heavily invested with gaming features and interactivity designed to encourage reader loyalty (The Island game operates a points system to keep users coming back).

Owning 'moments'

The Sun’s digital strategy is built on five content ‘pillars’: news, UK TV and showbiz coverage, football, money and female lifestyle (which it names ‘Fabulous’ after its Sun on Sunday magazine brand. “Within each of those categories throughout the year there are big moments and what we want to be able to do is own those moments,” Poole says.

The showbiz areas it is targeting in future include the new incarnations of the big UK reality TV shows (The Sun is focused on bringing advertisers UK readers, rather than a global audience). “Celebrity Big Brother, X Factor, I’m a Celebrity…” Poole reels them off.

The bespoke Love Island site gave The Sun a 10% lift in traffic compared to its coverage of the last series, when the red top was among the first to identify that a cult show was going mainstream. While 10% might seem modest, given the frenzy of interest over the poolside antics of Dani Dyer and co, The Sun is operating in a “very competitive space”, Poole points out.

ITV – which despite The Sun’s cuckoo-like intentions does actually ‘own’ Love Island – created an app which was downloaded 3m times and sold 260,000 branded water bottles.

The Sun brought in former Love Island winner Amber Davies to present a live video quiz each day and created a ‘predictor’ game, both of which gave users the chance to win points and get their names on a leaderboard, with the winner receiving a prize holiday in Cancun. It also created its own ‘news’ events, adding a sense of interactivity by inviting readers and Love Island ‘stars’ to share a launch party for the new series and then hosting its own ‘wrap party’ on Tuesday evening.

Poole says the model will be replicated at key moments in the showbiz year. “It’s something (the standalone site) that we have never really done from an editorial standpoint,” he says. “We saw some very positive signs and have taken a lot of learnings and will do it again across our website."

Taking tips from Tinder and Snapchat

The start of the football season this month gave The Sun the chance to launch another interactive mobile-based feature. “We have come up with a Tinder-like game, offering fans the opportunity to decide in an interactive way the five people they would like to join their club. At the end, they get the results of what other fans who played the game believe, so it’s a conversation starter.”

The World Cup 2018 mini-site was a major step, and the branding for it was replicated in the printed paper in order to drive traffic. At the top of the page was what Poole calls a “hero slide”, designed to give the site a live feel with constantly updated scores and a live blog. Although The Sun only had audio commentary (from sister brand TalkSport), Poole says the site became “a place where you could find up-to-the-minute news that’s snackable”, particularly for fans that were away from the TV screens “picking up the kids or doing the shopping”.

For those in front of the TV, the site was intended for second screening, with Sun journalists targeting the hour of pre-match build up as a time when they could maximise traffic by offering an interactive alternative to the standard TV pundit panels. “There was also a huge appetite for stories about (unusual) things that happened during a game… the fans in the ground, all of that stuff around the event that’s not just the match analysis and the live action,” Poole says.

The approach helped SunSport to 5.029 million users in June, the largest traffic for a sports section among UK newsbrands.

The Sun continues to look for new ways to bring users direct to its owned sites (rather than social media pages) and to keep them there. It has learned a lot from one social platform, Snapchat, on which it is a longstanding Snapchat Discover news partner and where its traffic has grown 50% in the last year. “Since around Christmas we have had designers, developers and product managers on the floor, designing more engaging tools or helping us reinvent what storytelling is on a mobile phone,” Poole says.

The approach can be seen in The Edit, a swipe-based feature on the new app designed to cater for a generation who think news has always belonged on a phone. The mini-sites and interactive features have been designed not just for their editorial features but with “ad viewability in mind”, he adds.

Three years is a long time in digital news. At the time of the last World Cup, in Brazil in 2014, The Sun was behind a paywall and about as much of a contender as Roy Hodgson’s England. Its online fortunes, like England’s, are newly-revived.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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