MailOnline Achieves World Domination by Flouting the Rules

In a generally dismal climate for European newspapers, British newspaper circulations are among the most disheartening. To the casual observer, therefore, it might have come as a surprise to read at the beginning of 2012 that MailOnline, the digital version of the U.K.’s midmarket tabloid the Daily Mail, had become the world’s most read newspaper website. According to web measurement firm comScore, Inc., MailOnline had 45.35 million unique visitors during December 2011, beating The New York Times into second place with 44.79 million.

It’s easy to dismiss MailOnline, with its seemingly endless fascination with the antics of soccer players’ WAGs (wives and girlfriends), soap stars, and reality show participants—not to mention the endless photos of celebrities on the beach. At the same time, it’s hard not to be impressed by the traffic numbers. How did this tabloid become so popular? Are there any lessons that can be learned for other online publishers, or is it simply all about a race to the bottom and relentless coverage of plastic surgery gone badly, battles with weight, and on-again, off-again celebrity romance? Resolutely remaining free while other titles—notably The Times of London—introduce paywalls, does MailOnline show that ad-supported, free online content can actually make money?

The Daily Mail was founded in 1896 and became a tabloid in 1971. In print, it is known as the paper of choice for Middle England—in effect, the voice of the U.K. equivalent of the soccer mom, appealing to a broadly suburban, conservative, female readership with a strong emphasis on the anxieties of its core readers. Worries about immigration, welfare scroungers, and, critics say, spuriously argued health scares, take center stage.

After several years of honing its content mix, MailOnline is now able to create a media frenzy from nowhere, a recent case in point being a story about a minor journalist who claimed that women disliked her because she was “too beautiful.” This garnered 1.5 million hits in less than a day, racking up more than 5,700 comments.

At first sight, the homepage is basic in design and wouldn’t win any usability prizes. Its most notable feature is the incredibly long sidebar on the right-hand side, which demands endless downward scrolling and makes a mockery of the “above-the-fold” concept. According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold and allocate only 20% of their attention to material below it. However, despite its length, MailOnline’s sidebar is intuitive and compelling-to-use, and it makes the homepage incredibly sticky—“addictive,” according to editor Martin Clarke.

There is a relentless focus on the homepage itself, rather than on a more holistic, 3D vision of the site. “We don’t do stories because we think they’ll … go viral,” says Clarke, speaking at a recent investors’ briefing. “We do the content that we think will delight and entertain the readers of our home page. It’s those people addicted to the home page who drive our growth.” Loyal readers represent 80% of page impressions, he says.

With this in mind, the homepage is tweaked throughout the day in response to user behavior. The site has its own editorial team, separate from the print paper, who create content specifically for MailOnline, which does not slavishly reproduce the editorial obsessions of the print title. With news bureaus in Los Angeles and New York, its online coverage does not cater to a specifically U.K.-based audience. And Clarke acknowledges that while MailOnline chases clicks, it does not pay for promotion or search, believing that there’s no point in paying for one-off traffic: “What we’re really driven by are the number of people who choose to visit our home page directly, rather than coming to us via a search engine or a social network.”

It’s a readership-acquisition strategy that appears to be bearing fruit in business terms. At that same investor briefing, Clarke announced that the website was close to breaking even. Revenues were £16 million (about $25.9 million) in 2011 and were expected to be £25 million (about $40.5 million) in 2012, with an expectation that the site would start turning a monthly profit in July 2012. Investment so far was just £25 million, according to Clarke, and he predicts that revenues will be £100 million (about $162.2 million) within 5 years. It’s a compelling story and explains why MailOnline remains one to watch.