How MailOnline Became the UK’s Biggest Online Newspaper

Founded in 1896, the Daily Mail has risen to become one of England’s biggest papers. With its heady mix of tabloid news and celebrity gossip, it attracts more than 2.2 million daily readers. However, the Saturday edition is even more popular. Three million people pore over it each week, making it the most read newspaper in the country.

The print version of the British newspaper is a success story in its own right. But let’s look at its phenomenally popular online counterpart: MailOnline, which has over 24.9m monthly global unique visitors.

The numbers are impressive and the online publication is clearly doing something right. So what is secret of its success?

Pivoting online

The internet has transformed the way we consume news. According to research by communications regulator, Ofcom, 73% of adults now get their news online, while just 32% read print newspapers.

Traditional media has had to adapt to stay afloat. Some made the transition online better than others. The Independent, for example, had to scrap its print edition entirely in 2016.

The Daily Mail was one of the last major newspapers to join the digital fray, launching the MailOnline in 2004. At first, it didn’t hold a candle to the market leader,, which was attracting hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month. Fast forward to 2021 however, and the tables have turned.

A billion views

According to industry figures, MailOnline is the single biggest newspaper brand in the UK, with over half a billion page views in July 2021. This dwarfs its parent paper’s readership numbers, and its closest competitors. The Sun and The Guardian trail hundreds of thousands of hits behind.

You don’t get results like that without some serious PR know-how.

How has MailOnline built a durable, digital brand, and how can you achieve some MailOnline-style PR success for yourself.

Let’s look at how the design of MailOnline’s website exemplifies its brand values; how the site’s content – from news and showbiz, to sports and its roster of columnists – helps build its audience; and finally, how MailOnline uses its addictive mobile app and discounts page to keep people coming back.

How the design of MailOnline strengthens its brand

When you first look at MailOnline, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Stories jostle for attention on the home page, cramped together like sardines, sandwiched between walls of ads.

But there’s also something compellingly simple to it.

There’s no fancy site navigation, flashy graphics or long-winded slideshows. Just a front page with pictures, clickbait headlines and stories — hundreds of them. An average front-page scroll lasts the digital equivalent of several metres, making it nearly impossible to feel like you’ve seen everything.

Even if you do make it all the way to the bottom, the site is updated every 30 minutes or so. Combine that with how the site rarely links to external pages, and MailOnline is clearly designed to lure readers into a rabbit hole of reading one story after another.

Long headlines invite readers

Let’s look at one of their stories in detail.

Almost half of the story’s space is dedicated to the headline, which clocks in at nearly forty words. That’s a world apart from what you’ll see in the online version of The New York Times for example. But MailOnline’s chatty, conversational style sets the character for the site perfectly. It also explains the pertinent facts of the story right away, so readers can quickly judge whether they want to read the full thing.

It’s almost anti-clickbait: you know exactly what you’re getting.

While unconventional, this is a great way for MailOnline to build trust with its readers.

Beneath the headline is a large photo of Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. This is noteworthy as a 2012 study found that people recognise celebrity faces in under half a second, far quicker than they can read a headline. In other words, MailOnline’s use of images gives readers another way to quickly scan its homepage to find stories about the people they’re interested in.

Finally, each story comes with a brief blurb, giving readers one last chance to decide whether they want to read on.

While it might break the rules of visual design, MailOnline’s homepage supports its brand values of entertaining and informing the public, and as a result, generates the kind of PR kudos every online paper dreams of.

Tip: Every piece of content your audience encounters, whether that’s a webpage, leaflet or radio broadcast, should provide value in the same way. And the simpler you make it, the better. Rather than wasting people’s time with fancy designs and clever tricks, take a step back and ask if your content and design are in line with your brand values.

Speed is of the essence

Another reason that MailOnline works so well is the website is incredibly lightweight. Without any flashy animations or bloated back-end scripts, it loads instantly on any half-decent internet connection.

This keeps users happy, especially international readers, who often have dramatically slower connections. (We’ll see more about how MailOnline targets international readers shortly).

For your own site, focus on delivering high-quality content in simple formats.

According to Google’s John Mueller, a good goal is for your site to load in under three seconds as this:

  • Makes conversions easier.
  • Prevents potential conversions from bouncing off due to slow loads.
  • Makes your site more SEO-friendly.

Not familiar with SEO? Read: How PR and SEO Work Together to Build Your Brand

Now, let’s examine how MailOnline’s approach to producing content that serves its PR goals.

Going international:How MailOnline tells the news

On one level, MailOnline’s success is easy to understand. The site pumps out content on topics people want to read about, and, as we all know, content is king.

The online newspaper maintains the credibility of its print counterpart with its hard news stories, but also includes human interest stories, health news, celebrity gossip and a few animal-focused fluff pieces for good measure.

This formula works well in the fast-turnaround, content-sharing world of online media. The online paper’s range of bite-size content reflects what tabloid papers have done for years, letting it carve out a market niche between broadsheet newspaper sites and pure gossip sites like OK! and Heat.

International reach

Most interesting, however, is how MailOnline differs from its print counterpart.

As Slate explains, MailOnline’s editorial stance changed from right-wing, nationalist, UK-focused stories towards a showbiz-driven model that targets the mass market.

Ditching the focus on UK politics helped it attract readers in places as far-flung as North Korea (according to the Guardian). It even has an office in the USA, although it changed its name to avoid confusing American advertisers.

These facts all point to MailOnline trying incredibly hard to meet its audience where they are. Rather than challenging readers with complex language or asking foreign readers to get invested in British politics, it’s willing to shift its brand priorities to meet people’s desires.

And it works. As the Financial Times wrote in 2014: ‘If you are tired of MailOnline, you are tired of Kim Kardashian’s life – and most readers are not.’

It helps, of course, that the site is shameless about promoting itself. During the coronavirus pandemic, they published a piece expressing how advertising on their site would help small business-owners make it through lockdown.

Sometimes public relations is best when it gets to the point — why beat around the bush?

The sidebar of shame: how MailOnline does showbiz

News is one thing. But if you spend more than a few moments on MailOnline, you’ll notice the infamous ‘sidebar of shame’, a column jam-packed with celebrity gossip and photos of attractive women.

You might assume this is the Mail’s editors cashing in on people’s desire for softcore titillation.

A big factor behind its success is how it mixes quote-unquote ‘real journalism’ and provocative celeb gossip, the likes of which you see in OK! By serving both audiences, it can have its cake and eat it too.

You might still wonder if the sidebar does more harm than good to MailOnline’s image. After all, the Daily Mail is the only national UK paper with more women reading it than men. It would be reasonable to assume the sidebar’s shameless sexual objectification of women would alienate its core audience. But what seems obvious and what’s true are rarely the same. As Hannah Fearn noted in The Independent, female readers are happy to support MailOnline because they see it as harmless fun, or at worst, a victimless crime.

Tip: To get your brand out there, you might have to swallow your pride and cater to people’s baser desires.

A winning formula: MailOnline and Football

At first glance, MailOnline’s landing page for football is almost identical to the rest of the site. The sidebar of shame is gone, however, and replaced with a Stars of Sport section and widgets that tracks football results. And visitors can even find stories that only focus on the football club they support by clicking on the appropriate club badge.

These are minor additions, but they make a big impact. Even someone who’s never read MailOnline before can quickly find the information they’re after.

This supports MailOnline’s main goal as a business, which is informing its readers. Making it easy creates extra value for its readers: rather than bombarding them with newsletter sign-up prompts or paywalls, it serves up the most important information on a silver platter.

In short, the football pages follow MailOnline’s design principles of giving the user what they want right away, while also demonstrating how a few concessions to website simplicity can make a big impact on niche audiences.

The best of Fleet Street: MailOnline columnists

A classic way to get people interested in your brand is to hijack somebody else’s good PR. Whether it’s a brand partnership, a shout-out from an influencer, or a celebrity cameo, associating your brand with a figure that people already know is a sure-fire way to get some free clout.

For more, read: The PR Power of Brand Partnerships

When you apply this thinking to news sites, the obvious thing to do is to stack your writing staff with people who draw an audience by themselves.

The biggest brands do it. For example, The Sun has had ex-Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson penning opinion pieces on their site for yonks. Clarkson has a built-in fan base from his numerous TV appearances, and many people will have picked up The Sun for the first time because of him.

Not one to miss a trend, MailOnline has a number of (in)famous columnists of its own, from the ex-socialist Peter Hitchens to the controversial Richard Littlejohn.

The power of Piers

Most interesting, however, is Piers Morgan, ex-editor of News of the World.

Well-known for his combative, controversial style on TV show Good Morning Britain, Morgan’s work for MailOnline is what you’d expect from his public persona: aggressive, outraged and indignant. It’s easy to imagine someone reading his articles either because they agree with him, or because they just want to see what he’ll say next.

What sets him apart from MailOnline’s other contributors is that, like Jeremy Clarkson, he serves as a draw to the paper for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested.

97% of people have heard of Morgan, according to YouGov. Even if just 10% of those visit MailOnline to read his articles, that’s a massive boost in readership.

Tip: Bringing in well-known personalities can be just what your brand needs to get off the ground – even if they’re controversial.

Rewards and notifications: How MailOnline keeps readers for the long-term

Hooking a reader is hard. Keeping them on the line is even harder.

You can manufacture a burst of publicity with a flashy opening, good sponsorships, and a PR stunt or two. But converting interested onlookers into long-term fans is another story.

One way that MailOnline keeps readers engaged is through its mobile app, which notifies you of breaking news, and lets you know when somebody replies to your comments on an article.

Tip: Sending periodic reminders of your brand is a great way to keep audiences engaged. It’s why so many companies hound you to sign up for their newsletters but, of course, it’s easy to flood people’s inboxes and annoy them. Moderation is key.

As for rewards, MailOnline offers so many deals and discounts. In fact, they’re given their own page.

This give readers a reason to:

  • Visit MailOnline regularly to find new deals
  • Share MailOnline links with their friends
  • Look into MailOnline’s brand partners, strengthening ties with other businesses

Tip: Your brand might not be able to secure discounts with high street brands, but you can offer time-limited or exclusive benefits that drive people back to your website or online store.

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