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Despite its reputation, Mail Online is the world’s most popular online newspaper, which must also make it the world’s ultimate guilty pleasure.

Often those who visit the site are dubious about the news value, yet the images of half-dressed celebs and salacious gossip keep them coming back for more.

The Mail has perhaps been forced to adopt this model as it needs to chase pageviews above all else in order to maximise its ad revenue.

The only other realistic option is to duck behind a paywall, but it’s not difficult to find celebrity gossip elsewhere on the internet, so it’s doubtful that this would be a profitable strategy.

But is the Mail’s enduring popularity something that brand marketers can learn from?

I took a look at its content strategy to find out...

Long, clickable headlines

For most journalists and sub-editors headline writing is a delicate craft that requires the author to create a concise summary of the story that also entices the reader to find out more.

Take the BBC for example...

The Mail opts for an entirely different strategy and constructs its headlines almost as mini-articles that contain anywhere up to 30 words. While this goes against everything you’re taught in journalism school, it’s very effective at drawing the reader in and encouraging them to click on the article.

It is also an excellent SEO tactic as the headlines are stuffed with long tail keywords that help to boost the Mail’s search visibility.

Interestingly Mail Online largely manages to avoid using lists in headlines, which is a tactic used with success by many publishers, including Econsultancy and Buzzfeed.

Social media and linkbait

All of this scandalous content pays dividends on social media as people either share it because their friends are genuinely interested in the celebrity gossip or they tweet in disbelief that the depths to which the Mail is willing to sink.

A perfect example comes courtesy of @LordManley who recently tweeted in disgust at a Mail Online story that referred to a 13-year-old victim of sexual abuse as a ‘paramour’. 

The Mail’s coverage of these stories is aimed at fuelling controversy and encouraging shares, so it doesn’t care about any damage to its reputation.

These kinds of stories are excellent for traffic and also help to accumulate social signals that improve the site’s search visibility.

Perhaps the most notorious example is the article written by Samantha Brick in which she complained that women hate her for being beautiful.

It generated such anger and disbelief on Twitter that Brick ended up appearing on several morning TV shows to discuss the article. Just imagine the pageviews....

Focus on salacious content

While the print version of the Daily Mail adheres to a conservative agenda Mail Online instead goes for outright populist appeal and focuses on scandal and celebrity content.

For example, this morning the words sex, sexual and sexy appeared on the homepage a total of 14 times.

Even the token efforts it makes to deal with politics and current affairs concentrate on sensationalist reporting about the personalities involved rather than the actual events.

Perhaps genuine news content isn’t really of interest to the Mail as the real money resides in celebrity gossip, and this is why the ‘sidebar of shame’ is such a powerful tool.

The sidebar is ever-present on the site and is essentially a series of over-the-top stories about celebrity scandal complete with numerous images of scantily clad women.

It’s incredibly effective and even as I was researching this article I found myself seduced by its charms on a few occasions.

Adopt a ‘holier than thou’ stance

Occasionally even the Mail reaches the point where it thinks that it might be overstepping the mark, so it attempts to wriggle out of any accusations of profiting from the suffering of others by stepping back and saying, “Look at this! It’s awful! Can you believe other people let this happen?!”

A prime example of this is a story about a soldier who was tied up and left naked in a corridor after refusing to go drinking with his colleagues.

The soldier apparently then went AWOL as a result so the story is of some news value as an example of bullying in the Armed Forces. However, posting images of the event is only adding to the victim’s suffering, but that doesn’t bother the Mail (or the Mirror).


Chasing the news agenda

It’s no great revelation that news publishers churn out content relating to the current news agenda, but few do it with quite the same laser focus as Mail Online.

As Econsultancy editor-in-chief Graham Charlton pointed out in a recent post about Google Analytics metrics for publishers, Mail Online has no qualms about pushing out tons of celebrity content in the pursuit of pageviews.  

For example, teen popstar Miley Cyrus is a hot topic at the moment as she’s apparently willing to do anything for publicity, which is obviously a perfect storm for the Mail. 

My personal favourite article is this one, which allows the Mail to adopt a holier than thou stance while also publishing a headline that includes the words “Miley Cyrus,” “fully naked” and “straddle”.

Thankfully it makes sure its readers know what they’re letting themselves in for with an “EXPLICIT CONTENT WARNING” and images of said explicit content.

Use of visual content

A large part of the Mail’s appeal is down its clever use of visual content including images, diagrams and YouTube clips. 

The sidebar of shame is an obvious example, but the story pages themselves are also packed full of images that draw the reader in and make sure they keep scrolling down.

This story about Scarlett Johansson is a perfect example and I particularly like the headline, which is ridiculous to the point of self-parody.

It’s ostensibly a story about Johansson wearing an engagement ring at a screening of her new film, but at the top it says ‘Scroll down for trailer’ which lets the reader know that it’s worth reading all the way to the bottom of the page.

To keep the reader interested the article includes eight images of the actress on the red carpet, two subsequent photos of her at other events, a screenshot from her new film and finally the trailer itself (paused at a scene of Johansson in her underwear, obviously).

That’s 12 pieces of visual content on a story about an actress wearing a ring. A great tactic for keeping people engaged.

Another example comes from an article about a toddler who fell 70 feet from a fifth-storey window, which includes this handy diagram. Very tasteful. 

Outright plagiarism?

The pressure to constantly churn out new content means that the Mail is sometimes accused of adopting underhand tactics, or stealing other people’s articles.

The Mail has been accused of: 

In conclusion...

Though much of what the Mail Online does is just plain awful, it does deserve grudging admiration for managing to become the world’s most popular online newspaper.

Even if you don’t agree with its tactics it has succeeded where many others have failed by creating a profitable, free news site.

But is there anything that brands can learn from its relentless pursuit of pageviews and its shameful, hypocritical content?

I think the content itself isn’t something that any right-thinking marketer would want to touch with a barge pole, but the strategy behind it is possibly worth copying to some extent.

The Mail Online is proof that:

  • It’s worth toying with different types of headlines to see what works on blog posts and articles, as although most publishers opt for brevity the Mail is proof that longer headlines attract clicks and work for SEO.
  • Visual content is hugely appealing to an online audience so marketers need to maximise the amount of imagery and videos they get from branded events, such as photo shoots and events.
  • Brands can’t afford to ignore the power of social media for amplifying marketing messages. Though obviously this doesn’t mean writing intentionally awful stories like the Samantha Brick example.
  • Newsjacking can work. Though the Mail is an extreme example, marketers should be aware of the potential rewards that come from being agile and creating timely content.
David Moth

Published 10 September, 2013 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

1687 more posts from this author

Comments (10)

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They shamelessly do this very well. Good article!

about 3 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

It's hold on the "news" hungry general public is starting to slip, thankfully. I believe the figures for June & July also put it as second now, but with the Guardian breaking all the Snowdon stories it might just be temporary boost in traffic.


about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

They'll start doing lists and then we've had it....

about 3 years ago


Georgia Rakusen

Brilliant dissection and analysis of this horrific art form, which the Mail Online does better than anyone else!

about 3 years ago

Michelle Goodall

Michelle Goodall, Online PR/Social Media Consultant at EconsultancySmall Business Multi-user

Wish I could 'like' your comment Graham...

about 3 years ago

Linus Gregoriadis

Linus Gregoriadis, Research Director at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

I like the way you've aped the Mail with use of question mark in the headline (?)

about 3 years ago


Joana Ferreira

This is a really good article- The Mail Online definitely use some shady tactics but they seem to be working for them! Just wanted to add some other points I've noticed (I admit MailOnline is my guilty pleasure!)

- they change headlines throughout the day- this makes it look like fresh content when in fact it's the same article but just changed headline

- they have tonnes of social media running throughout articles- they didn't just add social sharing buttons on the article but in the comments section below- meaning you can actually share each individual reader comment via social!

- they added an irritating fashion popup when you hover over an image of a celebrity- it lets you see what the celebrity is wearing, how much it cost and where you can buy it from! To me, it's annoying because it just pops up when you hover over the image but I think a lot of people probably love this feature!

about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Joana Thanks - we should have mentioned that refreshing headlines thing - seems a common newspaper tactic.

I noticed those fashion links recently - it makes sense to monetise these articles. I wonder how effective that is?

about 3 years ago

Steven Wilson-Beales

Steven Wilson-Beales, Content Strategist at Consultant

morally wrong, but technically brilliant.

about 3 years ago


Cat Fyson

Longer headlines can be technically brilliant definitely from a SEO perspective, and the Mail certainly do entice readers with them (even if it is an absolutely fuming reader!), but I am still torn from a user-experience perspective. Maybe it's my journalistic background speaking, but I still prefer a concise headline that gets to the point.

A waffly headline to me suggests that the content itself is going to be full of waffle, but if it drives valuable traffic (and for DM it is valuable judging by their average no. of comments on an article), then maybe for some it is the way to go!

about 3 years ago

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