Why Mail Online remains a responsive design holdout

Publishers everywhere are flocking toward responsive mobile websites, but there is one notable exception: the world’s most popular English-language newspaper.

Mobile makes up the lion’s share of U.K. traffic for Mail Online: 18.9 million visitors came from mobile devices in January 2015 — 12.3 million on desktop — according to comScore. But mobile visitors arriving on its homepage are still seeing the desktop site. That’s an increasingly rare sight in news publishing today.

“Mail Online’s homepage is a key part of its heritage and identity. Our users love it,” said Hannah Buitekant, Mail Online’s mobile director. “We’ve really been [taking our time] to try to determine what the best methodology is for creating this unique homepage experience on a mobile. We will launch something, and when we do, it will be very cool.”

Mail Online’s own analytics dashboards show 60 percent of visitors come to its homepage in the U.K., and 40 percent in the U.S. The homepage clearly isn’t dead from its perspective, so it’s in no rush to change it. Buitekant also argues that even though mobile traffic is increasing, phones are getting bigger. That means pinch and zoom might not annoy as many people as it once did.

For those users who are in fact dissatisfied with pinching and zooming, Mail Online has a native app. Like its mobile site, it’s also a little unusual: Its latest update lets users view stories in picture-only mode and share individual images on social. Text is so 2014. The company says this update has gone down well. Stats from Mail Online HQ suggest 1 million people use its app every day with average sessions of 30 minutes.

Mail Online’s digital philosophy was best summed up by its publisher, Martin Clarke, at the DLD conference in January. “Anyone who [opts to] chase the audience here and then there is doomed,” he said.If people aren’t visiting your app or aren’t visiting your homepage, you don’t have a brand. You might have built a business in media, you might have built business in advertising, but you haven’t built a brand with consumers.”

By way of example, he pointed to the ease with which Facebook users can enter and leave a piece of content without knowing who published it. “If anything awful happened to Google or Facebook, we’d still have a business,” he added.

Clarke’s and Buitekant’s comments underscore the fact that not all mobile-first design trends are desirable from a commercial point of view. One example is infinite scroll, a design feature popularized by Facebook and Twitter, which appears to be complicating publishers’ ad-viewability scores.

“Responsive design is definitely the way forward in the long run, but it’s important not to take the decision lightly without conducting tests,” Paul Lomax, Dennis Publishing’s chief technology officer, previously told Digiday.

Mail Online’s direct-to-homepage traffic has commercial benefits. That traffic is considered to be more valuable than fly-by night social traffic. And the fact that Google regards the site as not mobile-friendly is an even stronger endorsement of user loyalty. But it’s not resting on its laurels. It’s hedging its bets on the audience front by building out its social channels too.

The company has a new Snapchat Discover channel, which has recently started monetizing through sponsorship. It has just secured deals for this channel with Starbucks, Sony Entertainment and Specsavers in the U.K. Advertising on third-party platforms, rather than on site, is a tactic that’s becoming more common among news organizations.

“You can monetize on these platforms, then it makes it like cable,” said Daily Mail North America CEO Jon Steinberg on the Digiday Weekly Podcast. “All these knocks you see out there on these different platforms are missing what the opportunity is. The opportunity is you can create a lot of engagement, a lot of content that works, and you can monetize. You basically have a cable channel. Look at how well that worked out for Discovery, Time Warner and Viacom. That’s the model.”

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