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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How Mail+ delivered nine major updates in two years to deliver 300% subscriber growth

June 28, 2022 | By Peter Houston – Independent Media Reporter @flipping_pages

The U.K.’s DMG is a media heavyweight by most measures and the group’s Daily Mail ranks close to the top on any chart for online newsbrands. In terms of web traffic, it places fourth in the U.K., 10th in the U.S. and sixth globally according to the U.K.’s Press Gazette.

At the FIPP World Media Congress in Portugal earlier this month, the U.K. news giant outlined its adoption of a “launch everyday” philosophy that, surprisingly, owes a lot to the paper’s print heritage. The result was a 300% increase in subscriber numbers in just two years.

Product director Simon Regan-Edwards was unable to travel, but Denis Haman of CMS supplier Glide stood in to explain how the Mail+ team brought a print mindset to the evolution of the Mail+ subscription product first launched in 2013.

Mail+ began by replicating the newspaper experience online. Between its launch in 2013 and 2020, Mail+ secured 40,000 subscriptions as a digital replica available across multiple devices, including Kindle and Amazon’s Alexa.

In March 2020,  the decision was taken to begin building out the Mail+ offering and by June 2022 it had 120,000 subscribers in total, with 76,000 digital only subscribers. This level of growth is impressive in itself, but even more so considering the free-to-access Mail Online site sits alongside it.

Two years, nine updates

Over the two years between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2022, the Mail+ team delivered nine major updates.

These started with the introduction of briefings and newsletters and the addition of content in areas where the audience wanted to see more — TV and radio, food and health. Mail+ today incorporates Best Of sections, ListenTo functions and puzzles.

Moving through a homepage rebuild and a new storefront to improve the subscriber sign-up journey, Mail+ then made the shift to an edition-based format with three daily updates.

Additional releases have since brought author and category pages, new sections, and enhanced search functionality. More recently, the team implemented a second home page redesign to pull together a unified Mail+ offering.

“It’s been actually incredible to watch,” said Haman, “The Daily Mail team has managed to work and rework the product and reconfigure what it means to the customers. I have rarely seen a product move at such a pace and reinvent itself repeatedly.”

And the results have been applauded independently. Lewis Wiltshire, former head of media partnerships at Twitter described the most recent redesign as “A beautifully elegant looking website — almost Athletic-esque.”

So how did the Mail+ team do it?

Agile print

Haman began by exploding the misconception that a print foundation will slow digital development, arguing that print is possibly the most agile of all content channels.

“It gets destroyed and remade every single day, with the opportunity to redraw it, reshape it, rework it. And it has to hit the deadlines,” he explained. The Mail digital team brought that print mindset to the rebuilding of Mail+. That meant launching “every day, every week, every month.”

Of course, digital is not the same as print and Haman noted that there are “sensible limits” to digital development, meaning everything takes more time than you might think. Quoting Alan Hunter, former head of digital at The Times, Haman said: “This means you won’t be asking for a new product feature on a Tuesday and expecting it to be in the app by Friday.”

Crucially, the Mail digital team was given license from the very top to keep going until the right formula was found for Mail+. From that foundation and armed with audience data that suggested there was a real interest in the evolving subscription product, the team built quickly following a rigorous framework for decision making.

Ask what problem you are solving

Haman described the sweet spot for innovation between visibility, viability and desirability. He said it was important to be disciplined in asking key questions. Do customers want the features you are developing? Are they financially viable and are they technically possible with the available resources?

“It’s really important to fall back on the process,” said Haman. “If you’re under pressure you can easily find yourself jumping to conclusions.”

Data is crucial in building insight into what is building habits and why people do what they do. But Haman said it is also important to be open to new voices. He highlighted customer-service teams, sometimes overlooked, but often a powerful source of knowledge into what motivates or demotivates readers.

Data also avoids the HIPPO trap — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Haman explained, “without data, it’s just an opinion.”

Networked teams bring together diverse groups with different perspectives and different skills, all the disciplines needed to launch a product. It’s  important to give everyone access to the data to understand how it relates to revenue, engagement, and readership.

Haman emphasized the importance of giving everyone on the team a voice, and making sure that they are truly engaged in asking “What problem are we solving?” However, he took care to explain that although everyone should have a voice, “not everyone makes the decisions.”

Be realistic

To separate “should” from “could” and focus on priorities, the Mail+ development team used the MoSCoW methodology:

  • Must have
  • Should have
  • Could have
  • Won’t have

This helped the development team move faster and, crucially, get data back quickly to provide valuable insights for moving forward.

The team used digital tools across functions to “dig into” designs before development started. Haman compared this to making sure your architect’s plans are solid before starting to build; it’s considerably cheaper to revise plans than tear down half the house to make things right. Then lock designs to prevent changes at the 11th hour. “I love the fact that they would laminate designs,” he said. “It’s genuinely locked until it is released.”

The elegant exit

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, said it is important to act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.

Data, again, provided insight to what was working and what wasn’t for The Daily Mail. And if something wasn’t working, Haman said it was important to ignore the sunk cost fallacy — that we have spent all this money and we have to make it work. He explained, “If it’s going in the wrong direction, you need to be brave enough to cut your losses, pivot, or rather elegantly exit and move to a new direction.”

Regan-Edwards made a guest appearance at the end of the session via Zoom and I asked him if he thought at the start of the project he would make nine major updates in two years? He said, “No, but I think what we learned through this whole process is don’t predict what’s coming in two years time, focus on what are we delivering for this next quarter. What makes sense in this next quarter? What do we want to do in the quarter after that?”

He also re-emphasized the importance of being led by feedback from customers. “We have a big focus on puzzles,” he said. “That’s come from the feedback of how people are using the product.”

And finally, he said, overcome the “moonshot mentality” that says, “We’re done now, let’s put it in the cupboard. Instead, get into the mentality that you want to constantly improve.”

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