In 2019, The Sun turned 50 years old and, for the vast majority of that time, it’s been famous as a tabloid newspaper, a daily print news product read by millions of people who had it delivered through their letter box or picked it up on their way to work.
But times have changed. With the structural decline of print readership worldwide only exacerbated by the pandemic, it has been an imperative to ensure The Sun creates audience and distribution pathways that set it fair for long term sustainable growth in the digital age.
The strategy has been twofold.
In the first instance, we needed to broaden our reach. By continuing to grow our digital audiences, we could take The Sun’s content not just to a few million UK readers each month, but to tens of millions worldwide.
The second is to deepen our offer – without the restrictions imposed by print, we can better cater to specific interests and new reader offerings. In turn, this allows us to diversify and grow revenue.
This work has been underway for a few years now. The Sun reaches around 177 million readers each month in total*, across the UK, US and beyond and offers a far broader range of content types and formats than ever before.
We continue to cherish our print readers, but the vast majority of our readership is now digital. And our demographic has changed, becoming younger, more female and more diverse than our print audience.
But how have we translated a heritage print brand into an international growth engine?
And what do we have still to do?
With ad rates online significantly lower than their print counterparts, a logical response is to take steps to grow our audience. We’ve adopted a few different strategies to achieve this.
The Sun has always been a broad-appeal newspaper that provides comprehensive coverage of sports, entertainment, celebrity and more… but news content was always at the core. Online readers want more, and it’s this appetite that has allowed us to successfully expand our content mix to appeal to new audiences. News remains a significant part of the content mix but under the leadership of Digital Editorial Director Will Payne, The Sun’s content proposition has broadened enormously. For example, we cover a far wider range of sports than previously and we’ve added completely new content categories such as technology, consumer finance and health. These additional topics play a key role in keeping our readers engaged once they’re on our site. As we go forwards we’ll continue to test new content topics.
One of our most recent initiatives involves experimenting with third party content partners to bring a wider variety of content to our readers. A current example is our partnership with a specialist provider of gaming content (GLHF) – they write exclusive content for us which we monetise through our programmatic ad stack, sharing the resulting incremental ad revenue with them. This not only helps broaden our content offering but deepens it too (more on that later on in this piece).
As we broaden, we are conscious that we must maintain our tone of voice. The Sun has always been cheeky and irreverent, delivering its message in a fun and engaging way.
There is already too much bland, SEO-focused content out there – and there will likely be much more of it with the rise of AI. We don’t want to be a part of a dull, unappealing content soup.
We have three supporting pillars to maximise the business opportunity created by our content: distribution, markets and monetisation.
- Distribution: Our website is the heart of our digital operation but we’ve never been obsessed with it being our only digital space. We’ve long been innovators in off-platform content, becoming one of the first UK media brands to build real scale on TikTok and Snapchat for example. Creating content that works on social platforms and large content aggregators encourages people back to our site and will continue to be a key strand of our focus going forward.
- Markets: Another strategy to broaden our audience is to look outside of our traditional territories. The Sun is an iconic brand in all four of the UK’s nations but our content expertise has global potential. We launched The Sun US in 2020 and so far, it’s been one of our most successful digital initiatives. We now reach around 34 million US readers each month and have over 150 staff in our New York office. We’re already looking at replicating this success by taking The Sun to other territories.
- Monetisation: As we attract more readers to The Sun and generate a significant growth in page views, this allows us to drive additional revenue from programmatic display advertising. This direct correlation is helpful – it delivers a reliable revenue stream to fund fresh content.
We’re proud that The Sun is certified as an IAB Gold standard website – this means that advertisers can be assured of our commitment to deliver an excellent digital ad experience.
We’re also adding new revenue streams as we grow – and it’s this revenue diversification that will future-proof The Sun; not just helping us to grow revenues but also giving us business resilience.
Our areas of focus include:
- Further developing our fast-growing affiliate revenue business.
- Adding capabilities to grow our first party data; giving us more insights into our readers.
- Developing an appealing and flexible Sun membership proposition.
- Continuing to develop and grow large-scale commercial partnerships.
With audience growth underway, the next challenge is to deepen our relationship with our readers. We want to build a long term brand relationship. Providing enjoyable ‘snackable’ content will continue to be part of what we do, but we also want to be useful to our readers in a deeper way, driving more engagement and loyalty.
One of the ways we’re doing this is by expanding the formats that we can offer. As a newspaper, we were largely limited to text and still images, but digitally, we’ve gone far beyond this and are increasingly building a video strategy that caters to the needs of our communities with high-quality content that informs and entertains.
We’re also deepening around specific categories of content; starting with utility content and passion-based content.
Personal finance is a great example of a category of ‘utility’ content that we’re turning up the dial on within The Sun. We’ve always written content that helps our readers find good deals; the cost of living crisis has made that content more popular than ever.
In 2018, we launched Sun Savers – a rewards club that gives print readers exclusive discount codes for everyday products as well as tickets to Sun Raffle, a daily prize draw for members of the Sun Savers Community. We’re now in the process of developing this membership offering and expanding it to include registered digital readers; this will form a key part of our strategy to convert more of our large readership from ‘anonymous’ to ‘known’. We see this as a virtuous cycle – the more we know about our readers, the better we can serve them relevant content and offers, as well as access to events and experiences that they are passionate about.
Deepening our content has also opened the door to collaboration. Whilst The Sun is home to some of the best journalists in the world, we know that there are other great content creators and service providers that can add value and depth to our content proposition. We’re therefore increasingly partnering with specialists in key verticals such as health and beauty, automotive, tech and more.
The final piece of this ‘deepening’ strategy is monetisation. As we add more in-depth content for our readers which in turn drives higher levels of engagement, we can look at monetising that relationship with tools and partnerships that add value to them.
Looking further into the future, there is more to do. We’ll carry on broadening our offer into more English-speaking markets and then beyond, potentially creating new language offerings. We also continue to deepen further, creating more content, more partnerships and more monetisation strategies that leverage this depth of relationship.
Beyond that, the key is innovation. We’re excited about the opportunities that mediatech businesses might unlock and we are keeping a keen eye on developments and startups in this space.
We have an in-house innovation team that’s constantly identifying new technologies and services that we can trial with our audience to see which ones have the potential to deliver real growth.
Above all, The Sun must remain true to itself. There’s obviously value in a large and engaged audience in any context, but we mustn’t lose what is unique about The Sun in the process of building our future. We have an excellent leadership team, an ambitious vision and a clear strategy. I predict that despite the inevitable change and challenges ahead, The Sun will still be a thriving brand in 50 years’ time.
* Source: Internal Google Analytics data: 3-month avg monthly unique visitors across April/May/June 2023.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.