The Daily Mail was biggest news publisher in the world on Facebook in March, knocking the Daily Wire off its long-held top spot, according to an independent ranking.
The UK publisher had 32.7m Facebook likes, shares, and comments to its web content posted on Facebook last month, according to media monitoring company NewsWhip.
The Daily Mail surpassed its closest competitor, Ben Shapiro’s US conservative news website Daily Wire, which had been in first position for over a year, by 7m interactions.
"It's been a long time coming. The Daily Wire has been the number one in those rankings for such a long time and we've been trying to chase them down," says Chris Lawrence, head of social media for MailOnline and DailyMail.com.
Although engagement varies significantly month to month The Daily Mail has eaten into the Daily Wire’s dominance in the Facebook publisher ranking in recent months, coming second to the US site last month by a narrow margin.
British publishers did particularly well this month, taking three of the top five spots. Mirror.co.uk was the third-best ranked publisher with 23.1 interactions (in December The Mirror jumped up the ranking from 12th to 3rd spot), while BBC.co.uk was ranked fourth (19.6m interactions).
According to NewsWhip, what’s really helped drive the growth in engagement for the Daily Mail has been its coverage of the war in Ukraine. "The content that was most engaged was much more uniform than it often is [for the Daily Mail], with all of their top five stories touching on the invasion of Ukraine in some way or another," says Benedict Nicholson of NewsWhip.
Lawrence concurs that a "huge chunk" of the number came from stories about the war.
"Ukraine is such a big story - a political story. But within that there are individual points of interest, like individual actions or human interest stories which touch people emotionally. Those are the ones that tend to do really well for us," he says.
However, the rise in the number of engagements, he says, is also the result of longer-term investment in other areas.
"We've been growing for a number of months - this isn't something that's just happened overnight and we've been trying to grow our offering across multiple verticals," says Lawrence, who points to the publisher’s sports team as one that has been highly focused on ensuring that more people see and engage with its sports content.
Lawrence oversees a team of 30 people across The Daily Mail’s offices in London, New York, Sydney and Los Angeles who work on the publisher’s 24/7 social media content. Video, which is not counted in the NewsWhip data which just looks at the number of Facebook likes, shares, and comments on web content, is a large focus for the Daily Mail. Its videos, says Lawrence, attract some 2bn views a month.
Although Mail Online maintains a presence on most major social networks, Facebook is where most efforts are invested. The publisher manages upwards of 20 different Facebook pages catering to niche communities such as Daily Mail Moms And Daily Mail Animals which together count some 45 million followers between them.
"It works if you find the right audiences, so for us it's been about growing as many Facebook pages as possible to find a way to deliver to these audiences what they're interested in," says Lawrence.
Although he says that Facebook no longer sends the publisher the same "firehose of traffic" it once did, it’s still the Mail Online’s single-biggest referrer and the number one focus for the social team.
"Everyone from the CEO to the editor-in-chief is invested in Facebook, how it's performing and trying to find ways that we can do better on that platform," says Lawrence.
The main Daily Mail Facebook page alone posts some four to five times an hour, but on busy news days there can be even more activity. But the number of posts, says Lawrence, is not driven by some secret formula.
"We spent a long time trying to work out what the right cadence was with years and years of experimenting. But we eventually came to the conclusion that it doesn't really make a lot of difference. If you're putting out good content then it tends to perform well."
And the Mail's social team has plenty of content to choose from. The site publishes some 1,700 articles a day.
But while Mail Online has the resources to produce this huge amount of content - the publisher published over 61,000 articles in March, more than three times as much as the BBC - Lawrence maintains that its success on Facebook is not just down to a volume play.
"We've been working on making the most of that volume of content and sport’s a good example of that. Our sport content is now doing really, really well and that's been a concerted hard slog," he says.
He adds: "Our overriding philosophy is to make sure that we're publishing our best stuff. Mail Online publishes so much content but obviously not all of it is right for social as some of it will be written for the site or search. So we're just making sure that all the best content for our social audiences is going up in a timely fashion. It’s also optimised for social so we'll rewrite the headlines and make sure that it speaks to our Facebook audience which is a little bit different than our homepage audience as it’s a little bit younger."
The site’s most engaged-with story in March was its coverage of Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher’s Ukraine fundraiser which garnered 265,000 interactions.
Is there anything that makes a story go viral?
For Lawrence it's not about tricks and devices. And it’s definitely not, he says, about clickbait.
"It's just about having a really engaged audience. If people are seeing your content and engaging with your content it means they're going to see more of it because of the way the algorithm works. So for us, it's all about maintaining the quality of the content and making sure that it's consistently content that people want to see and interact with.
"If you're able to maintain that, it means that when you do have a great story, a big breaking news story, or a huge viral moment such as the Will Smith [incident] at the Oscars it means that people are going to see your content first."
The success of its Ukraine content on Facebook underlines the fact that Mail Online does far more than the showbiz gossip in its infamous sidebar of shame.
Lawrence says: "We have that reputation for covering a lot of entertainment stuff. But we also cover hard hitting news stories all the time. We get a lot of big political exclusives, both here and in the US and we've always prided ourselves on in-depth reporting and I think probably goes unnoticed a lot of the time," he says. "I don't necessarily think there's anything new that we would have learned from [the social engagement generated by Ukraine] but it is a reaffirmation of those principles."
TikTok, which is particularly favoured by younger users, has divided publishers. Following the departure of journalist Sophia Smith-Galer, the BBC initially shied away from the video platform but has now launched a BBC News account for the first time. Sky News on the other hand has decided to embrace the platform.
At 3.7m The Daily Mail counts the largest TikTok following of any UK publisher. The publisher has recently started running a daily TikTok pop culture explainer series called The Daily Tales from the Daily Mail. It also uploads TikToks that respond to breaking news stories.
While Facebook, says Lawrence, will remain number one for the Daily Mail, the publisher is planning to further step up its investment in TikTok.
"It's an exciting way to try new things and experiment and reach a new audience that you might not think of as your typical Daily Mail audience," he says.