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October 26, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:20pm

US Sun bosses say ‘we’ve got incredibly ambitious aspirations’ as early work pays off in traffic and profit

By Charlotte Tobitt

Three years after launching in the US, bosses at The Sun say they have “incredibly ambitious aspirations” and “don’t really see a ceiling” on how far they can grow across the Atlantic.

The US Sun went live in January 2020 with about 20 staff based in New York. It now has almost 100 journalists – including reporters, editors, a picture desk and an audience team – and has become the 25th biggest news website in the US, according to Press Gazette’s monthly Similarweb ranking.

Will Payne, The Sun’s director of digital who led the site’s launch and spends a week each month with the team in New York, told Press Gazette its growth trajectory “has been incredibly significant”.

Similarweb figures show the US Sun has gone from 23.5 million monthly visits in September 2021 to 44.6 million a year later, appearing on multiple occasions as the fastest-growing site in our ranking.

But Payne claimed the US Sun over-indexes on mobile and that this is less well reflected on Similarweb. He instead cited internal figures showing the US Sun had its best month yet in August with 250 million page views.

The team concentrates on page views rather than unique visitors, saying it is better for their monetisation opportunities. Programmatic advertising is their primary source of revenue, which Payne said had proved "very lucrative". The site "became profitable much, much quicker than we anticipated", he added.

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Yet they believe they have more room to grow from their current market penetration of the site at 15% of the US adult population.

Payne said: "That shows how much headroom there is to grow still: despite driving massive numbers, we're scratching the surface and we think the opportunity here is huge.

"So it's justified our decision to come out here quite frankly and we've got incredibly ambitious aspirations out here - we want to keep growing and we don't really see a ceiling on it, to be honest with you."

Natalie Evans, editor of the site since February 2020 who previously worked at Dailymail.com and led the Mirror's US operation, added: "We are very ambitious, we wouldn't have come out here if we weren't, but we're not arrogant about it. We know that we have a lot to learn about what's out here and how we can grow... we want to be biting on the heels of some of the people higher up that [US top 50] list than us."

The US Sun launched after Payne and former Sun digital editor Keith Poole, now editor-in-chief at stablemate New York Post, felt the mature advertising market in the US and its population of 330 million people was an untapped opportunity.

"We felt that penetrating the US was something that was going to really enable us to push on as an operation," Payne said. "And we always had a firm belief that Sun-style content would work out here. There are some great digital publications out here - obviously our stablemate the New York Post - but we do do things in a slightly different way."

Payne added that The Sun had built its UK online audience essentially from scratch just years earlier after abandoning its paywall in 2015. It is now the biggest commercial news website in the UK, behind only the BBC in our ranking.

"We felt confident that we could do the same in the US," Payne said.

A lot of the content types they have focused on have drawn from lessons learned in the UK: entertainment, lifestyle and family-focused, practical money stories are among their biggest areas. Two of the more recent US desk launches have been motors and sport.

Some content is shared between the UK and US (and the Scottish and Irish domains) where relevant to all audiences - stories about Tiktok trends, for example, or the biggest UK politics developments.

The US website now has a handful of employees in the UK office to kickstart the day with fresh US-focused content before New York wakes up, while the foreign team in London has been charged with driving traffic across both sides of the Atlantic.

The US Sun's readers are about 60% female but fairly evenly spread by age, according to Payne, who said this was similar to the brand's demographic in the UK.

Evans said: "We look at the whole of the US - everyone is up for grabs... we're certainly not backing ourselves into any kind of pigeonholes, or restrictions. We're absolutely aiming as high as we can."

The first thing the team had to do was build brand awareness in the US, where The Sun was a less-recognised brand. They also set about creating Google authority by writing lots of explainer content and other "building block" content to allow them to rank for certain topics, and as a result a large proportion of their traffic now comes from search.

Facebook was also a big part of the strategy, with the launch of several pages, while the audience team is fully integrated into the newsroom to emphasise collaboration between the search and social experts and the reporters and editors. Payne said the newsroom was a "progressive friendly environment", adding: "I don't think it's like how some people would perceive a national newsroom to be or a digital newsroom."

Payne said all of this began to really pay off in April 2021 and that as the trajectory began jumping upwards they started periodically asking for investment to build the team up in numbers. He described it as a "very strategic, incremental" expansion: "We've done it in tranches of investment but only ever if it was justified financially. It wasn't a case of just throwing a load of resource at the wall."

And from a brand perspective, Evans said: "Three years into business, people are now starting to realise who The Sun are."

The New York newsroom is now staffed by dozens of young, keen and eager-to-learn graduates, Evans said: "They're very keen to get their hands dirty on stories. Sometimes I think with digital journalism there's a misconception that we're just glorified bloggers or that you're just chained to your desk all the time. That couldn't be further from the truth. We've got some real hungry journalists who want to go out, want to get their own lines on stuff..."

In fact, exclusives have become a key part of the growth strategy "because we fully recognise that in order for us to have sustainability and longevity as a brand we need to be breaking stories that a) get us brand recognition, but b) just give us that kind of integrity as a news site," Payne explained.

Evans added: "While most of our traffic does come from referrals, we obviously do want to build up a bit more direct traffic, we would like ourselves to become a site that people return to so those kinds of stories help get that brand recognition out and have people coming back to us."

Mail Online was the first British tabloid to go big with a dedicated US website. It launched Dailymail.com in 2010 and it is now the tenth biggest news website in the US, according to Similarweb.

After seeing this success replicated at The Sun, Reach is currently considering opening a US office to launch .com versions of the Mirror and Express websites - potentially with more than 100 staff.

Payne said: "We are very, very confident about our strategy and we think that our strategy sets us apart from some of our rivals, and we believe it to be a very, very effective one. And we very purposefully try to do things differently from some of our rivals." On Reach's plans, he added that "competition's good but I'm not hugely worried".

Evans, who joined from Dailymail.com, added: "The Mail produces brilliant reporters, brilliant editors, and they have been out here for a long, long time, they're very well established, because of that they do have a very different operation to us. So we weren't going to come out here in a blaze of glory and try and knock them off their perch in any way. We just want to do things our way and quietly grow."

Looking forward, Payne said the strategy of "incremental growth" would continue: "Proving out growth areas and then going back to the business and asking for that investment.

"We're in a very challenging financial situation at the moment globally so we can't be profligate with our resource so everything that we do needs to justify itself.

"So I see ourselves growing in that same incremental way and expanding in some new content areas... We're still at a relatively formative stage and there's still lots of opportunities so in terms of are we going to diversify our business model? No, because we feel as though there's a lot of headroom still to go in the market."

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