October 2007: Associated Newspapers' digital strategy lacked focus in the post-dotcom-bust years. But that began to change in 2007 when it restructured its online properties under Andy Hart, the managing director of Associated Northcliffe Digital.
April 2008: And this bears fruit the next spring when, following a period of research and development, the company relaunches its flagship national online brand as Mail Online. Heavy on celebrity news and pictures, it makes no secret of its aim to become the UK's most-visited newspaper website. It achieves this in short order in the ABCe figures for May, with 18.7 million unique users.
July 2009: Hart had departed by mutual consent in the summer of 2008 but Mail Online had pushed on under its managing director, James Bromley. He signs a partnership deal with ITN, which leads to the site being able to run more video content.
February 2010: Rival publishers spent most of 2009 sniping and sneering at Mail Online, casting doubt on its true popularity; but it comes up trumps yet again when, in the January figures, it re-establishes itself as the UK's top newspaper site, as the ABCe moves away from a monthly currency to a measure based on daily users. Mail Online records 2.16 million unique users per day.
April 2010: And it had been expected that Associated would be in the leading wave of publishers determined to monetise this audience not just through advertising but through the erection of a pay-wall. But Mail Online's publisher, Martin Clarke, surprises many when he reveals that the site intends to stay free. He reckons that, uniquely among UK newspaper sites, Mail Online is big enough to make the advertising-only model pay.
Fast forward ...
July 2011: And he's sort of right. Although News Corp's erection of pay-walls proves hugely successful, advertising revenues at Mail Online grow spectacularly across the second half of 2010 - and News Corp and Associated are now the only two newspaper groups able to stay in the online game. But the fragility of the latter's position becomes evident when the BBC revamps its news sites with a focus squarely on middle-class Middle England.
This article was first published on Campaign