Media Forum: Has Associated missed the online bus?

Is ANM behind the times launching an internet version of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday?

It's odd to think that at one stage almost a decade ago, Associated Newspapers was shaping up to achieve major "early adopter" status. Associated New Media launched in 1995. Unfortunately, it was soon getting its fingers burned. Or slightly singed, at least.

It had high hopes for its women's portal, Charlotte Street, which eventually mutated into the less ambitious femail.co.uk; and a recruitment site, Big Blue Dog, which mutated into a completely closed-down operation.

But recently, Associated New Media has been building momentum once more.

Its Evening Standard spin-off, thisislondon.com, has weathered the lean years and now it has been joined by an online (albeit limited) presence for Metro, plus thisistravel.co.uk and loot.com. Associated has even returned to the recruitment business, paying £35 million for jobsite.com.

And at last the company is returning to the true nub of the matter. Plans for the launch of both dailymail.co.uk and mailonsunday.co.uk are at an advanced stage and last week two agencies, Delaney Lund Knox Warren and Wieden & Kennedy, were appointed to work on the imminent launch of these sites.

No-one doubts the strength of Associated Newspapers' properties as media brands - but aren't they more than a little late to this particular party?

Strong brands such as Guardian Unlimited and the Electronic Telegraph have been on the go for five and ten years respectively. Haven't internet news junkies already formed deeply ingrained habits?

Andrew Hart, the managing director of Associated New Media, clearly doesn't think so. He points out that the company can leverage years of experience of running its other websites; and it can also benefit from the experience of other newspapers around the world.

He adds: "We can use the latest technologies and do it for a more reasonable cost than in the past. We have waited until there is a high demand from our potential readers and advertisers. Yes, we may have lost out on a longer-standing relationship with users but on the other hand we have not suffered the huge losses that rivals have suffered over the past five years.

"We will be looking to bring in existing Mail readers and, given the undisputed quality of the Mail titles as brands, will expect to pick up the readers of other newspapers that are active on the web."

But there appears to be little correlation between newspaper readership and brand loyalty where the internet is concerned. And first isn't always best. Simon Waldman, the director of digital publishing at the Guardian Group, points out that when Guardian Unlimited launched it was well behind The Times and The Telegraph and, ironically, Associated with This Is London.

He states: "On one level, there is nothing wrong with being late. But it will all come down to how they perform and getting it right operationally will be more important than style and tone of voice. There are all sorts of issues that they will have to learn to deal with. How do you handle rows with the news team about what copy you can get and when? What do you do when the server goes down?"

Jean-Paul Edwards, the head of media futures at Manning Gott-lieb OMD, disagrees. He believes that content, style and tone will be of paramount importance: "In terms of people's news habits, I think the horse has already bolted - and, in any case, the types of providers who are successful in news are the people who are most comfortable with a rolling, TV-type product.

For the Mail's culture, moving to a round-the-clock operation may be something of a shock. But, if they are aiming to use the internet differently, as a way of extending their relationship with their readers, for instance, in creating a shopping club or providing more in-depth material relating to features, then we are still in the early days. They would not be seen as a late entrant."

Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, tends to agree. He concludes: "I think the debate is about the sort of audience they can hope to attract. They could play down the right-wing abrasiveness and try to accommodate people they've never had to accommodate before, in an attempt to appeal to everybody. If they're doing that then I wouldn't hold out much hope for them. If they play up the right-wing side of things, then that would certainly give them personality. But it's not going to be easy from a revenue point of view. It's still the case that more than 80 per cent of online revenue goes to ten sites. They will be among a large number of people chasing the remaining revenue."

- "There is no other title quite like the Daily Mail currently on the internet. It will be about extending the brand to give the internet audience access to the sorts of comment and analysis that we are well known for and that is not available elsewhere." Andrew Hart managing director, Associated New Media

- "The real issue for Associated is that they will be competing with brands that have been offering a good product for several years now. Internet usage is about the accumulation of habit and once habits have been acquired, it is very hard for you to change them." Simon Waldman director of digital, Guardian Group

- "In the case of Daily Mail readers who are going to Guardian Unlimited or the Telegraph online, they may have difficulty getting them back. But there's an emerging market of people new to the internet and that's where they can compete on an equal footing." Jean-Paul Edwards head of media futures, MG OMD

- "The new sites have to find a focus and personality and they probably have to be brave. They have to be talked about and have the sort of material there that a Guardian reader might go and look at and vow never to go back there again." Charlie Dobres chief executive, i-level.

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