Media Perspective: An ad-funded online model does exist. It's over at the Mail

Spending time on MailOnline, I feel like a child urinating in a swimming pool. I know I shouldn't be doing it but somehow it's a curiously pleasurable experience.

Perhaps this is because, online, the Mail resembles a turbo-charged version of its print title, mixing the spiky Middle England news agenda with acres of celebrity content. It's a compelling but slightly unclean blend, especially when you throw in some of the mad comments - there are hundreds of them - posted by site users.

And this content is attracting users - in their droves. Around 40 million worldwide unique users (not a very useful measure for UK advertisers) and 16 million unique UK users. Impressive figures that are drawing admiring glances from rivals and commentators including the former Guardian editor Peter Preston.

This week, it emerged that The Times has lost two-thirds of its online audience since introducing a pay-wall, which might provide some hope that the remaining third will fund the product. It will be good if this is the case as content needs to be funded somehow. But the Mail is showing there is an alternative based on the scale it can deliver to advertisers.

Associated Newspapers, MailOnline's owner, has done more than chase audience, though, and the site seems to have a shrewd strategy underpinning it. Despite the constant jostling for supremacy in the monthly ABCe figures, Andy Mitchell, the group commercial director of MailOnline, argues that the site stands to one side: "We've never really focused on going after the websites of competing newspapers but instead have focused on general portals."

Beneath the Mail branding, the site is really a network of sites, more closely resembling a portal than a traditional newspaper website. Treading this "different path", Mitchell argues, has allowed MailOnline to move into areas such as engagement metrics and behavioural targeting that have resulted in six-figure deals with advertisers. "We've moved beyond trading £5,000 here and there to weighty deals that are capable of being the equivalent to print deals," he says.

It's a tricky time for newspaper groups and Associated is not immune - its parent company recently announced that it is closing Associated Northcliffe Digital and folding it into the newspaper division to make savings. But revenues at MailOnline rose 66 per cent during the first quarter. Impressive growth based on scale of audience and some of the clever targeting the site can offer to advertisers. Mitchell says that over the next five years "there is absolutely a genuine business here based on advertising revenue". If so, well done to Associated for showing that an ad-funded online publishing model does exist. Now it's time for another dip in that dirty pool of celebrity and readers' bile.