Martin Clarke, the Daily Mail executive who runs Mail Online, revealed today that 10% of the website's UK traffic is generated by referrals from Facebook, a "gigantic free marketing engine".
Clarke told delegates at the Society of Editors annual conference in Glasgow that only Google directs more UK traffic to Mail Online and urged newspapers to embrace social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter.
"The social networks are becoming increasingly important to us," Clarke said. "If you want an engaging site, Facebook isn't a threat or a parasite but a gigantic free marketing engine."
He added that he was happy for readers to arrive at Mail Online via those sites because some of them were likely to return directly to the paper's website in the future.
Clarke used a speech to the conference to extol the virtues of a free website designed to capture a mass audience in the UK and overseas. Mail Online is now the largest UK newspaper site, with 2.67 million averaged daily browsers and nearly 47 million monthly unique users in September. Traffic has grown by more than 400% in three years.
Mail Online's approach differs from that adopted by News International, which has erected a paywall around the Times, the Sunday Times and the News of the World online content and is planning to charge for the Sun website.
Clarke said he was "sceptical" about the News International plan. "I'm not going to tell the Times how to run their business," Clarke added.
"We looked at the same sums and we took the view that the numbers for a free website were much more attractive. Whether they can persuade advertisers their eyeballs are more valuable than everyone else; I'm sceptical," he said.
Clarke also claimed Mail Online users are more engaged than the paying customers who visit thetimes.co.uk.
He revealed that Mail Online is planning to launch new paid-for services with a small charge next year but would not be drawn on what they will be. "Things that we can't currently offer – if people can pay on a piecemeal or micropayment basis, I think we can offer," Clarke said.
He added that the paper's iPad app would be launched "in the next couple of months", but did not reveal the price.
Clarke warned the audience of newspaper executives that they could not ignore the growing influence and commercial clout of the internet but said the industry should not panic. "We are in danger of losing our nerve," he said.
He emphasised he is optimistic about the future and argued British papers had an unprecedented opportunity to meet a global demand for entertainment and information.
"Four out of 10 of the world's biggest newspaper websites are British," he said. "We've got to stop whining so much and seize the opportunity."
Clarke also warned that other websites, including Yahoo and MSN, would satisfy the online demand for news content if print titles did not rush in to fill it.
"People are going to be getting news from the web – just not from us. The web is just one big entertainment medium and we're just a part of it," he said.
Clarke also said print would survive for decades to come. "Print has a permanence and prestige that digital media can't yet match," he added.
He played down Mail Online's reliance on showbiz stories, which he said account for around a quarter of its traffic.
"The stories which do well for us are the stories that always sold newspapers… [Mail Online] is a broader church than the print edition [but] I don't think we have a different ethos or values. We do more showbiz stories but we also do science and nature stories," he added.
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