Post-Bezos, The Washington Post is making its ads “all about users-first”

Washington Post Red Group

When Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in late 2013, he said his motive was to bring the distinguished newspaper into the digital age.

To help accomplish that aim, Bezos gave a specific mission to Jarrod Dicker, who joined the newspaper in September of last year as head of ad production and technology after stints at The Huffington Post and Time, Inc.

“The editorial team [was] strong, and the engineering team was strong,” Dicker told me. But there was “a huge gap on the ad side of the business, in innovation.”

“Bezos is all about users-first,” he added, so “I was brought in to build consumer-first type approaches for advertisers.”

That initiative led to the founding in December of 2015 of the Post’s RED (Research Experimentation & Development) Group, which Dicker heads and which is intended as a “bridge between editorial, advertising, and the core technology group.”

Based in both New York and Washington, DC, the RED Group is all about improving the user experience of digital ads by developing tools that the Post can use, and that can be white-label licensed to ad partners or other publishers.

In eight months since its launch, the RED Group has created six tools that Dicker said seek to “make existing ads better” for web and apps.

There’s PostPulse for mobile and desktop. It takes 300 x 500 ads, converts them to various sizes, and appends Post editorial content in the form of three headlines.

The headlines relate to the ad, or to the page content, or they can be selected by the advertiser from Post content, such as a bank sponsor selecting financial stories.

When a user clicks on one of the related headlines, the same advertiser will show up on the destination page as well. Dicker said PostPulse has been licensed to 50 publishers since its launch at the end of January, and it can be utilized through a programmatic ad platform. Click-through rates are reportedly double that of standard banners. Here are some PostPulse ads:

A video creation tool called FlexPlay allows advertisers to quickly repurpose their TV-intended video ads into digestible web ads, with custom text overlays, social buttons, graphics and closed captioning. A JavaScript tag allows the resulting video ad to be utilized programmatically, and 20 FlexPlay tools have been sold since its release in mid-February. Dicker reports that completion rates of these video ads are “near those of pre-roll ads.” A screen shot of a FlexPlay ad:

Flex Play ad

A tool called InContext generates a pull-quote from a native ad, which is then placed inside a 620 x 250 inline box on desktop web or 320 x 250 inline ad on mobile. This linked “quote in a box” — a piece of content that is labeled as an ad — then leads to native ad content. Launched in March, it has been used by two advertisers so far, and no results are yet available. An InContext pull-quote ad:

In-Context ad 2

A mobile-only tool named Re-Engage, released in April, recommends new content for users who are at either end of non-engagement — they are either scrolling very fast, or they are inactive. In either of those cases, a unit of recommended and relevant content — editorial or sponsored — pops up from screen bottom in a 320 x 160 box:


Another mobile-only tool: Fuse. It instantly loads Post-branded content or direct-sold ads (which are distinguished by a lightning bolt), as both are hosted on the Post’s servers (See image below). Additionally, a user who clicks on one of the Fuse’d ads is returned to where they were, once they exit the ad.

Fuse ad

And, launched in June, there’s a Brand Insights Dashboard that connects all the stats about the Post’s branded content — including Omniture, Chartbeat and proprietary data — in one dashboard that can be used to inform the creation of native ads.

The Post doesn’t yet have any stats about whether creating ads with improved user experience or leveraged editorial content actually diminishes the use of ad blockers. But, given the paper’s new emphasis, the as-yet-unproven theory that better user experience will decrease blocker use may eventually get its test at the Post.

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