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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How thinking like a tech company has transformed innovation at The Washington Post

August 10, 2017 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

When you think of The Washington Post, you probably think newspapers, not software company. But the reality is that the company operates a lot more like the latter. Under the influence of owner Jeff Bezos, The Post has been trying innovative approaches to everything it does and is experimenting with new ways of doing business.

That includes running an ad tech startup inside the company, one whose job is to use The Post as a sandbox of sorts to come up with new ways to deliver ads and then market the technology they produce to other publications. It’s not the kind of project you expect to find inside a publication like The Post, but it’s one of the qualities that attracted VP of commercial product and innovation, Jarrod Dicker several years ago.

Dicker says he originally reached out to The Post in 2015 about a job because he was seeing the continuous trend of media companies’ reliance on third-party companies for things core to the business, such as ad technology.

Seeing RED

After he came on board, Dicker helped form the RED team, which stands for research, experimentation and development. The group, which consists of software developers and product managers, began to look at the ways the company did ad tech.

As with any attempt to change the way you do business, Dicker ran into the “that’s just the way the industry works” attitude. His idea was to look at it fresh. What if you didn’t have any preconceived notions about how ad tech was supposed to work, how would you build it from scratch?

What he knew for sure was that users didn’t like the way ads were being delivered to them. So the first thing he decided to do was focus on improving the user experience. When consumers ignored ads—or worse, blocked them—Dicker recognized that the approach the industry had been taking needed to change if publishing was going to survive and thrive moving forward.

Thinking Like a Startup

“My pitch to The Post early on was—and it was me coming in as an individual contributor at the time—how do we take a startup mentality and really think about our focus as a media company and figure out how to differentiate ourselves,” he said. The problem as he saw it was that most media companies were focusing so much on building the content side of the business, they were forgetting about innovating on the revenue side.

So, he said they took the approach: “What if we actually applied an effort to build products that we think would be perfect for user experience, knowing how our consumers engage on The Washington Post and apply those to what we know brands and marketers want.” And that may just have been the key that unlocked the strategy. Dicker and the team he helped form wanted to create products that worked for marketers and brands as well as users who were fed up with online ads.

Getting talent to come in and work on ad tech proved to be a challenge at first precisely because it had such a bad reputation. “People didn’t want to work on ad problems because of the association with fraud, blocking and bad user experience. And the people who could apply [for these positions] and make the change didn’t want to be a part of it. They assumed that things couldn’t change or be better,” he said.

Those were precisely the people Dicker wanted however. Solving these issues requires people who could look at ad tech problems with fresh eyes. One of the problems they found was related to ad load time, so speed became a priority. The result was a product called Zeus that has the fastest ad load times in the industry, faster even than Google, according to Dicker.

Revenue Revisited

The RED team developed Zeus and other ad tech products at the Post including PostPulse, FlexPlay, ReEngage, Fuse, InContext, and Post Cards, and then began licensing them to other media companies, such as the Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, and Chicago Tribune. He found that providing a way to potentially improve ad technology across the industry, while producing another revenue source, was a happy side effect.

Dicker isn’t under any illusions that the tools his team has created are going to supplant the content/ad/subscription revenue model. However, he does see it as a viable additional form of revenue for the company, and he finds it exciting that his team is helping the core business grow and thrive.

“We now also have a Software as a Service model where the Washington Post is no longer solely reliant on advertising or subscriptions. We are actually becoming the technology vendor for other publications.” And that not only helps them diversify revenue, but has created an internal culture of innovation, which should help drive long-term success.

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