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Doubling down on personalizing the reader experience

April 28, 2022 | By Jason Langsner, Senior Product Manager – WaPo 360 @jasonlangsner

Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan co-starred in Space Jam. Bill Cinton was re-elected to serve a second term as President of the United States. Tiger Woods became a professional golfer. The Summer Olympics were hosted in Atlanta. And washingtonpost.com went live. What do all of these events have in common? They all took place in 1996.

It has been 25 years since those first readers could get their news from The Washington Post online. Back then, Post articles couldn’t be “googled,” since Google — as a company — would be founded two years later. And sharing a news article with friends couldn’t involve Facebook or Twitter, as these networks wouldn’t come to market for eight and 10 more years, respectively… TikTok was only the sound an analog clock made and early-social media adopters were closer to Tom being their first friend on MySpace than influencers going viral and becoming millionaires from creating content on Instagram, Snapchat and/or YouTube.

News consumption was a one-size fits all paradigm: heard or seen via broadcast news on TV or radio, read from printed ink on paper, and skimmed from websites that were effectively static brochureware representations of their print big brothers (with some supplemental content online). There was no personalization. The model was one-to-many: here are the top things reader X, Y and Z need to know to stay informed. That model is changing and has changed. And The Post has shown success in personalizing the news to readers’ interests through My Postnewsletter subscriptions and much much more.

Stay tuned, Washington Post readers are about to see more personalization in 2022!

Creating and distributing the news: then vs. now

An “Apple-to-Apple” Comparison of Reading The Washington Post
on December 20 in 1996 and 2021 through then-Modern Apple Technology:

The December 20, 1996, homepage of washingtonpost.com on an Apple Macintosh
Rhe December 20, 2021, home screen of the WashPost iOS app on an Apple iPhone

Change is good. But change needs to be managed. A lot has changed in this last quarter century at the intersection of media and technology. The Post has responded to change by building new systems that manage how content is created, distributed and amplified. But one thing has remained constant — great reporters and editors create great journalism.

Another constant is that quality journalism will be seen or heard by consumers looking to stay informed. And it can shine through the cloudy haze of mis-and-disinformation maliciously shared online.

Although these constants of good journalism from trusted institutional brands and other media players communicating the news remains, how consumers get their news has certainly changed with the times. In today’s digital new media landscape, according to The Pew Research Center, “more than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’”

As a media AND technology company, The Washington Post has not just followed consumers to their preferred destinations, it has been a leader in creating content and bringing it to readers — readers who may have an interest in politics can get their Daily 202 newsletter emailed to them; food enthusiasts can cook with confidence with Voraciously recipes and guides; podcast listeners can subscribe to Post Reports, Please Go On, Can He Do That, and other audio format news; and over 1.2 million fans of @washingtonpost on TikTok can be informed and entertained by short, witty, videos by a creative team of content creators.

All of this work needs to live somewhere. Platforms, tools and services power this news before it reaches readers’ smartphones, computers, or tablets. The Washington Post has had to understand not just the scalable infrastructure needs of today to deliver this news where and how readers want it, but technology leadership has also had to set the organization up to be successful in the future with new and expanding infrastructure and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) resources. It’s like the old sports adage — Wayne Gretzky wasn’t the fastest skater on the ice in the NHL and he wasn’t the biggest professional hockey player. He was the greatest because he played not to where the puck currently is, but where the puck was going.

The Post’s aspiration and northstar is to not just continue to deliver excellence in journalism, but also to equally deliver excellence in engineering and innovation. The Post is playing to where the innovation puck is going by as, Deloitte Insights suggests, “designing systems in which humans and machines work together to improve the speed and quality of decision-making.” The Post is doing this to improve the reader experience through personalization and to allow company leaders to turn more data into actionable intelligence at scale.

“I’ve always understood and appreciated the work that The Post contributes to the journalistic space, but interviewing [for my role at The Post] quickly made me realize the sophistication behind the engineering effort supporting that mission.”

— Washington Post Data Engineer Jack Miller, who joined The Post in 2021.

Data, data, everywhere. Data, data, time to share.

Moore’s Law highlights the correlation of computing power essentially doubling every two years. That’s become more of a rule than a law over-time. Another rule that has held steady is the total amount of data created or copied doubles roughly every two years — therefore, The Post has seen a whole lot of redoubling of total data since 1996 and Post engineering leadership expects that trend continue in the coming years.

Inside-and-outside of the newsroom, The Post — as a business — relies heavily on data-informed decision making at strategic and operational levels. Over the years, in addition to the increased need to approach data management in a holistic way, The Post has experienced a significant increase in subscriptions and traffic across various platforms and channels. This increased data volume and velocity coupled with new sources and complexities has created new challenges (and opportunities) to turn raw, siloed and unstructured data into business intelligence.

To address these challenges/opportunities and gain maximum journalistic and business benefits from reader interests, The Post began to develop a more integrated approach to data management in 2021 under the leadership of Beth Diaz (Vice President of Audience Development & Analytics), Venkatesh Varalu (Head of Data and Analytics), and in collaboration with leaders across Subscriptions, Advertising, Newsroom, Marketing, Finance, Product and Engineering.

This data was available and accessible prior to 2021, but The Post began to manage it in a more innovative, agile and programmatic way. Under this new approach, customer data is being positioned to power various marketing and reader personalization efforts through enhanced workflows, automations and data activations via homegrown tools or services and vendor platforms. The Post is calling this macro-initiative WaPo 360.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of data. Working as a newsletter analyst, I got the opportunity to explore The Post’s various data sets to answer interesting questions about how our readers behave, and to find evidence of what works best for keeping them engaged,” said WaPo 360 Senior Data Engineer Patrick Haney. “It was a fantastic experience. However, while working with these data sets, it became almost immediately clear that they weren’t arranged in an optimal format for analysis. Answering simple business questions could take hours instead of minutes due to the siloed nature of each data set, along with the business logic that needed to be applied in a consistent fashion and often it required reaching out to a subject matter expert for validation.”

“I was ecstatic when I learned about this new data integration initiative because it would solve all these aforementioned issues and enable analysts and non-analysts to quickly and efficiently use our data to answer vital business questions,” said Haney regarding his choice to transfer from one Post team onto another.

Graphic showing 5 levels of insight-driven organizational maturity: analytics aware, localized analytics, analytical aspirations, analytical companies and analytical competitors
Deloitte’s Insight-Driven Organization (IDO) Maturity Scale

According to a recent Deloitte study, “most executives do not believe their companies are insight-driven. Fewer than four in 10 (37 percent) place their companies in the top two categories of the Insight-Driven Organization (IDO) Maturity Scale, and of those, only 10 percent fall into the highest category. The remaining 63 percent are aware of analytics but lack infrastructure, are still working in silos, or are expanding ad hoc analytics capabilities beyond silos.”

WaPo 360 will improve the turn-around time for The Post to turn data and signals into insight-driven business decisions.

WaPo 360 and the engineering experience

When he applied to work at The Post, Jack Miller said his “interviewers stressed the importance of the WaPo 360 project across many different verticals within the organization. Being able to join a growing team supporting that project was a huge reason why I decided to pursue the position and so far it has been a great experience.”

Fellow team Data Engineer Zach Lynn agrees, saying, “the WaPo 360 project struck me as an excellent opportunity to learn and also support The Washington Post’s core mission.” Lynn’s interest included working in several business areas and collaborating with other software teams.

The first step of WaPo 360 has been focused on stitching data signals from various data sources together. Data that previously was unstructured and accessible only to data analysts is becoming democratized for Washington Post engineers and technical business users. This first pillar of work is essentially warming up the oven and organizing all of the ingredients to make it easier for business stakeholders, in different departments, to bake their own pies. Data from site and app traffic, newsletter engagements, ads, subscriptions, and other sources are becoming more structured in WaPo 360 through Customer 360 — our first pillar of the initiative.

A Washington Post data analyst recently presented how his work has been impacted by WaPo 360. In his presentation, he outlined how he experienced a nearly 96% improvement in a SQL query run time by switching data sources from the siloed unprocessed data that he was looking for to the same data signals that were structured and pre-processed in WaPo 360. As noted earlier, different data sets have been accessible before 2021, but with WaPo 360, The Post is turning data into intelligence and making it easier for staff to do their jobs. WaPo 360 is essentially replacing their hand tools with power tools.

Flowchart showing four steps: Raw WashPost data, then semi-structured data, then structured data, then customer 360 data

WaPo 360 and the business-user experience

The data that is becoming structured and pre-processed in Customer 360 isn’t just going to live on an island to be visited by data analysts and data engineers. The second pillar of WaPo 360 is to make that data accessible to those with a business need to access it, in anonymized ways, through improved self-service tools.

Flowchart showing three steps: Customer 360 data, then Customer Data Platform, then either offsite marketing services or internal email and website personalization tools

Joshua Zieve, Senior Data Analyst, joined the WaPo 360 team, to “help catalyze The Washington Post’s data sources to better understand and serve our current and prospective readership.” Zieve has been active in coordinating with business and technical users on many fronts. “Working across the Analytics & Engineering teams, I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop systems that facilitate, deepen and expedite analytics for use-cases throughout the organization,” Zieve said.

Good data is the foundation for WaPo 360 and that leads to personalization benefits. Following the team’s work in delivering structured data in Customer 360, WaPo 360 sends relevant data to power the business use-cases that Zieve references into a new Customer Data Platform (CDP). The CDP then works as an engine to allow business-users to perform exploratory data analysis, build audience segments, create marketing and reader engagement campaigns, analyze their success, then deliver an improved personalized experience to readers through integrations with Washington Post-built tools and popular offsite services that The Post utilizes to reach potential readers.

“[I’m] most excited about the self-service potential for The Post’s newsroom and business teams … with data in one place, which is aggregated and ready to be queried, users can get their data without waiting for The Post’s Analytics team to prepare the data. For the Analytics team, this will also reduce time spent for serving ad hoc requests from the newsroom/business side.”

— Sam Han, Director of Zeus Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Machine Learning at The Washington Post

WaPo 360 and the reader experience

The Post will be doubling down on personalization in 2022 — directly and adjacent to the work being conducted by the WaPo 360 team.

Early work is underway to improve the onboarding experience for new subscribers. And the team plans to unlock significant opportunities to retool, rethink and reshape how articles are suggested to readers — such as through improved content insights and an updated Content Taxonomy System with new article subjects/topics metadata powering future innovation.

Members of the WaPo 360 team recently presented the team’s work at a company-wide virtual forum. Washington Post Organizational Development Consultant Cameron Booher said, “Planning for any What’s Next event involves talking with many project teams about their ongoing and upcoming initiatives. And the usual format of What’s Next is to highlight three projects from different areas of the business. But it very quickly became evident through conversations just how significant of an undertaking WaPo 360 is. It’s extremely collaborative, and has been built upon expertise from almost every department at The Post. It will be rolled out in various phases, which speaks to the iterative process of develop-test-improve.”

“Some of the insights we’ll gain will help us improve reader and user experiences in spades,” Booher said.

This article originally appeared on Washington Post Engineering and is re-published with permission. 

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