The Washington Post rolls out new customizable content ad unit

Just about every publisher is doing editorial-like ads in some form or fashion. But getting people to click on native ads is another matter.

The Washington Post is trying to solve for this with a new branded content ad format, called Post Cards. It’s the 10th product to come out of the Post’s Research, Experimentation & Development (RED) team.

Post Cards breaks down a branded content campaign into its multimedia parts (slideshows, galleries, text, video) and then reassembles it and presents it to users based on their consumption history on the site. Before, the Post would show the same native ad to everyone. Now, a person who has a history of being a heavy video watcher would likely be served a version of the ad that starts with video, for example. The idea is that the more tailored they are to people’s consumption patterns, the more likely they are to engage with it.

Post Cards also can be formatted to let people read or view the content in the unit without having to click through, acknowledging that it’s hard to get people to click on ads and that Google and Facebook have trained people to expect pages to load lightning fast. “This allows us to have zero latency,” said Jarrod Dicker, who heads up RED as head of ad product and technology. “We’re limiting the click stream.”

Programmatic native advertising has become a popular way for publishers to distribute native at scale, but the common knock is that by scaling it, you lose the connection to the host publisher.

“To date, programmatic has largely been leveraged as an efficiency pipe with advertisers leaning into the automated nature of getting in front of audiences quickly, sacrificing the story and experience in doing so,” said Laura Correnti, evp at Giant Spoon. “This pre-packaged approach to native advertising can, and in many instances has, diluted authenticity and engagement.”

Post Cards could give marketers a broader palette for their message, said Kevin Wassong, former CEO of digital at JWT and CEO of One Mobile, a mobile tech, services and marketing unit at Media General. “It’s great that we have all this data and insights and technologies to get at people, but we have horrible creative formats.”

Dicker said Post Cards’ customization also takes a page from Facebook and Snapchat. Dicker said the format will become the default for all Post branded content and cost a premium, but didn’t have specifics.

“If you look at what Facebook is doing and Snapchat is doing to reach users with their content, they know each user consumes content in a different way,” he said. “With branded content, we’re not leveraging data to build a unique experience for each user.”

A mockup of how Post Cards can break down an ad into its multimedia parts to be customized to the consumer.

“What the Washington Post team has done is smart, and I’ve seen several publishers start to head in this direction, which is to build different expressions of the content using various digital formats and executions,” said Kunal Gupta, CEO of branded content platform Polar.

One thing Post Cards won’t bring is scale. It uses Clavis, a personalization tool the Post developed in house, so running them off the Post’s sites would defeat the purpose. That’s a potential liability for ad agencies that don’t want to invest heavily in an ad that has limited application. “If it’s relegated solely to the Washington Post, it’s not going to work,” Wassong said.

Dicker said the format would become part of the Post’s Arc suite of publishing tools that it’s selling to other publishers, which could lead to wider adoption, but conceded that’s speculative. He also thinks the payoff for advertisers will be high because if they work the way they’re intended, impressions and engagement will go up. Under Jeff Bezos’ ownership, the Post has invested heavily in engineering, and long-term, Dicker also hopes its products will influence other publishers to follow suit.

“What I’m hoping will happen is native advertising isn’t just content and a headline but can be tailored to each individual user.”

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