Washington Post Builds Its Own Ad Tech To Speed Up Mobile

Category: Publishers Posted at: 2016-10-30

Although The Washington Post partners with Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, which help speed mobile load times, it’s also striking out on its own.

Over a two-month period, a team of Post engineers cobbled together a proprietary tech solution called Zeus that sped mobile page-load times by 75%. Viewability improved by 20% in current tests and the Post plans to license out the tech to other interested publishers.

Instead of being tied to the ad units supported by AMP or Instant Articles, the tech supports the Post’s preferred revenue setup, which includes two header bidding partners and whatever other programmatic demand or ad units it wants to insert in the mobile web experience. “It’s a tech that wraps around other tech,” said Jarrod Dicker, head of ad product.

The Washington Post embarked on the project because the editorial team wanted to use Progressive Web Apps (PWA) for the mobile experience. (PWAs, launched by Google, enable an app-like experience on the mobile web.) Then the ads side had what CRO Jed Hartman called an “ice water moment,” when the team saw “the challenges of serving ads” in that environment.

So the Post turned to its ad innovation group, a team of six engineers dedicated to improving its ad experience, to improve mobile ad load within a PWA environment.

The group, dubbed RED for ad research, experimentation and development, tackled the speed issue from all directions. In addition to “lazy loading” the entire ad as the user scrolls down, for example, it loads some ad scripts right away but saves the data-heavy rendering request for when a reader scrolls to just before the ad.

Or, if a programmatic ad’s weight breaks the Post’s scale, it can serve a direct campaign instead. It caches common ad scripts, like Moat or the Google Publisher Tag, often by relying on work done already via AMP.

But the Post still needs other ad tech partners to pull their weight, like delivering updated APIs to enable speed adjustments. By improving its own load times, the Post wants to push its ad tech partners to improve.

“We are leading by example,” Dicker said. “We can talk to a partner and say, ‘This is how fast our content is, and your tech is slowing things down.’ Now that we are actually doing it, partners are coming to us with solutions.”

Another source of slow-loading pages comes from advertisers who weigh down ad creative with tags. The Post’s solution can decline to serve overweight creative, though it hasn’t put that into action yet.

Hartman hopes Zeus’ speed opens up more conversations with advertisers.

“When you get 1,000 kilobytes and 37 requests in the ad, it’s an immense amount of time,” Hartman said. “We can call and let them know we can improve the viewability [if they reduce ad weight].”

Zeus’ improvements to the Post’s mobile experience went live three weeks ago and run on 10% of all experiences. By next year, the goal is to get that number to 100%. Dicker said publishers have called asking about Zeus, which will be available a la carte or packaged into the Post’s publishing platform, Arc.

“We are presently not aggressively chasing down clients for Arc, but we are certainly open for business,” Hartman said of the Post’s expansions into the ad tech space.

“A lot of folks assume this is the way digital advertising is, clumsy and slow and unreliable,” Hartman said, citing conversations with marketers. “When you can have a world where the advertising experience is close to instant, that resonates with just about all of our partners.”