Washington Post CRO Jed Hartman: If Content Is King, The Platform Is Queen

Jed Hartman CROHave you looked at The Washington Post’s website lately?

The storied publication is enjoying a breakout year. In October, it posted 66.9 million unique visitors, according to comScore. That boosted its total audience by 59%, while page views soared 95% year over year, reaching nearly 770 million.

Those monthly uniques put the Post ahead of The New York Times for the first time, and in sight of another, younger traffic behemoth. The Post is now just 13 million uniques shy of BuzzFeed, whose latest valuation topped $1 billion.

One factor helping to drive this growth: sticky tools, including one called Clavis, the Post’s home-baked version of Outbrain that understands more than a user’s lowest-common-denominator interests.

Content also appears more frequently outside its URL, providing another source of traffic growth. The Post is part of the Facebook Instant Articles program, a launch partner for Google AMP and has created a print magazine-style Kindle app.

Changes at the Post were first set into motion two years ago, when it sold for $250 million to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The ecommerce giant is worth a thousand times more than the Post, but that hasn’t stopped Bezos from focusing his attention on the company and making bets in technology and content that are starting to pay off.

Of course, Bezos has always been better at chasing growth than profit, but that still begs the question: How is the Post growing so much?

To find out, AdExchanger talked to CRO Jed Hartman, who joined the Post last December, about how the 128-year-old newspaper is tackling the challenges of being a media company evolving in a digital world.

AdExchanger: What was it about the Post that made you decide to join?

JED HARTMAN: To win in the publisher space, meaning the content-producing media space, you have to be good at content and good at technology. Gone are the days of surviving just by creating great content. You have to have the king and the queen: the content and the platform.

You see examples of that: Verizon buying AOL, Facebook creating Instant Articles or Snapchat creating Discover. Great platforms are creating content platforms.

Washington Post can go Pulitzer to Pulitzer with anyone. If you look at the tech players, we’re probably stronger at content than they are. If you look at the content people, we’re stronger in tech.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Post. How is he influencing what the Post does?

We have a unique ownership model that allows us to take a long-term view. There’s a ton of disruption, and you have to plot out in years what your strategy is. He gives us runway and leadership.

What may have been expected with Jeff Bezos’ ownership was the enhanced engineering, but the other thing was the enhanced newsroom. He added 100 bodies to the newsroom. It’s about being great at both content and technology.

It’s been a challenging business environment for legacy companies to keep their content arms as strong as they ever were. He invested to make the newsroom more modern, to understand platforms like Facebook, Kik, Periscope and Twitter, and applying the Post DNA to those platforms because social traffic is the new front door. 

How are the Post’s initiatives in technology bleeding into what you do on the advertising business?

Editorial and advertising have the separation of church and state, and the engineers are Switzerland. The tactics that work for the newsroom work for the advertiser: We both want to scale and to engage. We recently hired a director of ad product and engineering, Jarrod Dicker. He’s the chief liaison. He understands the ad world and what advertisers are looking for from their content and marketing partners, and then taps into the engineers to build products.

What’s an example of a product that’s spanned the newsroom and advertising?

We have a product on the editorial side, Clavis, which was inspired by the recommendation module on Amazon. Our advertisers can use that, too, to distribute advertising content and find the right content. The general rule is that anything the engineers are building in the newsroom, we can apply in advertising.

How do you make money with platforms? 

The mindset has to be customer-first, finding the most engaging tactics with a given platform. Then, you can worry about your business model. You can’t use your old-school business model and play everything from that. There are tales and tales of companies that failed trying to protect a legacy business model.

Maybe we were used to a printing press, but the relationship with platforms has changed. It just has. The scalability and the socialization and discovery, it’s like nothing anyone’s imagined. Why not take advantage of that and engineer your business model to respond?

Now that we’re on Facebook Instant Articles, I read more of the Post than I ever did before because it’s beautiful, and touching to engage is so fast. It’s a better experience, and we will adjust. Ultimately, your traffic will grow, engagement will grow, the brand halo will grow and the business model will define itself.

What’s bringing the industry down? 

Bots and fraud. Fraud needs to be solved before viewability because bots are very viewable. It’s a real problem and a challenging one. We’re less than 3% bots, and we owe that to our advertisers. It changes trust in the industry and gets in the way of innovation. There’s evil innovation when there’s good innovation, and it’s easy to let it grow in.

The Post has experimented with messaging for ad-blocking users to get them to subscribe. How did that turn out?

We took a sliver of our audience and tested communication for different options for a value exchange, from getting email addresses to subscribing to newsletters. The results are proprietary, but we did learn, as a premium publisher with a unique relationship with its audience, that if you deliver content that people really want they are willing to have communication about the value exchange. We had some success, and we’re doing more tests.

How do you structure your sales organization? 

I call it dedication and collaboration, which is I have dedicated salespeople to digital or the newspaper, but they need to collaborate like never before. It also allows us to recruit really well so I can find the best-of-breed for people dedicated to one platform. You can fix other things with compensation.

For programmatic, we have specialists behind the scenes or ones that can come forward [to the client]. That depends on the strengths of that specific digital sales executive. Salespeople now have to have left-brain and right-brain skills. They have to understand storytelling and data. We have excellent salespeople that might favor one side. When it comes to compensation, it’s agnostic. You don’t want your compensation system to fight against client needs.

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