Since The Washington Post opened up its header-bidding wrapper and ad-rendering engine Zeus Performance to publishers last fall, more than 50 sites have signed on, including The Dallas Morning News and fake news debunker Snopes.
For both sites, improving page performance and ad viewability was a major draw.
While those short-term boosts provide an immediate reason to make the tech switch, both media companies were also attracted by the idea of a technology road map guided by a publisher, not a platform. Ad tech that aligns with the vision of a top publisher such as the Post, is more likely to reflect their needs, they said.
“They understand the news business vs. someone that is a pure tech player,” said Mike Orren, chief product officer at The Dallas Morning News.
The publisher, which also uses a content management system (CMS) built by the Post called ARC, was looking to completely overhaul its online presence.
After switching to the tech in January, the site’s viewability rate increased from 40% to an 85% average, Orren said. Overall revenue rose 15% to 20%.
Once upon a time, The Dallas Morning News had wanted to build its own tech, and it spent millions of dollars on a homegrown CMS it planned to one day license to other local papers. But if another publisher wants to invest many millions more in a similar idea, that’s just fine with Orren.
Snopes is migrating to Zeus Performance this week, after first expressing interest in early April.
The site recently expanded from debunking urban legends and fake news to doing its own investigative journalism. As it diversifies revenue beyond advertising – including a popular tip jar feature and commerce initiatives – it wants its site to load fast and cleanly.
“The mantra is if you increase your page speed, everything is supposed to grow,” said Snopes Chief Operating Officer Vinny Green. “We’re able to offload part of our infrastructure that I don’t think outsources our innovation.”
After bad experiences with previous vendors, Snopes is seeking sustainable ways to boost viewability and revenue, not quick shortcuts that create bad ad experiences.
“My reputation is what makes Snopes money,” Green said. “So [a partner] trying to squeeze out money through aggressive advertising tactics creates a long-term reputational issue that decreases our long-term potential.”
The Zeus vision
In its current state, Zeus Performance is best described as a header-bidding wrapper.
“It’s kind of like a wrapper around your wrapper, so any ad units we couldn’t do before, we can do now,” Orren said.
Publishers still use all their existing SSPs and Google Ad Manager, but the wrapper organizes the bidding in a fashion similar to open-source solution Prebid.
But where Zeus stands out is that it also renders ads. “Ad tech is focused on bidding, which is detached from the rendering cycle – Zeus Performance brings those things together,” explained Jarrod Dicker, VP of commercial tech at the Post. He leads the 30-person team focused on Zeus, two-thirds of which is made up of engineers.
The connection between bidding and rendering, with small code tweaks throughout, can maximize performance. Dicker said the tech can help publishers improve viewability even if their rates are as high as 60% to 70%, without sacrificing impression volume, user experience or the ability to add additional demand sources.
While better ad viewability may be the carrot that’s getting publishers to sign on today, there’s also an opportunity for a fuller, publisher-focused tech stack.
Orren would like Zeus’s road map to also solve for local news media’s subscription problems.
“I’ve been trying to sell The Washington Post people on single sign-on,” he said, which could unlock a variety of business possibilities for local news. Orren sits on the board of the Local Media Consortium, which recently signed a deal that gives members access to Zeus at an organization-level price.
Snopes is excited about the possibility of the Post eventually making the self-serve version of its ad system, Zeus Prime, into a scaled marketplace that offers major advertisers an alternative to Facebook and Google.
“Any change in the ad marketplace that can drive a sliver of the current ad spend to actual premium partners would just fundamentally change our outlook and sustainability,” Green said.
The Post is receptive to these ideas, and it already plans to bring Zeus Prime and other Zeus products currently used internally to the rest of its customer base, along with other incremental projects, such as solving for video viewability.
“There has never been a time where media companies have opted into a joint, shared tech stack,” Dicker said. “Publishers are saying we believe we can build a new ecosystem together.”
That said, Zeus Performance is still funded by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – which has its own advertising ambitions.
Does that mean publishers aren’t quite getting the independent alternative they’ve been sold on?
Having Bezos on board is great for a publisher with technology ambitions, Dicker said.
And the investment in publisher ad tech doesn’t mean the Post or Zeus is closer to Amazon than anyone else, he said.
“We do not have any preferential connection with Amazon,” Dicker said. “There is an adapter to Amazon TAM [Transparent Ad Marketplace], but everything abides by the TAM rules.”
For its part, Snopes – a platform skeptic that walked away from Facebook fact-checking money – supports the idea of ad tech engineers that must truly answer to a media company.
Just “give me the tools to be successful on my own platform,” Green said.