How The Washington Post’s User Lab balances advertiser and subscriber demands

As part of its big subscription push, The Washington Post is trying to make sure people don’t run into anything that might keep them from subscribing — including their ads.

The key weapon in this battle is The Post’s User Lab. The lab is an entity of vp Beth Diaz’ audience development and analytics team. For years it mostly focused on testing editorial and product features with users. It’s expanded and over the past six months, the lab has been working with The Post’s ad side to test ad prototypes and build new ad formats.

The lab is a physical space that was custom-built when The Post moved into its new headquarters three years ago, complete with a viewing room and one-way mirrors. Its four-person staff does monthly focus groups with actual heavy users of The Post, not just generic user feedback about ads, as The Post previously used. The lab is looking for three things: if the ad functions as users expect it to, is it useful for them and overall feedback.

So far the lab has tested its branded content disclosures (it validated The Post’s current use of “from” an advertiser, as opposed to “presented by” or “brought to you by”). It’s also created four new ad formats. It found that people preferred being served contextually relevant articles over retargeted ads, so it created Showcase, which bundles Post articles that are relevant to the reader into an ad unit. A second new ad format is a new, skippable video ad called SwitchPlay that’s its answer to the ubiquitous but annoying preroll ad. It lets users switch to the editorial video after six seconds of viewing an ad, and the rest of the video ad will pick up where the user left off down the article page.

“There had been a lot of noise around what is the new pre-roll, so this was our answer,” said Jeffrey Turner, who in May became head of ad product. “Anything that’s never been done before, we’ll test it or show them something similar. It’s a way to balance the need to test innovation with the need to keep our subscribers happy. I love advertising, but I have a tremendous bias.”

For years publishers crammed bad ads onto their sites to maximize ad revenue, until readers started rebelling by installing ad blockers. Other publishers have been making similar moves to the Post’s in the name of improving user experience as they look to users to pay more of the bills.

Millennial news site Mic does user testing on ads and recently moved an ad’s position on the site after testing showed the ad misleadingly indicated the end of the article, causing people to drop off, Mic publisher Cory Haik said.

The ad and audience sides have different incentives, though. Some publishers deal with this tension by letting the head of product, which sits in between sales and editorial, make the final call over ad formats.

At The New York Times, questions about ads most often come up when new products are being designed, and the ad and product side decide together where and how ads should appear, said Allison Murphy, vp of ad innovation at the Times. If they can’t decide, the decision falls to COO Meredith Levien, who oversees both consumer and ad revenue.

Still, advertising often wags the dog; ugly content recommendation widgets are widespread on publisher sites, and some are known to dial up the ads at the end of a financial reporting period to make their revenue goals. The Washington Post still has ads that are animated and temporarily cover up part of a story and Outbrain recommendation units — formats that many consider intrusive and low-quality, for example. (A Post spokesperson said ads aren’t supposed to cover up content. It also said the lab is less about sunsetting products and more about improving them. It revised the design for one ad unit based on feedback that the unit was too cluttered and sunset several prototypes such as the non-preroll version of SwitchPlay and a version of an ad unit called Informer that had non-transparent disclosure and poor scroll functionality, for example.)

Part of the challenge is, it’s easier to see how an ad will impact ad revenue than subscription revenue. The Times is testing an oversized ad unit to see if people who see it end up returning less to the site, for example, but it can’t tell if it leads people to unsubscribe.

Diaz, who reports to Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer of The Post, said she doesn’t have veto power over ads, but said the lab’s input is taken seriously. “I can’t think of any example where the company went against our recommendation on a particular initiative or product,” she said.

Under owner Jeff Bezos, The Post has become more data and engineering-driven along with reader-focused. It’s cut the page load time by 85 percent and introduced fast-loading ads.

“I take a holistic view of these things,” Diaz said. “Subscriptions are a very key part of the business right now. So is digital advertising. This is literally a conversation that goes up to Jeff Bezos. Amazon is an extremely customer-centric company. Jeff believes if you please the customer, you’re going to be successful.”

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