How technological innovation in the newsroom impacts The Washington Post’s BrandStudio

Recently, WSJ reported about new, in-house developed technology called Bandito that automatically optimises articles’ headlines for the maximum readership. The Washington Post is expanding across editorial and business sides. Annie Granatstein, previously from Slate, was hired in the fall 2015 to run Brand Studio. In a conversation with Olga Nasalskaya, she says the business side is able to take advantage of many of the same innovations across the newsroom.

Tell us about Brand Studio: how many people work there, your core products, offerings and future plans.

It’s an in-house full-service creative agency of The Washington Post. We are staffed with producers, editors, writers, designers, arts directors, developers, and strategists. Advertisers of The Washington Post access our services to conceptualise and produce branded content programs that are seeded across The Washington Post’s channels. There are several dozen people that are officially part of the team. We have personnel in both in the Washington, DC and New York City offices. We also work with vendors and freelancers. 

What are the examples of some campaigns from Brand Studio?

The campaign we created for SyFy to promote Hunters, their new show that premiered on 11 April, is one of our most robust programs to date featuring a complex site developed entirely in house. It’s a mixture of reporting, video, and infographics. It is on the subject of covert operations which is a topic The Washington Post is known for covering extensively. We’ve received a ton of great feedback.

SyFy WaPo campaign ()

In the last year The Washington Post saw tremendous growth, in terms of audience and products launched. Will the same happen to the business side of the paper?

Yes, and it is happening already. Because The Post’s technologists, engineers, programmers and developers are creating tools for the entire company, the business side has access to the same technology used across the newsroom. Something that we recently tapped into is called Clavis, which is a very advanced micro-targeting recommendation engine inspired by Amazon’s recommendation engine technology. Clavis gets smarter and smarter the more you use The Post’s website. The technology is used to recommend articles based on user’s behavioral traits and interests. Now Clavis is also being used by the business side for native ad campaigns. For example, if you are on The Post’s website and you are looking at a bunch of health and wellness articles and we have a native campaign on the same topic, you will then see  promotion for that native content, within the article that you are looking at. Those units have very high click-through rates, because they are relevant to what people are actually interested in at the moment. It’s very important that we are able to share this technology.

Any other innovative technologies?

Yes, Bandito is The Post’s real-time content testing tool that allows editors to create different story presentations, varying the headlines, thumbnail images and blurbs. There is a lot of potential to use this tool to optimise branded content. Another example is the in-house content management system The Post developed called Arc. Because our system is a series of tools that communicate with each other, the process of publishing, editing and optimising is much more seamless. A promotional unit we created called In Context, takes an expert pull quote from a branded content program  and serves it within contextually based editorial articles. When you click on those quotes, it takes you to the advertising program. This unit was a unique way to drive engagement with branded content.

When you serve campaigns, do you serve them across all of your platforms, including social media?

Yes, for native advertising we share content across social media, including our Washington Post WP Brand Studio handles across platforms. The majority of our readers are coming from mobile, and a lot of them come straight from social media, especially from Facebook. 

How do you spark creativity in your team?

For me, it always starts with thinking about target audience and nailing down who it is, to the point where you are picturing a specific person. That exercise of putting yourself into target audience’s shoes is exciting and essential for building creativity. Then you have to think about what it is that will move that person before you come up with an idea for the campaign. No matter who the brand is, they are trying to reach a person, and that person is an emotional being who is moved by certain things, and is looking for certain things that will get them through the day better. 

How do you make sure that your team grows professionally and comes up with best products? Where do you look for a professional inspiration?

Brandtale is our digital Bible. We all go there to see what everyone else is doing. Truthfully, there is so much innovation out there, and there are so many truly cool programs produced on a daily basis, that it is very exciting time to work in this business. At The Post itself, because we are growing so massively, there is a sense of excitement and innovation in the air. I don’t actually need to light a fire under my team. We get to push the envelope here quite a bit. Advertisers want you to do things that haven’t been done before, especially certain advertisers that are willing to take risks.  Whether it’s content for an entertainment brand or a B2B brand, if they want something innovative, that gets the team excited.

Booze Allen WaPo campaign ()

Do advertisers also invest enough money for the BrandStudio to be creative? Is there a gap between clients’ expectations and what you can actually do within the given budget?

There is a gap, sometimes, but not always. Different publishers charge different amounts, and prices are not standardised. The industry is still figuring out exactly how to price branded content, because we are not just selling the content, we are selling the media that promotes the content program. In the days before this phenomenon, publishers were mostly in the business of selling the media, and not actual creative services. Sometimes that leads to clients not understanding the pricing, or not understanding whether that’s a good deal or not, and whether it is the right deal or not. There is some figuring out to de done for every publisher because it is still an evolving space. 

Do native advertising campaigns perform better than other types of advertisement on The Washington Post?

Our readers are very engaged with our native content. Across the industry, native ads tend to have higher click-through rates than display ads.

What do you think should be the KPIs for a successful performance of a native ad?

It depends on the program and what the brand’s goals are. Sometimes all brands care about is eyeballs. They want a really high number of people to see the program, and they don’t care as much about people spending time with that program. In that case page views would be one important metric. Other times brands care about deep engagement with the brand, and they care that the audience is learning certain things about the brand or associating the brand with a certain message. In this case time spent is an important metric. CTRs only tell you whether your native promos are working or not. They don’t tell you how well the program is doing. You need the high CTRs because you need people to come to the program, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be the primary metric of success. One more important metric is social media. Sometimes social media activity is the most important thing to the brand.

Do you need to educate advertisers during the pre-sales phase on what the right KPIs are?

If what the advertiser cares about is moving that needle of brand favourability, engagements metrics matter more than page views, because page views are about scale. How many people did you reach versus how deeply did you reach them. Sometimes brands may not understand that. But generally we deal with media agencies, and it’s their business to understand the nature of KPIs. It is completely up to the brand which metric to prioritise. We make recommendations and create a program around brand’s goals.

Is there an ambition to grow Brand Studio to the size of The New York Times T Brand Studio?

Our team is growing rapidly. We have a very high advertising demand and we can’t hire fast enough. We want to grow to meet the demand. 

If other publishers wanted to start their own creative studios, would you recommend doing it, or work with freelancers is more sufficient?

I do think there is real value in full-time staff, especially for what we do that is extremely talent-dependent. Just like any creative agency you work with vendors and freelancers, because you are staffing up for projects. But you do need that core staff that understands the publication and you would want them to be full-time so that they are fully integrated into the publication itself. Along those lines, our content editor and an incoming UX director come from Washington Post editorial. Full-time staff make the production process more efficient and from a creative standpoint those full-time people will be more able to understand the tone of the organisation, the storytelling tools available, and the type of content that resonates more with the audience of the publishers.

What can The Washington Post’s BrandStudio and other media offer brands that they cannot do on their own or with their agencies? 

Custom content agencies within publishers understand the publisher’s audience best. They understand and have a deep knowledge of the best practices that have been developed on the editorial side of the company. The Washington Post’s newsroom publishes an average of 1,200 pieces of content a day. As an organisation, we get to know our readers very well. Because of this knowledge we, at The Post, can create content in the format that is going to resonate the most.

Is there something that you successfully implemented at Slate, and now you are planning to adapt it for The Washington Post?

I have a very story-first focus. I come from entertainment originally, and that’s what entertainment is all about. For me it’s always about the story that’s going to resonate the most with people. What’s that story that’s going to move people emotionally in the way you want to move them? I prioritise that story at every point along the way, starting from strategy, and taking it to the production process, making sure that everybody on the team, the producer, the developer, the designer, the writer, that all of them are thinking story-first.

More like this

How Jeff Bezos is transforming The Washington Post for the digital age

How The Washington Post is pivoting its video strategy

The Washington Post and why technology is key to its growth

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x