Washington Post Uses Its Journalism to Breathe New Life into Display Ads

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The display ad, which has powered the revenue behind much of online media in the past, has taken a lot of flak in the past couple of years, as many publications have touted new formats (like native advertising) as the future. But Washington Post Director of Ad Product and Engineering Jarrod Dicker thinks the paper’s new “PostPulse,” which combines news with message, will put display ads back in the fast lane.

PostPulse, of which Dicker was the principal developer, works like this: Wells Fargo buys a 300×600 space on the Post website. Emblazoned across most of the space is Post columnist Michelle Singletary’s recent piece headlined “What a Bump in Interest Rates Could Mean for Your Personal Finances.” Occupying much more modest space on top and to the right is the Wells Fargo logo, with the soft message: “Because knowing where you stand feels good.”

This is how a Wells Fargo PostPulse ad featuring the Singletary column looks on mobile.

“Every marketer wants to align their brand with valuable content,” Dicker says. “We’re providing a powerful, unique experience at greater scale to both advertisers and users.”

Does putting Singletary’s column to work for Wells Fargo violate the long-standing “church-state” separation that keeps the newsroom and the business department on opposite sides of a high wall?

“No, it’s clearly labeled, so there’s no question of editorial credibility,” Dicker told me. “It’s similar to other recommendation widgets. PostPulse allows us to build an experience that users are familiar with and enjoy, and pair the advertiser in a way that they can communicate their brand message by delivering and alongside content the user enjoys.”

Dicker says he understands journalistic church-state concerns because “I was on the editorial side earlier in my career. It’s completely appropriate for everyone on both sides to make sure that the line is respected.”

PostPulse does more than stream journalism to ads. It uses technology to send the ad impression to Post readers who, based on what marketers know about them, would be especially interested in getting advice about what they should do about protecting their investments with the Federal Reserve’s recent 0.25% increase in interest rates.

As Dicker freely acknowledges, consumers are fed up with incessant ad messaging that disrupts their digital browsing. But when a respected Post financial columnist is beamed to a reader concerned about his or her finances, that’s a marketing opportunity, he says.

“Consumers come to the Post site because they want high-value editorial content,” Dicker says. “The advertiser wants to deliver his message. PostPulse combines what both of them want.”

PostPulse will be marketed to capitalize on what marketers call the “consumer’s journey” to the buying decision. While some purchases are done on impulse, others – especially major ones – happen over time. For a longer journey, the consumer does more thinking – and, as Dicker reasons – be more likely to respond to an ad message built around high-value journalism.

PostPulse and other such products, Dicker says, can be marketing’s answer to ad blocking. “Disruption through ad blocking is causing everyone in publishing to work together to make for better user experiences,” he says.

At the Washington Post, those better user experiences will be delivered through what Dicker calls a “collaboration” between journalism and messaging.

The church-state wall remains upright. But now there’s a door in it.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.