Why Washington Post Built Its Own Ad Server for Amazon Tablet App

Lincoln, Sprint Business Sponsoring Rollout; Native Ads To Follow

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An ad for Sprint Business on The Washington Post's new tablet app.
An ad for Sprint Business on The Washington Post's new tablet app.

The Washington Post's new tablet app, which comes pre-loaded on certain Amazon Fire devices starting today, debuts with Lincoln Motor and Sprint Business as initial sponsors for an approach intended to make ad loading invisible to readers.

"Advertising was at the development table at the very beginning," said Jeff Burkett, the Post's senior director-sales operations and product strategy. "It was a first-class citizen."

The introduction of the app marks the first time the Post and Amazon have formally worked together since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the newspaper in August 2013.

Mr. Bezos has previously said the Post's mission will have "readers at its centerpiece," adding that he's "skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece." But he took an interest in the ad experience on this app, according to Mr. Burkett.

Executives including Mr. Bezos sought to avoid "spinning wheels" when it came to serving ads on the app, Mr. Burkett said. "From Jeff all the way down, it was all about the ads loading instantly," he said.

The Post looked at several third-party ad servers, but ended up building its own to deliver the advertising experience on the app. The project took months.

Ads should now load quickly, said Shailesh Prakash, chief technology officer at the Post, who compared the advertising experince on the device to that of a magazine because the ads are "big and beautiful." He said readers "should want to enjoy the ads as much as they want to enjoy the content."

The app will be free for the first six months, the Post said, cost $1 for the next six months and $3.99 per month after the first year. Beginning next year, Apple and Android tablet owners can also download the Post app for $3.99 a month.

Two editions of the app -- one at 5 a.m. and another at 5 p.m. -- will appear on the tablet. And they will tackle national issues, not topics related only to Washington, D.C.

Undisclosed potential audience
Despite ads' central place in the development process, there may be one complication when selling them: Post executives aren't sure how many Fire tablets are out there because "Amazon is famously secret" about the number of Fire owners. An Amazon executive told The New York Times, which reported on the app earlier Thursday, only that "millions" of people will receive the new app.

Amazon did not respond to an Ad Age email by press time.

While Amazon does not release device sales, external estimates show its tablet sales on a sharp decline. During the third quarter, Amazon shipped 220,000 tablet units in the U.S., an 80% decline from the quarter a year earlier, according to research firm IDC. In 2013, IDC reported Amazon shipped 8.8 million tablets; in the first three quarters this year, Amazon has reached just 1.2 million shipments.

The Post is charging Lincoln and Sprint Business according to a "share-of-voice sponsorship model," said Mr. Burkett, partly because it couldn't guarantee how many people would see the ads. "Not knowing what the scale would be, it was difficult to sell on a CPM," he said, referring to the cost per thousand impressions unit that advertisers typically use to buy ads.

Marketers and media buyers have a ferocious appetite for data that shows how their ads perform. And a Post spokeswoman said the company's ad server will count impressions and clicks on ads served across the new app, as well as "engagement metrics," including the amount of time people viewed an ad. She declined to say how much Lincoln and Sprint Business paid for the sponsorship.

Mr. Burkett said Lincoln and Sprint Business were attracted to "the story of how unique the app is -- of really being the first time anything of this sort has been bundled with the Kindle."

More ads will soon appear on the app, he added.

A spokeswoman for Sprint Business said in an email that the company "saw a synergy with the Washington Post's acclaimed journalism and Amazon's technology and scale."

"Through this national sponsorship opportunity, we are able to bring our brand message to life within a daily ritual for the business decision maker in an uncluttered, first-to-market experience," she added.

Lincoln and did not respond to Ad Age emails by press time.

The Washington Post's new tablet app.
The Washington Post's new tablet app.

Mr. Prakash said the Post is planning to introduce content-based native ads to the app. Readers will soon be able to share or save ads, too, using built-in tools, he added.

Native advertising is a tactic where ads mimic the editorial content surrounding it. Typically, the advertising content is labeled as promotional, as is the case at the Post. Sometimes publishers help advertisers create that content: The Post's WP BrandStudio, a team of about 10 people based in New York and Washington D.C., produces content on behalf of marketers. And this week, the Post introduced a new native-advertising product that allows organizations to publish commentary and opinions in the Post's opinion section online. It's the first time advertiser commentary with individual bylines will appear along Post opinion content. Bayer signed on as the first advertiser to use the new product, the Post said.

Contributing: Mark Bergen