Since the global financial crisis, news publishers – many hit by crippling revenue declines – have made several failed attempts to pool their advertising resources for the greater good.
There was QuadrantOne in the US, formed in 2008 by the New York Times, Hearst, Gannett and Tribune Publishing and closed in 2013 amid “bickering”. Project Juno, a collaboration between the UK’s largest newspaper companies, petered out in 2017 after publishers started pulling out one by one.
But there are signs in 2020 that news publishers, after enduring another financial crisis at the hands of the Covid-19 pandemic, may be ready to start collaborating successfully.
One of the most promising projects on the horizon is being led by the Washington Post.
Today, in an interview for Press Gazette’s new Marketing Matters newsletter, Jarrod Dicker, the title’s vice-president for commercial technology, explains why more than 100 websites have signed up to use the Post’s Zeus Performance technology.
He also explains why the software, which improves website speed and bid/ advert rendering and performance, can help Zeus clients collectively challenge the market dominance of Google and Facebook.
Zeus Technology: What is it and what does it offer?
Under the ownership of billionaire Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post has established itself as a major media tech innovator over the last seven years.
Its content management system (CMS), Arc Publishing, is used by more than 1,400 websites in the journalism industry and beyond.
On the advertising side of its business, it has Zeus Technology, a “media monetisation platform” created by the Post’s research, experimentation and development team.
The company’s primary offering for publishers is Zeus Performance, a product that improves website speed and – more crucially from a commercial perspective – the “viewability” and performance of adverts on a site.
Dicker says that publishers who use Zeus Performance see their average advert viewability surpass 70%, with some reaching up to 90%. He says that, as a result of this improved ad offering, publishing partners see their cost per impression (CPM) rise by an average of 39%.
To see what this means in practice, visit washingtonpost.com and observe how quickly news content, pictures and adverts appear on the homepage.
In addition to ad rendering service Zeus Performance, the company announced two new products last year.
The first, Zeus Insights, a contextual and first-party data advertising system for publishers, is in the process of being rolled out to sites that use Zeus Performance now.
And the second, Zeus Prime – an automated buy-side platform that can be used by marketers to purchase ad space on Zeus-run sites, as well as across platforms like Apple News and Youtube – is set to launch in the first quarter of 2021.
Each of the products was first used on the Washington Post and before being offered to other publishers.
How ‘existential issue’ spawned Zeus
According to Dicker, the origins of Zeus Performance can be traced back to 2015 when bosses at the Washington Post recognised an “existential issue” facing their company.
Like many rivals, the Post had wholeheartedly accepted the chance for its content to be made available on Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s AMP (accelerated mobile pages) service. The logic, says Dicker, was: “We want to reach our readers where they are. We want to give them our content in the most optimum environment. And with Facebook and Google, there’s a lot of innovation there. We want to be able to service and be all in on that project.”
Within a few months of launching on Facebook Instant, Dicker and his colleagues began to recognise that these external platforms were “better and more optimal for both readers and advertisers”.
“There then starts to become zero incentive for any reader to come to the Post and subscribe or consume content there – for an advertiser to advertise directly with us on the Washington Post,” says Dicker.
“So we really had an existential issue, which was: If we cannot build an environment that’s on par, if not better, than what readers and advertisers are getting from Facebook and Google, then what is our business?”
The Post team formed the view that, away from the main big tech platforms, much of the web environment was “very slow, very janky and very not user-friendly”.
They decided: “Either we can’t solve this problem, and our business is in a lot of trouble because the platforms are just building such a better environment all around, we’re not going to be able to compete. Or we could venture and try to build our own solutions to this.”
The result, built up by the Post’s research, experimentation and development team, was Zeus Performance.
Dicker says: “Zeus Performance was built in response to Facebook Instant and Google AMP. We needed to create an environment that was on par, if not better, than what readers and advertisers were getting from the platforms. We did that by building a universal advertising framework that focused both on bid rendering and ad rendering.”
Which publishers are signed up and what do they think?
The Washington Post started using Zeus Performance in 2016 and offered it to other publishers in 2019. Since then, more than 100 websites have signed up to use the technology.
Publishing company partners include MediaNews Group, Tribune Publishing, McClatchy and Graham Media Group. Individual website clients include the Seattle Times, the Dallas Morning News and Snopes.
Kati Erwert, the Seattle Times’ senior vice-president for product, marketing and public service, described her publisher’s experience with Zeus so far as “extremely successful”.
She told Press Gazette: “After several years of watching site speed begin to drag on seattletimes.com due to bad actors among programmatic vendors, we engaged with Zeus in fourth quarter of 2019.
“Our hope in working with them was reducing our site speed issues which were negatively impacting readers, improving ad viewability and doing so without severely impacting advertising revenue.
“We launched in January of 2020 with a small test on seattletimes.com. We rolled Zeus out to the full site in March of 2020. The results have been impressive.”
She said the Seattle Times’ website speed has improved by 50% and that advert viewability has improved from 35% to 70%.
“And we’ve done so without a negative impact to advertising revenue,” she said, explaining: “To improve ad viewability, we’ve lazy loaded ads and adopted a more refined list of programmatic partners (eliminating certain backfill partners). In doing so, we assumed that lazy loading ads would negatively impact ad revenue. It hasn’t. We also assumed that by eliminating some of our programmatic partners, we’d also have to fill inventory with more house ads. That hasn’t happened either.”
Erwert added: “As importantly, we’ve alleviated the pressure on internal product and development resources to stay current on the quickly evolving programmatic ad space. We’ve been able to leverage the Zeus team’s deep understanding and expertise to advise us in this space. It has been extremely successful for us.”
Zeus aims to challenge duopoly through publisher network
While Dicker will be pleased with the individual success stories of publishers like the Seattle Times, he has a grander vision for the future of Zeus.
“We’re actually building a new ecosystem with all these different publishers,” he says, explaining that the Zeus network of publishers could in the future be serious competition for “Facebook, Google and others” that currently dominate the US digital advertising market. The more publishers using Zeus, the greater the appeal for advertisers.
One of the key planks of the strategy is Zeus Insights, which allows publishing partners to utilise first-party reader data to sell highly-targeted adverts. He feels the death of third-party cookies presents a major opportunity collectively to publishers signed up to Zeus.
Dicker says: “So as we think about ways that advertisers could target against the entire Zeus pool, and how they could target specific content, well, through Zeus Insights, now every participating publisher has the same contextual taxonomy, and advertisers can just pick those auxiliaries and target across all of this.”
Why can the Zeus network of publishers succeed where other collaborations have failed in the past? Because of the strength of the Zeus technology, says Dicker.
“Publishers have traditionally just leaned on the value of our content, or there’s been this feeling of: Great journalism costs money, so advertisers should be aligned with it,” he says.
“But we’ve seen time and time again that, even though both sides may believe that, the dollars aren’t shifting. So in order to do that, you actually have to introduce software that impacts that business significantly, both on the publisher and the advertiser side, and I think that’s where we have an opportunity here.”
He adds: “So we’ve, on the open web, built an environment that brands and advertisers are used to buying on – like through Facebook, through Amazon or through a lot of these other platforms – that guarantees premium inventory in highly viewable environments. With shared contextual targeting across all participating publishers. In an easy buy-side tool that any agency or client can access and log into.
“And that is insanely unique.”
Photo credit: Phil Pasquini/ Shutterstock
*This article was updated on 3 December to state that Arc Publishing is now used by more than 1,400 websites, up from 1,000.