The Washington Post just had its best year ever in digital

Stephen Hills, president of the Washington Post. Photo: Sportsfile.

Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post has fuelled the company’s transformation into a leader in digital content, according to WaPo president Stephen Hills.

Amazon founder Bezos bought the post for some $250 million in 2013, and his experience in building the retail giant appears to be bearing fruit for the newspaper.

Most notably the Post is personalising user experience by using data to develop a user-centered site, recommending articles for each individual subscriber based on variables such as location, demographic information and reading history.

Partnerships with Amazon vehicles such as Prime and Kindle Fire are also opening the paper up to new audiences.

In a talk at Web Summit entitled ‘The future of news: turning threats into opportunities’, Hills outlined how the Post has responded to the growth of mobile and platforms, and positioned itself to take full advantage of digital discovery.

“There are aspects of these changes that are threatening to the business, this is clear,” he said. “What we want to look for is how do you leverage these trends to your advantage. You can’t slow them down. It’s like saying, I’d rather not get old. How do you leverage what you have going for you? Where do you place your bets? There are big trends that are going to cause problems but you have to do something about it.”

According to Hills publishers must work to identify key trends, experiment to find what works, and then measure, analyze, and iterate.

He recognised WaPo’s competitive advantage as 130 years of experience in journalism, which, coupled with the experience of Amazon in developing user experience and its own platforms, such as Amazon Prime, ensured the company was well placed to take full advantage of emerging trends.

“Digital browsing isn’t easy, but it could be easy,” he said. “We have created experiences that mimic the user experience that has been honed over hundreds of years in print. We have optimised for mobile in particular because it’s a mobile first world. We have even developed it for the watch, it’s got to work on all devices.

“Creating discovery is the biggest problem any brand has,” he added. “We have fully embraced the growth of platforms.”

The Post has partnered, unsurprisingly, with Kindle Fire and Amazon Prime to offer its content to subscribers. It also works with platforms such as Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles to boost discovery.

“A piece of content is a piece of your brand,” he said “No one can touch our content or rewrite our content. It allows discovery and allows monetization.”

WaPo is also availing of new trends such as Twitter Moments and Google’s AMP, designed to speed up mobile browsing, while the old reliable, email marketing, has also proven very successful.

The Post’s website will employ user data to create a personalised experience, recommending articles and even targeting advertising to individual users based on a variety of signals.

“We create same basic package, but we are also going to customize it,” Hills said. “We take a consumer’s reading habits, demographic, recent activity, and we create a cluster of things a person likes to read. We also have Post recommends, based on your experience, what we think you’re likely to read. A very strong signal is location. Video experience is another one; if you like a lot of video we’ll give you more video, if you don’t like video we’ll give you less video.” Advertising content will also be targeted to specific user groups.

All of these changes have led to phenomenal growth for the Post – the company added more unique visitors than any other information site in the US in the first half of this year, and was named World’s Most Innovated Company in Media 2015 by Fast Company.

“If you optimise user experience you don’t have to trade mobile growth for desktop,” Hills added. “Because of our focus on mobile and our willingness to embrace platforms a huge percentage of our growth is millennials. We are also creating the opportunity for people to sample our product and then buy.” This latter move has seen significant growth in paid subscriptions.

In total, WaPo now boast 59 million unique visitors in the US, and another 19 million around the world, according to its September figures, with visitor numbers in October expected to be even higher.

“We just had our best year ever,” he said.