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Feb. 19, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

How The Washington Post built its tool to “re-engage” the attention of distracted readers on mobile

“It makes sense to me as a consumer of content to have this feature — so why doesn’t it exist yet?”

The Washington Post is trying to identify reader boredom and recapture distracted readers by directing them to other Post stories they might find more interesting.

Its new Re-Engage feature, currently for mobile web, observes how long a reader remains completely idle on a story page or how quickly a reader begins swiping the screen to scroll to the bottom of a story, and then offers a small pop-up suggesting other Post stories.

So if a lede doesn’t pique my interest and I leave my phone screen for a while, the Re-Engage feature emerges on my screen offering a couple of other story suggestions from the same section.


“It made sense to me, as a consumer of content, to have this feature,” Jarrod Dicker, the Post’s director of ad product and engineering, told me.

Dicker leads a team called Red — officially the ad research experimentation and development arm of the Post, and the business team’s response to the Post’s vigorous culture of innovation under owner Jeff Bezos. Though Re-Engage was conceived of and created on the business side, it’s currently being tested on the editorial side. It was activated first for stories in the World and Entertainment sections, expanded to the Post’s opinion and business verticals, and will roll out to the entire site this week.

The tool was built in a week and intended specifically to address reader behaviors on mobile, not desktop. It will likely be deployed in the Post app as well, but the mobile web is good for testing because it surfaces more normal user behavior (compared to the behavior of app superusers), Dicker told me.

Stories displayed in the small recommendation box are taken from a tool that the Post is very proud of: Clavis, which recommends stories based on a reader’s browsing history and article keywords (it was inspired by Amazon’s own product recommendation engine).


The Re-Engage tool also relies on another one of the Post’s new in-house products, Bandito, which A/B tests variations of headlines and images entered by editors and then automatically pushes to the site the version readers appear to prefer. Data from Bandito on user preference informs the stories displayed in the Re-Engage recommendation box.

The team is also gathering user data on the right timing for a pop-up: Just how quickly should a user have to scroll to trigger the suggestions?

“This product wasn’t necessarily built to help with bounce rate; it was built to better understand the user experience — when we learn more about a user’s behavior, what can we offer that will give a better reading experience?” Dicker said. “We’re going to change variants based on what we learn through testing.”

At the moment, the Re-Engage box shows up after about 10 seconds of inactivity, and I had to scroll down a story much faster than I could read to activate the box, so there seems to be little danger of annoying an ultra-fast reader. Tapping the “×” minimizes the box, but a small banner message “Looking for something else?” persists at the bottom of the screen inside the article.

Like the slew of other Post-created tools that have rolled out in the past few months, Re-Engage may soon see broader applications.

“This can be a sponsorable product, it can be open to advertisers, though right now we’re only testing it with users of the site,” Dicker said. “Maybe we can eventually deliver new messages, deliver branded content, a relevant deal from an advertiser. The Post is more powerful when it builds products that define how the industry works.”

The Post already licenses its homegrown publishing platform Arc (which powers the Portland-based Willamette Week and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism website). Dicker’s team is thinking along similar lines for its digital ad products. For instance, there’s been talk about licensing FlexPlay, a tool built to speed up video ad loading, and Dicker envisions the same for the Re-Engage tool.

“Of course we work on products that help us make money on advertising at the Post, but we don’t just create and block everyone out,” he said. “We’re also interested in building products to give and even sell to other publishers — white label-type products that everyone in this space can use.”

Photo of people distracted on their phones by Michael Davis-Burchart, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 19, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
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