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And that’s a wrap! VAX 2018 Project Highlights

Another week, another year, another VAX. And what a successful VAX it was! Over the span of just two days, working from about 10AM-6PM each day, we witnessed over 35 projects come to life from the 90 or so attendees at VAX 2018 in Baltimore. In addition to the incredible project outcomes, VAX also provided a space for members of our product, design and technology teams to bond IRL at events, like our crabfest kickoff at Bo Brooks, our team dinner at Hotel Revival’s Topside restaurant and, of course, our annual team trivia night at the historic George Peabody Library. Congrats to team, “No Table,” who got to snag a picture with the coveted taco waffle trophy after scoring the most points over five rounds of trivia, including the essential oils scent round (yes, you read that correctly). Go team. Keep reading to see a roundup of some notable projects from this year’s VAX!

Loyalty & Engagement Theme

This year’s theme was “Loyalty and Engagement”, which summarized our ever-increasing desire to serve our audience and users’ needs. The VAX theme gives participants an opportunity to take up work aligned with company initiatives, and to collaborate with team members beyond the product, design and technology teams. This can be especially helpful for first-time VAXers, or folks who aren’t quite sure what project they’d like to take up.

We spent a couple of weeks in advance sharing information about the theme, ideating on project ideas together, and connecting participants with company staff and stakeholders to learn more. While the theme is optional, we saw a number of incredibly fun and impressive projects result from this year’s Loyalty and Engagement prompt, a few of which are highlighted below.

Adventures in VoiceBots

Ryan Gantz, Erik Luchauer

Just a couple of weeks ago, Google announced new features for Dialogflow, the impressive and evolving bot framework that the Consumer products team has been working with for the past few months. The most intriguing of these features, to us, promised ability to easily spin up a telephony gateway as interface for a voicebot. In this digital age of media ubiquity, what engagement might we get through content scarcity, vintage UI, and a splash of the kind of fun once reserved for 1-900 numbers in the 80s and 90s?

The result after a day of writing, structuring and bot training was The Verge Phonebot.

screenshot of Dialogflow framework
The basic Intent structure of the Verge Phonebot

The voice bot is relatively simple: it includes an intro, and a couple of options for the user to navigate through, triggered by the user’s voice input. You can listen to top stories and play a game of Verge Madlibs. We discovered that Dialogflow supports SSML (speech synthesis markup language), which allowed us to embed audio clips, insert pauses in speech, and even modulate the bot’s vocal tone. SSML is fun!

Our project demo also introduces the concept of sponsorship, and ways to think about scarcity and the potential value of offering special content to loyal users. To experience it yourself, call 312-869-2444. Don’t forget to ask the bot about the secret passphrase!

(Hint: okay, okay, the secret passphrase is ella fitzgerald.)

Eater Food Graph

Blaine Sheldon

One of the challenging angles with content search is understanding what’s behind a user’s keyword query, the actual intent. In Eater’s case, among all of its incredible restaurant reviews, our editors smartly highlight a fusion of signature dishes and cuisines from across the world. We hope to make these even easier for our fans to explore with the help of a basic food graph built behind the scenes. It works to connect these culinary concepts from high level categories all the way to specific featured plates and ingredients.

For example, using this type of semantic search, we might be able to better understand a user query on Eater for “Ramen” in their city and know that they could also be looking for local hotspots with “Noodle soup dishes” (such as Pho), “Japanese cuisine”, or even “Asian restaurant” category in general. In the future, using this technique for concept search, we can imagine powering many kinds of review graphs at Vox Media, such as recommended games from Polygon, or finding the right gadgets from The Verge.


Erik Luchauer, Jamie McCarthy, Ateeb Ahmad

Vox uses crowdsourcing to tell stories via text, video, and podcasts with voices from our audience. It’s increasingly important to be able to highlight voices of real people in our reporting. When people see themselves in our reporting, it helps increase trust, and loyalty.

The main way we conduct our crowdsourcing projects today is through call outs using Google forms. These forms receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of responses from across the world. Since January of 2018, we’ve collected around 10,000 responses for 11 different projects. Most of these responses are never used again.

this is not actual data

We created a crowdsourcing database using the new Vox Rails app that systems engineering has built. This database receives responses from Google Forms directly using Google’s cloud API and ingests them into individual tables. This database can the be searched, tagged, organized, analyzed, and used by users across all brands. This would allow the sharing of data, securely based on your role, for multiple stories with only one call out.

New experiments in Chorus

Many teams worked on projects that help push the boundaries and functionality of Chorus, Vox Media’s built-in-house publishing platform for our own editorial teams and those of our Chorus publishing partners. As we onboard new sites onto Chorus, ranging from hard-nosed journalism to show-driven entertainment studios, we want to make sure Chorus serves the many needs of our different publishers.

XML Testing

Barbara Shaurette, Jeff Kramer

We created a process in Python that exports Chorus content in XML format suitable for use by typesetting software for print systems.

Show: Series-driven video pages

Kevin Coletta, Ed Clinton

In the last 1-2 years, we’ve improved the structure and amount of video metadata we collect for our videos, so we wanted to see how we could leverage this information in an audience-facing experience. At the same time, Gregg Bernstein shared some research suggesting our audiences love our video series, but we don’t currently have a good way to showcase them. This project was also a good excuse to spend some time with GraphQL and Vue.

As usual, we could have used another day (week?) polishing the front-end, but it was a good way to experiment with data we have (and identify the data we don’t have).

Saved Places

David Zhou

As a frequent user of Eater Maps, I’ve long wanted a way to earmark places Eater has selected in their maps for future use. Often, in advance of traveling to a city, I’ll do advance research on places to eat and drink. With Saved Places, I’m able to quickly save individual places in Eater Maps and collate them in a central list that’s delineated by city.

Revenue streams of thought

Silently, behind the scenes, dozens of product team members are working to improve our advertising experience every single day. Getting away for Vax hacking, its not surprising that many of our teammates decided to explore new ideas to improve experiences for our editorial teams, advertisers and readers. Here are a few revenue-related projects our teams came up with!

Good Morning, Baltimore!

Josh Larson, John Ratajczak, Andrew Geesler

We’ve been thinking a lot about podcasts and how advertising works. The latest hotness is dynamic podcast ad insertion, so we built a proof of concept to demo the idea. And it works!

In order to test our proof of concept, we decided to record a fake podcast radio show called Good Morning, Baltimore. This featured interviews with a bunch of fellow Vox Product people. We discussed video games, food likes and dislikes, pet chickens, and baldness. But the best part was recording fake commercials — like Saturday Night Live parodies, but in audio form. Our group had a blast creating their own ads for Casper Mattresses, MeUndies, and Chompy (Chewy, but for humans. Get it?).

Here’s a parody ad for Blue Apron catered toward MMA fighters!

The Kitchen Sink

Jillian Fairchild, Kyle Johnson, Carrie Ruby, Ramla Mahmood

As many parts of our lives move from the physical world to the digital, so, too, do our shopping habits. When we think about buying a new pair of headphones or a duffle bag, most of us do online research before doing anything. We check out specs, images, and reviews from brands and people we trust.

At Vox Media, our editorial brands do this legwork so our readers don’t have to. They expertly curate and review items that are above the beyond the rest and provide a reliable source of information for people looking to add to their collection. Since we’re spending time shopping around and pulling together the best of the best new products on the market, why not put that all in one place for our readers? Introducing our 2018 Vax project, The Kitchen Sink! A marketplace where people can find all the products our networks recommend. You can sort by price or item category, look at the review it was featured in, and find out where to buy it. Ultimately, we’re putting all the great stuff our resident experts love in one place for your shopping pleasure.

ecommerce hub mock
The Kitchen Sink, V1 mock

Private & First Party Targeting

Brian Anderson (with lots of help from others!)

Last year we revamped how we placed ads on a page, moving to a pattern that prioritized content and allowed for a variety of editorial layouts, and spatially placed lazy-loading ads. This year we experimented with enhancing our targeting capabilities to deliver better ads for readers without tracking them. This is a tricky industry problem. We concluded that a system of content and behavior classifiers could be built to understand how readers engage with our sites. And based on this, we could deliver more relevant ads without using third party services, or cross-domain tracking scripts. In addition to this, we could verify that advertisers are safely presenting their message alongside great editorial features. The experiment was to build a simple, modular system as the foundation for a customizable, configuration-driven classification system to privately and securely present the reader with great advertisements.

Ad Pathway Segmentation

Emily Smith, Benjamin Nowicki, Julian Saliani, Neelum Khan

The campaign insights team spent some quality time with Google Analytics to analyze engaged audience pathways, focusing specifically on pathways where our audiences say hello to ads! We then started segmenting these audience pathways in creative ways, and tinkered with what combinations of these groups might react better to ads. We even started using these segments on live campaigns the very next week to test our theories in a live environment! Ultimately, we were able to gain more collective clarity about why our audiences engage with ads, and how we can give them more of what they might like.

Other highlights

Mobile Storytelling

Phil Delbourgo, Laura Holder, Tim Linguard, Livia Labate (and photography by Guillermo Esteves and Alesha Randolph)

We experimented with Facebook’s Canvas ad format to see if it gave us a good starting point for visual storytelling format. We were interested in the scroll and swipe capabilities as well as its modularity. The story we built was a retrospective on our VAX experience, but we saw a format like this as adaptable to Verge reviews, Vox Explainers and Eater restaurant recommendations. From a loyalty and engagement perspective we were intrigued by Facebook’s claims about high engagement with the format.

Product Blog

Jared Fanning, Courtney Leonard, Steven Vuong, Victor Ware, Josh Laincz, Yesenia Perez-Cruz, Erik Luchauer

We also worked on revamping this very product blog to make it easier and more exciting for our team to share our projects, thoughts, and experiments. Words are hard! The hardest part of writing is knowing where to start and what to write about. To remedy this, the team developed a set of writing resources and guidelines to help people get started. We also have a shiny new, look complete with an art-directed style guide for lede art, and a section highlighting content about Chorus, our publishing platform. Look to this blog for more frequent updates from our team.

Employee Resource Group Identity System

Georgia Cowley, Briar Cromartie, Krystal Stevens

In recent years, our company has been making concerted efforts to promote diversity and inclusion initiatives for all employees. For our VAX project, we wanted to develop design and branding materials for the Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as part of this continued effort. Our work not only resulted in logos and suggested color schemes for the ERGs, but also a framework for creating branding for future groups that suits Vox Media and is unique to each ERG.

Rough mock-ups for ERG branding

We want to thank everyone who helped to make this year’s VAX possible: Ashley and Sarina from Team Operations & Experience, supporting staff from our legal, accounts payables, P&C and communications team, and finally to our leadership team on Vox Product and Vox Media for continuing to support this amazing team event. Until next year!