Blazing Digital Trails at MSNBC

Tillinghast continues to chart new paths and create industry standards
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While growing up in Idaho, MSNBC Digital Network president Charlie Tillinghast found himself falling in love with outdoor sports and the state’s vast, remote wilderness areas. “In Idaho, when you go out backpacking, you don’t see many people on the trail,” he recalls.

A willingness to take the less-travelled path has also defined much of Tillinghast’s career at MSNBC Digital Networks, where he has played a key role in a number of pioneering online initiatives that have powered much of the company’s growth in recent years.

“Charlie has a vision of what news should look like in the future” and “always keeps MSNBC ahead of the curve,” says Joanne Bradford, chief marketing officer at Demand Media, who has worked with Tillinghast both as a business partner at MSN.com and as a board member for MSNBC Digital Networks, which is a partnership between NBCUniversal and Microsoft.

Over the years, Tillinghast’s vision has paid off in driving traffic and boosting ad sales at MSNBC Digital Networks’ Web operations. While traffic varies according to the news cycle, Tillinghast says that the operation regularly serves about 150 million videos a month at their online brands for MSNBC.com, Today, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC TV, NBC Sports, Newsvine, EveryBlock and BreakingNews.com.

Overall traffic at the group’s sites increased 16% in February 2012 from a year earlier. “It was the most organic growth of any major news site,” Tillinghast says.

Tillinghast’s career path to MSNBC Digital Networks was not an obvious one. After graduating from college, he’d hoped to work in Idaho as a journalist. “But no one wanted to hire me,” he recalls. So he took a job at a software start-up, followed by stints running a political campaign, working for semiconductor firm Micron Technologies and eventually a healthcare company.

“When I arrived at MSNBC, all of these things that had felt like a disjointed collection of career stops and starts really glued together in a great way,” he says. “At MSNBC.com, I was able to combine my technology and business background and my interest in journalism and politics into a job where all of those things were highly valued.”

Starting in business development in 1999, Tillinghast negotiated many of the content deals that helped boost the site’s traffic. He then spearheaded a number of sales efforts that played a key role in revitalizing the moneylosing operation following the dot.com bust.

“In 2003, all of our competitors were putting video behind a subscription wall,” Tillinghast recalls. “But we felt there was an advertising market for video, and we became the first major site to go out with an ad-supported video product in late 2003, early 2004.” That bet paid off when Tillinghast negotiated a pioneering online video ad buy with MediaVest. “They agreed to buy all our inventory and in one fell swoop, we were in the video ad business in a big way,” he says. “He always showed creativity in generating ideas for new partnerships, finding new ways to extend MSNBC’s reach and brand,” recalls Michael Silberman, general manager of digital media at New York Media, parent of New York magazine and nymag.com.

Thanks to these successes, Tillinghast was named general manager of MSNBC Digital Networks in April 2005; by the end of 2005, he had led the company to its first profitable quarter and its first profitable year.

Since then, Tillinghast has continued to lead a number of innovative projects, both on the ad sales side and in the way the company distributes its content.

MSNBC.com
, for example, was one of the first of the major video producers to launch an embeddable player, which now allows users to clip and share portions of a longer video.

“It was really our response to YouTube, because a lot of other sites would just take recorded NBC video and embed it in the site and get all the benefits of the video that was exclusively ours,” he says. “So rather than send threatening letters, we made it easier for [users] to embed and use the video,” which also allowed MSNBC to get credit for the traffic and open up new ad sales opportunities. On the ad sales side, in September 2010 MSNBC Digital Network unveiled its ServeView initiative, designed to improve the way ads are served and billed. “At most Websites, they load all the ads when the page loads,” Tillinghast notes. “The problem with this approach is that the user will not see the ad unless they scroll down below the fold. That means advertisers are charged for ads that the user [often] never sees.” With ServeView, however, “ads aren’t served until users scroll down to where they can see them, and we only bill for the ads that can be seen,” Tillinghast says. “This has produced tremendous results for our advertisers in terms of all the tracking metrics of engagement and click-through and recall.”

Currently, a number of industry groups are looking to establish this approach as an industry standard. “We have been doing it for a while, but we think it will be the way all Web ads are served in the future,” Tillinghast says.

Looking forward, Tillinghast’s team has been working on a major redesign of MSNBC.com while developing new apps for connected TVs and significantly ramping up original content and video.

Tillinghast still returns regularly to Idaho, where he and wife met during high school and still have family, to enjoy backpacking and the outdoor sports of his youth. And as he did on those less-traveled paths, he is most proud of how his MSNBC team has managed to preserve the culture of a smaller group at the company. “We have been able to enjoy the advantages of scale for distribution, sales or video production that our parents Microsoft and NBCUniversal bring,” he says, “but have been able to maintain the innovation of a start-up.”

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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