Now that NBC Universal has bought back the remaining half of MSNBC.com from former joint venture partner Microsoft, executives say that much of the decision-making and focus of the site's ad sales will remain in place.
It's worth stating, for perhaps what is soon to be the last time, that MSNBC.com the website bore little relation to the left-leaning commentary that comprised the primetime schedule of MSNBC the cable network. MSNBC.com has always been a straight news, often partnering with other mainstream media outlets like Newsweek, and was run as a separate company apart from NBCU. Two years ago, as the cable channel more forcefully put its punditry front and center, the website's head Charlie Tillinghast wrote a memo calling the continued use of the same "MSNBC" name by both entities "brand insanity."
In press conference following the morning's announcement that NBCU was taking it back -- the NYT's Brian Stelter reported that Microsoft was being paid an estimated $300 million for its stake --executives wouldn't comment on the pricetag of MSNBC.com's remaining half, executives said Tillinghast will continue to oversee the legacy Msnbc Digital Network properties, reporting to Schiller. Kyoo Kim, MSNBC.com’s VP of ad sales, will also remain in a leadership position of the site. That said, the current NBC News Digital sales team will now report to Marianne Gambelli, President of NBC Network Ad Sales, and "work closely" with John Kelly, EVP of NBC News Ad Sales.
During the press conference, which had NBC News President Steve Capus, MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC News Chief Digital Officer Vivian Schiller all speaking from Microsoft's Redmond campus to illustrate the "amicable" splitting of the 16-year-old partnership, Schiller told AdExchanger that it would begin a process of transitioning from Microsoft’s ad sales platform.
"Microsoft has been the official sales organization for MSNBC.com," she said. "As you might imagine, there’s a lot of back-end technology and client management issues to handle. This is a very amicable transition and they are working with us on transferring responsibility for all ad sales. We’ll do it slowly so we don’t disrupt the profitability and revenue generation of the site."
Apart from Microsoft handling the technology aspect of the ad sales, the strategy has been led by Tillinghast. Two years ago, he introduced an ad sales program called ServeView, which guaranteed that marketers would only have to pay for impressions that were actually "viewed."
In April, we met with Tillinghast to talk about how the program was evolving. He talked about the program as an idea that premium ads didn't just have to be "above" the fold to be seen and, as such, be regarded as valuable inventory. He also saw ServeView as a way to combat ad networks and other ad tech firms that scrape the site's data and then offer it at a low cost.
"People keep talking about display CPMs going down is because there is a perception of infinite inventory," he said at the time. "Plus, you have retargeting firms coming in and collecting data from premium sites and selling ads on second tier properties with that information. But what clients are buying are a lot of impressions that are never going to be viewed, unless someone were to scroll to the bottom of the webpage – something most people don’t do.
"Above the fold is just a way to combat the problem of your ad not being seen," Tillinghast added. "It’s a proxy for viewable. If all the ads that you pay for are viewable, then that takes the guesswork out of it. If you walk into a grocery store, are you going to necessarily buy the first thing you see or when you’re on the checkout line? If you’re selling gum, you want to be by the checkout line. People pay more attention at the end of their experience than at the beginning."
A little over three years ago, MSNBC.com unveiled a major redesign that was premised on the notion that “pageviews were dead” as an important audience metric for advertisers, because it didn’t take into account all the various “content assets” that users experience when visiting a web page, such as story abstracts, photos, videos, and sharing tools. Plus, pageviews never really helped to determine whether an ad was actually seen by the person who counted as a “view.”
So instead of following the typical strategy of placing ads all over the site and counting ads as served, MSNBC.com focused on a single-page-only format, and shifted ad sales to large, customizable placements. The company also promised more accountability as to whether an ad was actually seen as opposed to just citing pageviews of proof — something advertisers generally regarded as a big maybe.
It's hard to say how that posture will mix with the new developments. Last year, NBCU embraced programmatic buying by setting up a private exchange with the use of AdMeld's tools. When asked about how the wider NBCU Digital Network would absorb MSNBC.com's inventory within a real-time bidding environment, Schiller declined to offer details about a change in strategy. "
"NBC Universal and Comcast have a number of digital properties and there are synergies that will be explored as we examine all the tools at our disposal," she said.
Capus was also a bit vague on the approach to programmatic buying, but he did say that advertising considerations were central to the decision to buy back NBCU's share in MSNBC.com.
"A key component to all of this is to maximize the sales force we have at NBC," he said. "Among the people who will oversee the sales operation are Maryanne Gambelli and John Kelly, both of whom come from the NBC side, will serve as the leads on sales. There is an already dedicated sales force tied to the joint venture. One of the areas that we have seen the fastest growth and very encouraging metrics has been in the 360 degree cross-platform offerings.
"If you take the Today Show, you have a very successful four-hour broadcast which is coupled with Today.com, which is part of the digital network and represents a perfect extension of the program. It makes no sense to have a disconnected sales initiative. Now this is all wrapped together that can be bought and sold together and will result in greater revenue generation," Capus said.
By David Kaplan
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