Analysis

‘We only succeed if publishers succeed’: How Flipboard is growing a platform that works for publishers

It was with some surprise that I read about the figures a few weeks ago revealing that Flipboard had taken fourth place, behind Google, Facebook and Twitter, for referral traffic to publishers, sliding just ahead of Google News. Even more surprising was how tight this race now was. It changes day by day, but today for example, Flipboard provides 1.9% of referral traffic, with Twitter at 1.8% and Google News at 1.7%.

Flipboard hasn’t been high up the priority list for publishers for a number of years now. But when I spoke to Claus Enevoldsen on this week’s episode of the podcast, he said that “This is the right time for Flipboard. We truly believe that our time has come.”

So what has changed, and why should the platform now be given serious consideration by publishers who have had monetisation issues across the board with Facebook and Apple News?

How does traffic reach publisher sites?

The Flipboard I remember is one with uniform headlines, nicely spaced text and a fun ‘flipping’ motion to turn the magazine-like article pages. But the article experience is now very different. Anyone who hasn’t opened Flipboard in the past year should do so now, because it’s changed how it operates quite significantly.

Early on in Flipboard’s life, they made the decision to ingest publisher’s content on the platform, and keep it all within their ecosystem, much like Apple News currently does. “That was in the name of creating a really good user experience and making sure that the content was presented very nicely,” Claus explains. “But as mobile websites have evolved and publishers are really doing a fantastic job in laying out the content on their sites, we work with them and we realized we should just be sending the traffic directly to publishers.

“So now when you engage on Flipboard every time you engage with an article you’re going straight to the publisher site. So then they can monetise on their own.”

That change was made in October last year (incidentally, around the same time that their push for growth began), and publishers who want to feature on the platform now submit their RSS feeds into the app. But there’s a vetting process, as Claus outlines:

“In order for publishers or any content creator to be surfaced in Flipboard, it goes through this vetting process. So we have an actual editorial board of editors with journalistic backgrounds, and they have specific guidelines…we call it the truth series.”

Algorithms and humans work together in this process to flag up any issues, such as whether websites have bylines and issue corrections, as well as the user experience. “We want a quality experience, so we’re looking to see if this website has an extreme overload of ad pop-ups. Is it a slow site or a fast site? All of these things combine as part of this vetting process.”

This willingness to cede control of how content is presented over to publishers is key to how Flipboard’s whole attitude stands out when compared to its closest rival, Apple News, who are determined to keep both the content and the audience within their own ecosystem. But for Flipboard, it’s a simple equation. If they refer the traffic, the publisher keeps their own ad revenue, and both sides are happy.

Before we dive deeper into some of the other reasons why Flipboard is a platform worth a second look, we should address those sky-high user numbers reported earlier this year.

What’s behind Flipboard’s growth?

There are two sides to this question. Firstly, the cynical view. Flipboard is installed by default on Samsung devices, and so if they were to just count app installs, it would be easy to hit the 145 million users that they’ve reported this year without breaking a sweat.

But Claus points out that if that was the case, it wouldn’t be helpful either to them or their publishing partners. “We’re really focused on ensuring that it’s a quality audience that we have on Flipboard. So when you look at that number we’re really conscientious about the number we put out.”

They have a high bar for counting people in that 145 million bracket, which includes them having actively opened Flipboard and engaged with it in a given month. An ad campaign in February will have also helped swell their numbers this year, as well as the number of publishers applying to distribute their content on the app; according to CEO Mike McCue, there were 5,000 publishers in the four months before the ad campaign launch, and over 11,000 afterwards.

Claus also theorises that now is the right time for the app because users are looking for a quality experience; something that perhaps the newsfeed-reliant social media apps aren’t providing.

“In this world today, it’s a world of fake news, of dubious sources, and so one angle is that people are really looking for this high quality content haven…their mindset has shifted. They’re very conscious about the time they spend on their phones, and so with Flipboard they know that here’s a quality experience.

“Our time has come for people because of the environment that we live in.”

So how does the platform tackle fake news?

‘Human-led algorithms’

This is where Flipboard’s constant product evolution comes in, dealing with the smaller problems before they become big issues. “We sit at the intersection of algorithms and editorial,” explains Claus, with thirty editors across the globe working alongside their Vancouver-based machine learning team.

“Not only do [the editors] have oversight of these algorithms but they also work with publishers to create great curated magazines.”

One example is the politics section; a minefield for any curation tool, where Flipboard have a feed of the best political articles of the day. Alongside the automated feed, they also have editors “sitting and curating a section that’s called right, left, and centre, where we give perspectives from both sides of the political spectrum.”

There are still judgement calls to be made, of course, but Claus says that they’re not about political bias. “It’s about, ‘Is this news trustworthy? Is this fake news, or is this factual?’ That’s where those editors come in and make those calls.”

Their editors certainly aren’t afraid to reach out; Claus claims that the editorial team he sits with in California are on the phone every day with publishers and content creators “to come up with creative ways to get the best quality content in front of our users.”

One example is The Culturist; a magazine on Flipboard which brings together the best music, TV, movies and entertainment content. Their editor “works closely with publishers to find out what the best content is,” in a process which is described in detail by Flipboard in a Medium post.

So why should publishers trust yet another platform, in a year which has seen rows about inflated video metrics, algorithm changes decimating brands, and certain technology giants making quite clear that publishers are at the bottom of their pile of priorities?

“We are here because of publishers, we’re here to win with publishers,” Claus explains. “We succeed if publishers succeed, and I think we’re not just talking. You can see it through the actions that we’ve taken that we’re here to work with publishers.”

Flipboard’s mission may be to “inform and inspire”, but they’re quite clear that they can’t do that without publishers being completely on their side. And so, with strong user growth, a winning human-algorithm partnership, and most importantly, a willingness to listen, I would argue that Flipboard and the team behind it have matured to become a platform that is worth serious consideration.


Esther Kezia Thorpe
@estherkeziat