Flipboard bucks the tide and embraces the web

If there’s one word that sums up where most media entities are looking for the future, it’s “mobile” — almost every news service and website is focusing on mobile because that’s where the younger users are, and therefore that’s where the growth is. In fact, NowThis just finished getting rid of its website altogether because it said there was no purpose in having one.

Flipboard, however, is going in the opposite direction: On Tuesday, the company said it is finally embracing the web, with a full-featured site that not only reproduces what the app offers, but builds on top of it.

So why is Flipboard going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else? In an interview, co-founder and CEO Mike McCue said there’s a simple answer, which is that Flipboard was mobile before almost anyone else — in fact, the app was one of the first to show the real possibilities of the brand new Apple iPad when it first launched in 2010. So being mobile is not really an issue for the company. But what Flipboard was missing, McCue said, was a way to tie together the web and mobile easily. The original website the company debuted in 2013 allowed users to read articles, but didn’t let them do much else.

Lessons from mobile

The launch of Flipboard’s web version fixes that, he said: it allows users who have built profiles and curated magazines and share content through the app to reproduce all of that behavior on the web and more. And in a sense, the Flipboard CEO said the web version has been in the works for almost as long as the company itself:

“Originally, we were going to build Flipboard on the web. Having been at Netscape for a while, I had a passion for the web, but when I thought about it, the web just wasn’t as capable — browsers weren’t as capable, they didn’t have as much horsepower. But we had heard rumors about the tablet coming from Apple, and we realized that would be the right first-launch platform for us.”

3-magazine-the-bloom-on-screen

McCue said the web version of Flipboard has a number of features that the news-reading and recommendation platform wouldn’t have been able to build if it wasn’t for years of developing the mobile app and learning how to sort and format content for different devices. So for example, he said, Flipboard can recognize when the content it is displaying would look better as a photo gallery, and automatically resize the images for full-width, or figure out where to put the headline text.

My first thought was that Flipboard might have decided to focus on the web because growth in the app is slowing, but McCue says that’s not the case — in fact, he said, “everything is up, anywhere from 50 to 300 percent, depending on what stat you look at.” According to recent estimates, the company has over 100 million registered users, and it recently confirmed that 50 million of those are monthly average users, up from 30 million last year.

flipboard-snapshots

Flipboard has been through several iterations now, as it has evolved from just a mobile app for reading RSS feeds and websites: the first big launch for the company after its birth came in 2013, when it added the ability for users to curate articles from their streams into their own “magazines.” There are now 15 million magazines that have been created by users, McCue said, up from about 10 million last year. And the second big launch gave users much more choice in terms of what to follow in the app — using recommendation software developed by Zite, which Flipboard acquired last year.

Better monetization

As with its mobile version, part of what Flipboard feels it offers to publishers is the ability to display their content in a beautiful way, and also to display advertising in the same way, McCue says, which theoretically should lead to better monetization than the typical web banner ad. So the company is working with a select group of publishers to host their content and custom advertising inside the web version, and share that revenue.

In the past, Flipboard has been criticized by some publishers and media companies for aggregating their content without paying for it — in much the same way that Google has been criticized for doing with Google News. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo took aim at Flipboard for this in 2013, and said he was pulling his content from the platform. For many publishers, Flipboard opens links inside a browser rather than displaying the full content, and McCue said that will happen on the web as well. But he hopes publishers will choose to work with the platform instead of fighting it:

“For the moment, links on the web will just go to the publisher’s website, but we are working on some deals with publishing partners where we can do the same on the web as we do on the mobile app — show magazine-style content and serve ads and share that revenue. We can generate formats and layouts like the NYT’s Snowfall, a really visual magazine style, and we are hoping to do that for a number of publishers.”

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