Flipboard CEO Mike McCue: 'There's a real bright road ahead for publishers'

Flipboard CEO Mike McCue thinks his platform / Flipboard

Flipboard, the news curation platform, has aggregated stories from The New York Times to Vanity Fair to The Drum on mobile and its web client for over eight years.

Just recently, the company announced that its subscriber-based has reached 145 million, nearly halfway towards doubling the 100 million they had amassed in 2013.

The Drum spoke to the company’s founder and chief executive, Mike McCue, about how the company looks to keep momentum on its side, its philosophy towards publishers and advertisers, and how it avoids allowing fake news to disrupt its platform.

The print magazine plays inspiration for content — and for ads

“When we started Flipboard,” says McCue, “we were inspired by print: the printed magazine.”

It’s an interesting callback, as print has faced its toughest challenge in the past few years; as digital spaces became more robust, large print publishers have watched ad revenue spill into display ads and away from full-bleed pages. But McCue feels that there are lessons to learn from what made magazines a lasting platform in the first place.

“When you look at print, the ads and the content are given equal treatment, and the creative for the brand really comes through. You can have a beautiful full page ad, and you’re going to have a full page of editorial and it just works all the same — it just fits together. That’s the experience we strive for on Flipboard.”

That lesson teaches McCue’s team of 130 how they approach their ad products — working with brands to use the full screen space. This way, when a customer flips through the app interface, an ad can get as much of the user’s attention as a story they’re trying to find.

“Of course,” he adds, “it’s a mobile display, so we can do video, we can do more interactivity. Yet, it still feels like it’s just another piece of content.”

He cites Microsoft’s Surface PC, which takes up the full screen in ad space, but allows viewers to click a video embedded in it. And United, which uses something like a storyboard capability to allow users to take in its luxury flight experience by flipping through pictures and video.

“We’re really focused on doing work with really high-quality brands that have these beautiful ads that are a natural part of the user experience.”

Flipboard’s platform has also allowed brands to create bespoke sponsored content experiences. Sony, a longtime advertiser of Flipboard, has its own “magazine” called Alpha Universe, where it curates top photos from its fanbase. Airbnb has taken the idea of ‘experiences’ to the curation company as well, allowing Airbnb guests to enhance their accommodation with local events.

This variety of advertising solutions is important as Flipboard, unlike the glossy print that inspired its launch, is fully advertising-driven.

“We want to be known for really high-quality advertising that respects users time and attention. Not every brand can do that,” McCue admits, “but there brands like Sony or Patagonia that have high-quality content and want to get that content out there for users who are in the right frame of mind."

Algorithms, human curators, play buffer to fake news

As the misinforming propaganda known as fake news has cast a shadow over the media and social platforms, McCue informs The Drum that Flipboard has been taking the issue seriously, and long before fake news was even “a thing”.

“There’s no perfect scenario,” he admits. “There’s always somebody who can manage to get a fake news story in, so there’s no perfect situation.

“But we designed Flipboard in a way where we focused first on picking and finding quality sources, and then having our algorithms magnify them. We were very careful in the way we designed our algorithms and the way feeds were constructed so that they can be controlled by people""

This is much like a Spotify, which relies heavily on its algorithm for music recommendations (and for the past couple of years, marketing campaigns). Except for Flipboard, a selection of veteran journalists get chosen to go through sources from all around the world, for topics ranging from politics to technology and from global publications to local ones to approve the validity of the stories themselves.

Although the platform has no political bias, Flipboard has had to keep less reputable news sites from being magnified by its algorithms. “Users can follow anything they want on Flipboard and we allow publishers who aren’t breaking the law. But when our algorithm magnifies a story and it ends up being something you see when you’re searching for political topics, those sources are vetted. So it’s much harder for fake news to even come into the picture."

McCue added that editors are constantly checking content on the site and assist with fine-tuning the algorithm.

Last November, Dow Jones and Uzabase launched their own news curation tool called NewsPicks, which touted a list of influencers including Richard Branson and Ariana Huffington suggest which news subscribers read — on top of pulling from publications of consequence like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Reuters.

When asked about what this may mean for Flipboard’s competitive advantage he states his belief that it spurred people to better appreciate the platform's approach and adds that Facebook has adopted some of Flipboard’s strategies in how it sifts through news for its billions of active users, adding that his company is very open about how they view the newsrooms of the future. And about how they can help.

McCue sees Facebook, and Twitter, which both compete with Flipboard as content distribution platforms, as allies in reshaping how mass publishers operate. A couple of months ago, McCue hosted heads of product from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple in an event with the News Literacy Project to address fake news and other forms of propaganda.

As much as the dissemination of accurate news falls on the platforms and publishers, he says that the people reading content have much responsibility as well. “It’s still up to the reader to understand and be able to discern what the truth is, what the motivation is behind an article. It’s a multifaceted approach to address this problem; it’s impacted our democracy as well as others around the world.

“We’re living in a new era now and it’s super important for us to collaborate, even with our competitors, to address these issues.”

Marching towards 200 million — and a better future for publishers

The evolution of Flipboard as an aggregator — or curation platform — has helped it creep closer to 150 million subscribers, and a little bit closer to 200 million. McCue calls the idea of reaching those high-water marks exciting but keeps the focus on keeping users locked in on Flipboard-picked content.

“As a product-focused CEO,” he says, “I think what really matters is how people are using Flipboard, how much they rely on the product in their day-to-day.” A year ago, the company added the ability to let readers personalize their own feeds around topics of their own choosing, something McCue calls really good progress.

Flipboard doesn’t have the huge numbers of users like Facebook and Twitter do to help drive ad dollars, however, notes McCue, it has been able to keep users from multitasking.

“Flipboard is actually a place where people are single-tasking more,” says McCue, citing a study the company conducted with Kantar Millward Brown on the mobile mindset of readers. Twitter’s user base more than doubles that of Flipboard, but according to the findings, the amount of engagement in its user base is just as high in the US, in terms of referral traffic.

“What I really care about is getting the people that we already have using the product to use it multiple times per day. Are they using it for their work, or for fun or things they love? Are they using it for their life, for their health and wellness? Are they using it as a parent, or as a citizen?

“To me, I really want to try to make sure that we continue to work with our publishing partners and curators and influencers that are brands to constantly improve the quality and how users interact with it.”

Recent strides to work with publishing partners include integrating native paywalls from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others into the platform. That way, anyone who subscribes to content on those publishers can access them without issue on the Flipboard platform.

However: “What we don’t do yet is anything in terms of making it easier to buy a subscription or to find the content in a new and interesting way.”

McCue thinks that Flipboard is key to helping other publications give their readers more options. “Right now, because of the way technology works, you have a one-size-fits-all model. You either subscribe or you don't. Maybe you have like an all-access pass and maybe a more sort of basic pass, but that’s about the extent of it.”

He cites his sons, 18-year-old 'GenZers' who aren’t even aware of some of the legacy imprints in the print world. “Why would they ever buy a subscription for a magazine they don’t read? We’ve got to figure out a way where we can help stories from these magazines surface to this new generation, build some sort of awareness of them.

“But then we need to figure out a way to provide offerings to this next generation of users that’s different than it is for the those that do know these publications well.”

It’s not about retrofitting new models so that the old way of reaching subscribers can live on, says the Flipboard founder. “We think there's an opportunity to rethink how this all works. if we give publishers a way to build the audience on Flipboard and integrate their audience and communicate with your existing audience using Flipboard, we'll be able to enable them to charge for content much more rapidly.”

He adds: “I think that people have no problem paying $5 for coffee and I don't think they'll have any problem paying for $5 for a great magazine.”

How to remain a profitable magazine in this time of disruption, is something that many publishers have yet to figure out. McCue notes the development of new premium, subscription-only publishers, like Jessica Lessin’s The Information and rising sports news site The Athletic as Netflix-like examples that draw readers in because of the names on the byline.

“Any kind of premium model needs to think about that component because ultimately it's not just about the stories you write, It's about the community that you build around your content and the community can't be replaced.”

He thinks that same sense of strong identity can be applied to any publisher, just in a way that works for their respective audiences.

“I think there’s a real bright road ahead for publications, but we are, as some say, facing really challenging times. We haven’t seen a dip in advertising revenues, but we do see a lot of disruption and some publishers are navigating that disruption better than others.”

McCue believes that a strong identity wins out every time. “It’s up to publications that really focus on their community, that have a stronger sense of identity. The more that Flipboard can help that identity come through to your users, both new and ones that you've had for a long time, that’s how I think we’ll be able to help publishers navigate the disruption.

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