Flipboard’s on a mission to be the internet’s best recommendation engine

By leaning into curation and creators, the app is trying to turn from news to everything people care about.

Flipboard's website on a laptop.

Flipboard is betting big on curation as a better way to do social.

Photo: Flipboard

Every month, more than 100 million people open Flipboard looking for content. It's one of the internet's largest referrers of traffic to publishers, often behind only Google and Facebook. It's a key platform for anyone wanting to grow an audience. And as the creator economy grows, Flipboard thinks it has a role to play.

When people think of Flipboard, CEO Mike McCue said, they mostly think of news. "People come to it because it's a trusted source," he said. Flipboard vets the websites people post in an effort to keep out misinformation and other bad stuff; it has an editorial team devoted to surfacing the best stuff. "But when you look at the metrics, about 40% of our engagement is around news," he said. "And 60% of our engagement is around lifestyle topics: work, life and play." People come to Flipboard for news, McCue said, but they stay for their passions.

The passion economy, the creator economy, influencers: Whatever you want to call it, individuals are at the center of the new ways people find and follow the things they care about. "We were kind of built around publishers early on," McCue said. "Now, it's really much more about these enthusiasts who pick up a camera, or who sit down in front of a microphone or in front of a keyboard, and relay their raw enthusiasm for something. And that's awesome, when that's done in a genuine way."

But on an internet where seemingly everything is secretly an ad, where things are ranked and promoted based on inscrutable algorithms more concerned with engagement than quality, it can be hard to know what's good advice and what's a scam. So Flipboard's new aim is to turn those creators into curators as well, to give them the tools to bring all their content, recommendations and audiences into a single place. Flipboard, in that world, becomes a way to both follow and discover new content, across platforms and without all the added complexity and risk of social news feeds. And with a human touch rather than an algorithmic one.

Screenshots of the new Flipboard app on an iPHone. Flipboard's app is now for much more than just articles. Photo: Flipboard

Take Flipboard's photography section, which is followed by 9.1 million people. That section used to be a long feed of articles about photography, with some light options for personalization. Now, it also features a Gear section, showing which camera YouTuber Tyler Stalman recommends and wildlife photographer Ryan Mense's favorite Leica setup. Flipboard is putting out a new newsletter, The Shot, featuring new photographers and cool projects. A new Video tab grabs the best tips and gear-review videos from YouTube. And in the Community tab, you can find new people to follow on Flipboard and elsewhere.

McCue said he hopes to see YouTubers make Flipboard storyboards with all the gear recommendations they'd normally put in the description of a YouTube video, or to see Instagram stars put all their favorite podcasts, learning materials and go-to photography spots into a magazine. "In one fell swoop," he said, "it's a set of recommendations that are incredibly helpful for people to know where to go, what to bring and how to think about it."

Flipboard is taking the same approach to its food section (23.4 million followers), and plans to do so for travel (34.3 million) and personal finance (2.3 million) as well. The idea in every vertical is to expand the types of things users can curate, to give them more tools with which to do so, and to help people find both great content and great curators going forward. The more people find stuff they like on Flipboard, the more often they'll come back; and the more often they come back, the more valuable Flipboard becomes to creators.

The ultimate goal is to become the internet's most trusted, most useful system of recommendations. If you're a budding whiskey enthusiast, it could be a source of articles to read, documentaries to watch, accounts to follow, drinks to try, and much more. All that information exists on the internet already, of course; there's just too much of it, and it's hard to know what to believe. By elevating curators and creators, Flipboard hopes it can earn that trust.

Earning that trust isn't easy, though, especially at scale. Flipboard's editorial team is heavily involved in putting together its most popular topic pages, said Mia Quagliarello, the company's head of creator of community and newsletters. And even for smaller topics, it controls the domains and types of content that can show up. But the team is small — about a dozen people — and can't keep up with every topic and magazine. That's where outside curators become hugely important: "Part of this new effort is to carve out a lot more shelf space," Quagliarello said. "The feeds are fast-moving, but we're creating more fixed spaces to highlight curators, creators and community … and we curate the curators to add expertise where we don't have it."

Curating its sources has long been a core tenet of how Flipboard manages the content flowing through its systems. "It's garbage in, garbage out, right?" McCue said. Flipboard is committed to not being an engagement-driven engine like YouTube or Facebook, and is in some cases happy to act more like a publisher than a neutral platform. "We've made an editorial decision that these are people worth trusting," he said. "That's part of why Flipboard is Flipboard: Our algorithms only magnify domains that editorially, we've reviewed and made a determination that those domains can be trusted."

Over the years that has made Flipboard hesitant to even promote things like YouTube videos. The domain is not helpful — good, bad and ugly, it all starts with youtube.com — and it's hard for any system to understand the inherent quality of a video. "That in the past has been something we've kept out of our main topic feeds," said Marty Rose, a data quality analyst at Flipboard. "But we're now trying to add it in, but in a very careful way." When you can't trust the domain, it seems, one way forward is to trust the curator.

The key for Flipboard will be to remain a good citizen of the ecosystem. One reason it has done well over time, McCue said, is that it drives traffic to publishers rather than trying to keep the audience for itself. He doesn't want to lose that credibility. When it built support for YouTube videos, for instance, it made sure that the videos play directly in-line and that comments left on Flipboard also get left on YouTube. "Just like we're the third or fourth largest traffic driver for publishers, we can be that same thing for YouTubers and for video," McCue said.

"What we've learned in talking to creators," McCue said, "is they want more discovery and more audience and more brand awareness. That's how they're going to make more money, not because we created some cool sort of tipping jar mechanism." Flipboard is thinking about how to be a good steward of creators' brand partnerships, for instance, or to make sure they're getting the affiliate revenue they rely on. In general, the creator ecosystem seems to sprawl more widely every day, and Flipboard's focus is on bringing everything back together rather than creating yet another destination. "It's actually about connecting to other social platforms," he said, "and not just being a different social platform."

That said, Flipboard does have ambitions to become at least a bit more of a destination. Of course it does: Flipboard's business model is advertising, and bringing more users more often is good for business. While McCue didn't say Flipboard's looking to bring in affiliate revenue or other creator-economy sources of revenue, that opportunity could certainly present itself. Every corner of the internet is turning into a shopping mall, and Flipboard may want its cut someday.

Just like other social platforms, Flipboard knows that the best way to grow is to help creators grow. Flipboard's team is looking at how to bring creators themselves more to the forefront of the platform, how to redesign profile pages, and how to make the experience simultaneously topic- and human-focused. Right now, its primary appeal to a creator is the traffic it can send to their YouTube channel or blog; going forward, McCue said he's eager to find ways for them to make money and build community directly on Flipboard. Just not at the expense of the other stuff.

The internet is both full of recommendation systems and sorely lacking in a useful and trustworthy one. Flipboard thinks it can fill that gap through a combination of machine learning, editorial process, and a focus on elevating the creators, curators and content that people already care about and trust. And it thinks that might be a lot more useful to readers than a never-ending news feed.


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