Commentary

Time Inc. Deal Says Flipboard Is More Publisher Friend Than Foe

Time Inc. is the largest magazine publisher to sign on with Flipboard to syndicate select content into the popular aggregation app. As of this week, I could find both People.com and Instyle.com content featured in the usual pleasant Flipboard layout, including interstitial full-page ads. Magazine branding was prominent and persistent. Time and Fortune magazines will follow suit in December.

The partnership comes just in the nick of time for Flipboard. No -- it is not that they are trouble with usage stats or popularity. They boast a reach of over 85 million monthly users. In fact, that is more than the 68 million Time Inc. brands command online. The touchy issue of aggregators imparting real value to publishers was revived last week when Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall likened Flipboard to a “scam.”  

Marshall acknowledges that all publishers have different models and strategies, and some may benefit from putting their content in aggregation vehicles with enormous reach. “That said,” he argues , “I do think these services, as they currently exist, are bad for publishers. We give them the entirety of our product -- news stories, updates, posts, what-have-you -- in exchange for a notional thing called exposure, brand awareness, blah blah blah and in theory or at some point in the future a cut of the ad revenues these services bring in for selling ads on their platforms.”

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The theory that readers are discovering brands on aggregation platforms may be beside the point if most readers end up consuming that brand vis-a-vis the aggregator, he says. Likewise, any single content provider is so diluted by the sheer volume of others in an app like Flipboard that whatever share of the ad rev they may pull in the end is small.

Maybe so. In fact, a number of Flipboard’s early magazine partners -- most notably Conde Nast -- retreated from their initial model of putting full article content into the app. Instead they now emphasize links back to their site. Now, if there is one thing I know about magazines generally and Time Inc. especially, these guys research the hell out of very move they make. In AdWeek, Time Inc. digital chief Fran Hauser argues that their metrics show Flipboard helps them reach a younger audience, since less than 10% of Time Inc’s own online audiences are coming to the sites on the iPad. Yet People is the most searched brand within Flipboard itself. And to be sure, Time Inc. is not opening the floodgates of all their content to Flipboard. The magazine wares and the premium areas are not found in the app.

But the other interesting thing for publishers is Flipboard’s greater ability to respect and expand a paywall. It already allows subscribers from NYTimes and FT to get access to their subscriber content via the app. People in particular has recently introduced tiered subscriber access passes that include premium content.

Whether and for whom aggregation apps are a good deal for publishers, I think some content providers are resigned to their inevitable role in the mobile ecosystem especially. While the major media don’t want to admit it, third parties like Flipboard simply proved they understand the app world better. In fact, both People.com and Instyle.com content look a lot better in Flipboard than they do on a tablet browser. Self-deceptively believing that users “love” and “crave” their brands, legacy media -- especially magazines -- somehow thought that plopping a tablet edition on an iPad every month was lure enough. Think again. Most magazine apps are staggeringly inept in their use of app resources like alerts, dynamic feeds of content from their sites, etc. Newspapers have been somewhat more adroit, partly because they had to be given the level of competition and their natural always-on news cycles.

But in the end, most legacy media have been so preoccupied with retaining the value of their content and keeping the golden goose of print revenues alive as long as they can that user experience wasn’t even on radar. The old guard indeed still knows better how great content is made. But generally the startups have known better how content really I consumed on digital platforms, especially by the demos that old media need to capture.  

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