With ‘Smart Magazines,’ Flipboard uses machine learning to reinvent its app


No small number of people in media think magazines always had something going for them, such as smart stories and beautiful photos for readers and a targeted, self-selected audience for advertisers, that should still work online. Today, Flipboard Inc. is taking yet another crack at proving it.

The seven-year-old Palo Alto, California-based company today is introducing the fourth generation of its social magazine app, powered by machine learning and a simpler new design (pictured). Central to the experience is Smart Magazines, which pull in content from a wider variety of sources than before to produce an ultra-personalized collection for each user.

The new design, Flipboard Chief Executive Mike McCue said in an interview with SiliconANGLE, aims to go beyond what Facebook and Twitter do, which is essentially to surface the most popular stories or the most recent ones, mainly quick bites of content. “Rather than a snacking mentality, there’s a need to dive into the things you’re passionate about,” said McCue.

Magazines, he said, “just need to be modernized for a mobile experience and a social world.” Flipboard users have been able to create magazines for a long time, some 30 million of them, in fact. But until now, common topics such as sports or technology contained the same content for every reader. Smart Magazines let people delve deeper into those topics to pick, say, only volleyball and water polo stories.

New information architecture

There’s also more than just curated content from publishers and websites. Flipboard, which said Smart Magazines are built on a “completely reimagined information architecture,” has a “topic classifier” that has indexed millions of RSS feeds and billions of articles shared by users. Flipboard’s editors also have chosen thought leaders whose tweets and stories shared on Twitter are included in the relevant magazines.

Users can create not just personalized but completely customized Smart Magazines with specific sources for content, including RSS feeds, other Flipboard user magazines and Twitter handles or hashtags and YouTube feeds. And there are now two actions for each story: a heart, which shows others the user likes the story, and a plus sign, which adds the story to the user’s own chosen magazine.

Flipboard says that this blend of content from the community, curated sources and topically organized tweets hasn’t been done before at this scale. The new features are available only on Apple Inc. iOS and Android phones, but people can view Smart Magazines on the Web and will be able to create them on tablets and desktop machines in the next few months.

Despite its relatively low profile in an app world now dominated by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and a few other social apps, Flipboard has seen its number of monthly active users double, to 100 million, from two years ago. McCue said the company expects to become cash-flow positive in 2018, thanks partly to cutting its cash burn.

More important, he’s counting on getting brands more interested in advertising. McCue believes that the ultra-personalization Flipboard is enabling on the content side will attract more advertisers, just like targeted magazines always did. In some of the best magazines, readers also like most of the ads in a way that no longer exists in much of today’s digital world of automated programmatic advertising. The company aims to offer more standard ad units as well as native ads this year to expand its appeal beyond its nearly 200 current advertisers such as Apple Inc. and Gucci.

Photo courtesy of Flipboard