Q&A: Kal Amin, COO @ Flipboard
This week, The Idea spoke to Kal Amin about his role at Flipboard, how it’s evolving in a rapidly changing media landscape, and how it combines human curation with technology to create a unique experience for users, publishers, and brands.
Tell me about your role at Flipboard and your trajectory of how you got there?
I joined Flipboard 9 months ago as the COO, I’ve been here working with the core operating units across the business, focused on revenue, growth, content, product, engineering, marketing, helping drive the momentum we’ve seen at Flipboard.
I was most recently at Spotify. I joined the company when they first came to the states and helped build their revenue business. Prior to that I was at AOL, and I spent about 2.5 years there. I was at Google for close to nine years before AOL, and started my career in the digital media space at AOL in the late 90’s.
Tell me about Flipboard’s business model.
We’ve got four key constituents that sit within our ecosystem: we have our users, our publishing partners, our advertisers and our strategic partners like Samsung. We made a strategic shift in 2017, well before I joined, where we doubled down on our focus on investing in our publishing partners. We shifted from being a core platform where all the content was within our own environment to really expanding that to be part of this idea of referring traffic back to the publishers.
I’m really excited about the fact that we are now a top five traffic driver for publishers in the same conversation with Google, Facebook, Twitter and others.
In a world where there are millions of pieces of content being created every day, we have an ability and we have an opportunity here to help create a narrative working with our publishing partners to tell a story. One of the things that we’ve talked about since I’ve joined, is this idea of Flipboard being a platform for storytelling.
In today’s world what that means is we allow our publishing partners to tell stories through our technology, part of that is referring traffic back to their sites, part of that is curating content on our platform, and we saw opportunity down the road, we want more of that curation, we want them to have a voice and really engage with an audience that is very highly engaged on our platform.
We also have a high quality brand environment, and we have seen lots of our advertising partners stay with us on the platform, for quite a period of time. Our business model today, in addition to driving traffic back to publishers and creating really unique experiences for users, is to monetize the entire platform through advertising. We integrate brands, we’re working with new channels like programmatic, and we’re continuing to expand into new opportunities and experimenting with how we bring the best opportunities to brands as well as to our users.
What I love to say internally is the idea of playing to our strengths. This concept of when a user engages with Flipboard, they’re coming here to read content. Creating a native experience for advertising where brands can deliver their messages to highly engaged audiences, we’ve seen some really high engagement metrics, ads are performing really really well, and we believe there’s a huge opportunity to expand really through the lens of content marketing to drive even more brand dollars through our platform.
We’ve seen an increase in overall brand dollars coming in through our promoted content platform, and the more time we spend with advertisers and with agencies, talking about the opportunity, they see this value in being able to tell a story in addition to the publishers telling a story on our platform as well.
How has Flipboard changed since its inception? How have changes in the media landscape impacted Flipboard, and how has Flipboard responded to those changes?
We talk about the fact that Flipboard started in 2010, and it was one of the first apps on the iPad. In that environment, it was a really unique experience. It was an analog experience in a digital world, where you were flipping through articles and magazines and had this really unique, rich experience.
There’s a lot of experimentation we’re doing right now around new forms of media. We’ve seen high engagement in video, we’re testing with partners around audio, and we think when we talk about these curated packages, or these curated collections of content, it doesn’t have to be just article-based content. We can tell a much deeper, richer story by bringing other types of media to really connect the dots and as we think about developing new audiences on the platforms.
Research has shown that some of the younger audiences that we’re developing for the platform are not reading as much. They’re engaging with audio, they’re engaging with video, they’re spending more time on those forms of content, and we have an ability to actually enhance that offer on the platform.
How has Facebook’s changes in strategy (shifting emphasis from pages to friends) impacted Flipboard?
We have always believed at our core that we want to be partners with publishers. The idea that working with publishers, large, medium or small has always been a core part of our belief system. The second part of that belief system is that our approach has always really been around taking an algorithmic approach in addition to an editorial approach. Those things have to live together.
Working through a set of journalistic principles, and having both humans and technology work together to not only identify the best stories, but also to onboard the best content. We have a conversation with every single partner we work with, and we go through a quality check.
We make sure there’s no fake news coming onto our platform. We want to make sure that for our users we’re creating a quality experience, for our brands they have the ability to have their message next to quality content, and overall we want to make sure we’re telling a story through the lens of both technology as well as through journalism.
We invested in an editorial team, and what’s exciting to see is that some of these other platforms are also doing the same thing. If you see some of the headlines in the press today, you’ve seen some of our larger competitors really taking this approach where they’re building editorial teams to support the work that’s happening through technology. That’s been a core asset and a core belief as a part of our company since day one so we’re excited to see that trend taking shape across the industry.
When it comes to curation, how does Flipboard consider being balanced politically?
One of the things that we are able to do through our curation efforts where we can aggregate and personalize a tremendous amount of content using our technology. We’re able to create these curated collections of content that help tell a fair and balanced story.
One example is that leading up to the midterm elections, we had a package of content that was originally called “left, right and center.” It gave you a perspective on different viewpoints from different sides of the aisle on different political issues. From our vantage point, it allows users to gain perspective on how the other party is thinking about a certain issue or topic.
That’s where I think the idea of taking technology and pairing it up with our journalist team is very important. The ability to take that content, create some sort of perspective, but also give insight on a 360 view on a specific topic or an issue, this is where the two worlds really come together.
It’s important that we are also thinking about this not only through the lens of news. Publishers and partners that we work also see high engagement outside of news categories. In addition to focusing on some of the news topics (obviously there’s a very rapid news cycle) users come in for news, but they stay for interests and passions.
We’ve seen very high engagement on non-news categories, in addition to our news categories. I think of the platform and our partners being able to tell a story on Flipboard and also having our users engage with content that allows them to expand into other passions and their interests.
What we’ve seen through our data and our insights is that when users come to Flipboard, the highly engaged users are spending time across a large set of categories. News is one component of their daily consumption habits, but they’re going to learn about themselves. They want to learn about the world, they want to be entertained and informed and the platform is really built for that.
Tying this back to the previous question about the platform and the changes we’re making, the reason we’re onboarding more video and audio content to create that multimedia experience is really to create that perspective, to drive more information, to drive more inspiration through the work that we do.
I think of us as really being able to leverage all of the great work that’s been done over the last 8 or 9 years, expanding into categories where I think we have opportunity to partner with the best brands and content creators in the world.
Who is Flipboard’s audience currently and where are you seeing the most growth?
Our audience is a highly curious, creative set of achievers. They’re interested in what’s happening in the world, they care about their work, they care about their career, they care about their hobbies and interests — it isn’t one specific passion or category, we want to make sure every single person sees value in the product and the content that we have on the platform meets the value that we’re looking for.
We have over 4,000 publishers in our network. We’re onboarding more around the world, the idea here is to make sure that we can truly personalize that experience for every single user to having the content that they can engage with is very important to us.
We’re incorporating more video, experimenting with audio, we want to tell a complete story. A lot of our investments as we think about 2019 will be built into this concept of storytelling and storytelling through more than just article-based content, really having this multimedia experience.
How has the pivot to consumer revenue among publishers impacted Flipboard?
We work very closely with our partners. We are still working with paywall publishers to identify long term solutions. Right now there is the paywall scenario and we have some ideas that we’re exploring with those partners. We haven’t launched anything yet with those partners, but our goal is to ensure that there is a more seamless experience for subscribers to publishers like New York Times and the Washington Post that do have paywalls and are our partners.
That being said, in today’s world, if you are a subscriber to any of those publishers, you can still log in and access that content through our platform, which does create a seamless experience, but in terms of actually leveraging the platform to drive to payment solutions, that isn’t part of our platform today but it is one of the things we’re experimenting with for 2019.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media recently from an organization other than your own?
One of the things I think is really cool is the Axios HBO collaboration. I’m really interested in this experimentation of bringing different media types together, experimentation around storytelling, packaging, formats, and segmenting content.