Less than six months after Flipboard was first launched for the iPad in July 2010, Apple named the so-called social magazine App of the Year. The app, released for the iPhone last December and as a beta for Android devices earlier this month, has since been downloaded onto tablets and smartphones by millions of users. The free content aggregator’s wide appeal comes from its visually pleasing magazine-like interface, which offers a customizable, user-friendly reading experience that integrates publishers’ online content with social media functionality such as Twitter, Facebook, and Flikr.

But although Flipboard found immediate popularity among iPad users, its release caused no small amount of angst among publishers. Flipboard initially scraped content from websites—both images and content—which sparked debate over the legality of its model and caused grumbling that the company was essentially building a business based on hijacking publishers’ content. The app now largely relies on RSS feeds to aggregate content and provides links to the full stories, which open in an embedded browser. Still, two years later, some publishers have yet to decide whether Flipboard is friend or foe.

Flipboard for iPhone Cover Stories ScreenshotThe Economist is among those that regard Flipboard with much apprehension. Although content from Economist.com is available on Flipboard, Economist CEO Andrew Rashbass recently described the app as “a head-on competitor” to the magazine’s own digital initiatives. In the interview with paidContent.org, he also contended that when a publication like his cooperates with “social magazine” publishers like Flipboard, it’s “giving the opportunity to extract value to somebody else in an area that should be our own—so Flipboard is problematic.”

Forbes Media managing editor Bruce Upbin, on the other hand, counters that publishers might as well embrace services like Flipboard, because “someone’s going to scrape your website anyway—you might as well make it the best experience possible.”

Although Flipboard co-founder Evan Doll stated in a 2010 Gizmodo interview that “we’re happy to accommodate the requests of any content publisher who wants to choose how much content to show in Flipboard, or to hide their site’s content altogether,” it’s not clear that any major publishers have made such requests. Rather, they seem to be adopting an “if you can’t be ’em, join ’em” approach that regards Flipboard and its competitors as just one element in their branding strategies. For example, Condé Nast is promoting its own fee-based digital subscriptions available through the App Store within the articles that it is featuring in Flipboard.

Meanwhile, publishers need to keep Flipboard’s competitors on their radar screens as well. Bonnier, publisher of special interest titles such as Saveur and Popular Science, has chosen to partner with Alphonso Labs’ news-reading app Pulse. Google launched its own app, Currents, in April.

Of course, the main consideration for publishers in setting their strategies is revenue generation. One of the ways Flipboard plans to generate revenue is by forming ad-revenue-sharing partnerships with publishers in exchange for enhancing the design and display of their publications’ content in the app. Condé Nast’s The New Yorker was the first magazine to participate in this model, in July 2011.

According to Pulse, Popular Science gained 3 million subscribers through the app within just six months. Although there is no revenue being generated as a result of this relationship as of yet, an advertising-revenue-sharing model is expected to go into effect later this summer.

So, will there ultimately be a payoff for publishers who partner with social media magazines like Flipboard and Pulse? Trying to meet reader demands by simultaneously pursuing multiple potential revenue streams, through tablet, e-reader and smartphone apps for both iOS and Android while continuing to support print and the web, requires a significant investment in time, effort and resources, and not every publisher is positioned to do so. The fact is, Flipboard can’t provide the value-added features that some apps, such as America’s Test Kitchen’s Cook’s Illustrated app, offer; but perhaps social magazine apps can boost the shear volume of subscribers, as Pulse has for Popular Science, and eventually translate readership into real revenue.

Can services like Flipboard and digital edition apps drive traffic to each other, to the benefit of both? In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, some content models are sure to have a lasting impact while others are abandoned, or are exchanged for new models that have yet to even emerge. An increase in market visibility for publications, like Popular Science has experienced on Pulse, might be what continues to push them to embrace social media aggregators—if these efforts eventually translate into actual revenue. For some publishers, Flipboard and its ilk might prove to be the traffic drivers they need right now to stay viable.

Posted by: Gina Barrett