Flipboard goes after Facebook with targeted ad feature

October 19, 2015, 1:59 PM UTC

With sharks like Apple and Facebook closing in on its news-curation market, Flipboard is clearly feeling some pressure to show that it is a superior content platform. And one of the ways it is trying to do that is by pitching the value of its “interest graph” — in other words, the collective knowledge that it has about the things its users like.

As part of that pitch, Flipboard announced on Monday that it is opening up its interest graph to advertising partners. The new feature allows them to get a broader picture of what potential consumers are interested in, and to target ads towards them based on data from what the company calls its Topic Engine.

Interest graph targeting takes advantage of the insights that Flipboard has built up in its five years of serving readers, cofounder and CEO Mike McCue said in an interview before the launch. The app has more than 75 million monthly users.

“We’re well known for what we do with content presentation, the design and the beauty,” McCue said. “Something we haven’t been as known for, but have invested heavily in, is the brain behind the product — to enable content to find its natural audience.”

The new feature also takes advantage of the analytical engine that Flipboard got when it acquired Zite, another news-curation app that the company bought last year from its owner CNN, McCue said.

“Zite really ramped up our ability to have more intelligence about how our users discover content,” McCue said. “We’ve built an interest graph where we understand the intricate relationship between users, content and interests on a pretty granular level.”

Interest Graph Graphic

Flipboard’s head of ad product, Dave Huynh, explains how the new feature works: If an advertiser says they are looking to appeal to readers who are interested in big data, for example, Flipboard can look into its interest graph and tell them that readers who like that topic are also interested in other topics such as Amazon and the cloud.

What this does, Huynh said, is give the brand or advertiser a broader picture of who might be a potential target for their ad, and allows them to reach that user through a variety of different topics. In some case, the combinations that Flipboard’s topic engine comes up with can be surprising: For example, the company’s analysis shows that people who are interested in beer also tend to be interested in coffee.

Facebook (FB), of course, also makes a point of talking about the “interest graph” that it has developed around all of its billion or so users. So how does Flipboard compete with a giant platform like that — or Apple (AAPL), for that matter? The important difference, said Huynh, is that for Flipboard, it is all about content, not just social behavior.

McCue adds that Flipboard and Facebook are also focused on two very different kinds of advertising. The social network is more interested in the “direct response” style of ad because that works well with its content and is easier to program, he said. Flipboard, however, is more interested in brand building — in other words, the kind of high-quality ads that print magazines have been known for.

“There’s a big philosophical difference between these two types of advertising,” McCue said. “We’ve made branded advertising the focus. The ad industry globally is worth about $600 billion, so far only about 20 percent has moved online, and that’s mostly the direct response type, which the tech industry understands. We’re more focused on the other 80 percent, which is all about relevance and the overall experience.”

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

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