Flipboard Tries To Deliver Magazine Promise With New Looks For Media, Ads

Flipboard launched in July to rave reviews and intense interest in an iPad app that made Twitter and Facebook look downright glossy. But until now it has been more of a graphic-enhanced, socially driven RSS reader with pages that flip than the “social magazine” promised in the description. That starts to change today with a trial aimed at living up to that definition and, more important, towards fulfilling its promise as a platform for content, advertising — and revenue.

Flipboard is launching a trial with a diverse group of online publishers, including *ABC* News, TBD, All Things D , Bon Appetite, Lonely Planet, SB Nation, SF Gate, Uncrate and The Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) Magazine. Currently, when a user double clicks on a tweet with a link from one of those outlets, the action is the same as any other: a browser version opens within Flipboard. That will still be the case for most outlets but the same action on links from Twitter or Facebook to content on those in the trial should show up in a dramatically different form.

That format comes from a series of HTML5 templates the start up calls Flipboard Pages, designed to show content off in a way that varies from the usual browser replica. I haven’t been able to try it yet but based on the example, it adds a magazine look. Flipboard says it will offer the full-page, paginated reading option to “any content creator” sometime in the future. Each publication has its own framework and the pageviews should still count for the publisher.

The advertising component is through a partnership with OMD centered on high-impact brand advertising with a magazine feel. The clients participating in that trial include major brands (Pepsi, Gatorade, Infiniti, Levi’s, Dockers, Hilton Worldwide, GE); media (The CW Television Network and Showtime); nonprofit/charities (Project (RED), Standup2cancer.org and Charity Water); and even the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. OMD hopes the magazine metaphor and styling will translate into dollars.

The working idea: if you make it look good enough, money will come. Kleiner Perkins, Index Ventures and a number of other investors, including Peter Chernin, Quincy Smith, Ashton Kutcher and Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, have put up $10.5 million so far on the theory that Flipboard CEO Mike McCue and his team have cracked the code or are close to it. William R. Hearst III, a partner at KPCB and a director of Hearst Corp. (one of the leading publishers of traditional magazines), is joining Flipboard as an advisor.

But this trial doesn’t include revenue. For anyone. Flipboard’s note: “This is a free trial where all parties are testing the experience. There are no financial relationships between or commitments from publishers, advertisers or Flipboard.” The trial should help determine how many will stick around when money is involved — and the kind of revenue mix needed to gain success.

The news comes the same week as the launch of a made-for-iPad magazine from Sir Richard Branson and Virgin America. Project is ambitious and does its best to take advantage of all that iPad has to offer in the way of video, audio, and display. It’s also hefty — my download and install of the first issue, priced at $2.99, took 14 minutes on WiFi — and can be tricky to navigate. Flipboard is more nimble and less complex, trying to mesh magazine looks with friend-curated aggregation and gain enough attraction with both to make advertising pay off.

Update: In a letter to readers about the trial, McCue describes an experiment to bring the “timeless beauty of print media” to the web, a reminder that the tablet — for this company at least — is one of way of displaying the web. He also warns about the possibility of formatting bugs. (On first use today, I’ve noticed loading can be a little slow.)

By the way, the double-tap option mentioned above works but there’s also a “read article” button that links to the Flipboard version. Clicking in the comment bubble goes to the original web page.