Just past its second birthday, Pinterest has managed to grow from a baby website to a social-networking behemoth with a steadily expanding user base. It seems like every major news source has done at least one report on the site, and everybody is waiting to see how its business plan will develop. Or, to translate that, we all want to know how Pinterest will incorporate advertising or some other “corporate” angle into its authentic world of images. A sub-question also exists, how will Pinterest’s users, individuals and companies, use the site to make money for themselves?
I don’t pretend to have the answer to those questions. I’m not privy to the Pinterst team’s interior discussions, and harnessing Pinterest’s outside money-making potential is a complex process that a lot of people are working on from multiple angles. I do have some thoughts on the particular strengths and weaknesses of Pinterest and how the site’s character will affect these goals.
Pinterest’s Unique Aspects
These are a few of the characteristics of Pinterest that I think are the most basic to the site. They are not all good or all bad. In some cases they represent a huge strength, in others a potential strength if the kinks are worked out.
Pinterest is Aspirational
This is the most obvious and integral part of Pinterest, and it’s what sets it apart from other photo-sharing sites. Users are encouraged to create “pin boards” where they collect images related to some specific project or theme. At its base, this is the practical use of Pinterest. Remodeling your kitchen? Collect ideas on a board. Want to spruce up your wardrobe? Plan out your new outfits on a board. However, it’s also the starting point for more than a few flights of fancy. Not everybody with wedding planning pin boards is currently planning a wedding. There are plenty of college age girls collecting dozens of images of beautiful master bedroom ideas from the bunk beds of their dorm rooms.
This is Pinterest’s great appeal and great strength to its users. Collecting eye-candy of the way they wish they live, dress, craft, cook, etc. is a hugely enjoyable experience. And Pinterest also functions as the modern-day, social version of clipping magazine or newspapers photos and articles and storing them away in folders, as several of the Pinterest super-users explain in these interviews. Plus, Pinterest is a way to have this style, especially a style that users aspire to but can’t yet realize, validated. Every time another user repins or likes a pin, it tells the original pinner that she chose a particularly stylish, or clever, or pretty, or yummy image.
Pinterest Mimics Window Shopping
This is a key point for retailers who, now or in the future, will be making money through the site. It is especially true of the online window shopping experience. In fact, Pinterest’s layout is very similar to the usual layout for online retail stores, including everything from Macy’s to Anthropologie to Etsy. This is another source of enjoyment for Pinterest’s users. Anybody who enjoys shopping will enjoy Pinterest, especially if part of their enjoyment derives from the visual feast that the shopping experience provides. The best part about Pinterest is that, just like window shopping, it is easy for consumers to go directly from the images, which they may have encountered in a browsing mode, to the companies’ websites and an active shopping mode.
That this makes it easier for retailers to link their products and customers together is potentially a plus of the service. That Pinterst isn’t being more up-front about how it is trying to manage this link is a bit concerning, not least because their silence on the subject may indicate that they are not trying to manage the link at all. Pinterest, like any other service, product, etc. eventually needs to make money. This is the most obvious pathway, and if it’s neglected they will have done themselves a serious disservice. Pinterest could definitely do a lot more to ensure a direct connection from linked items to their points of origin (banning pins originating from google or bing image searches, rather than just discouraging them, for example).
Another big problem is that silence will look like deception to users. It is essentially inevitable that Pinterest’s content will become increasingly monetized, but the monetization will be much better handled if it occurs in a way that users find acceptable. Paid ads making a sudden, surprise appearance amongst the pins will not go over well with users. On the other hand, if Pinterest appears to be offering guidance to companies as they begin utilizing the service and makes some attempts to understand its pinners’ views on how this process should work, it will win points with both its user base and the companies it wants to attract.
Pinterest Still Has a Lot of Room for New Pinners
Although Pinterest originally attracted attention because of its unusually quick growth, it is still relatively small by social networking standards. It is also plagued by an imbalance in its user base, as it is still mostly used by women within a certain age group. This phenomenon isn’t totally true, there are men on Pinterest, but there could certainly be a lot more. A less reported issue is the lack of international users. Pinterest currently seems to be largely a phenomenon of the English speaking world, but is far, far less prevalent amongst non-English speaking pinners. This is actually a strength of the site, because it still has lots of room to grow, and as new pinners from under-represented demographics show up they should have lots of space to adapt Pinterest to their own needs and interests.
Pinterest’s Social Mechanism is Different from Other Social Networks
This is a strength in a way, because the network is very divorced from the usual “friends” network that is found on most social networking sites. Therefore it avoids the drama that can fester on those networks. The “super-users” often described Pinterest as feeling very quiet, and therefore more relaxed and private. The lack of constant commenting and status updating can feel like a retreat.
Unfortunately, this is also a weakness. Unlike other social networks, there isn’t a clear mechanism for users to establish a network of followers, or to choose who to follow. After the beginning, when Pinterest first matches users to friends in their Facebook or Twitter networks and suggests a few highly popular pinners for them to follow, finding users with both similar interests and worthwhile content becomes an opaque process. Because the service is freed from some of the usual demands of social networks, it is only a short step toward users connecting with other not-from-real life users. However, the network does little to support this, and users typically do not see repeated content from non-friend users. Pinterst would do well to expand the options that pinners have to search for and connect with like-minded users outside of their real-life social networks and to encourage these types of interactions.