Pinterest has been on everybody’s lips this year, and according to Shareaholic statistics, it drove as much traffic to websites as Twitter did in the month of February. Its largest user group in the UK is the 25-34 bracket and 29% of users are in the highest income bracket (source). The business potential of the social network therefore, is huge.

Pinterest is an image-sharing service. It’s not the first and it definitely won’t be the last, but it hit a very sudden popularity at the start of 2012 that’s hard to ignore. The concept of Pinterest is very simple: when you see something you like online you ‘Pin it’ to one of your boards, which are like virtual scrapbooks. Other users who follow you can see those pins and ‘Re-Pin’ or ‘Like’ the image if they so desire.

While Pinterest still has far fewer members or active users than other social networks, there’s a huge difference between Pinterest and a network such as Facebook or Twitter when it comes to business use. The relationship between brands and consumers is a much more natural fit on the image-sharing social network because of the nature of its use. Whether you’re looking in the 17.2% of pinboards in the ‘Home’ category, the 12.4% in ‘Arts and Crafts’ or the 11.7% in ‘Style/Fashion’, you are going to find pin-after-pin of different products.

Businesses, after being told for years to get online and into social media, have done so, and then hit a new-media brick wall. Far too often, you find businesses that have an online social media presence – be it on Twitter or Foursquare – but don’t fully understand how to use it and how they should be utilised differently from one another. Each platform has great advantages for any number of businesses, but used incorrectly it can be a hindrance rather than help.

So how can businesses learn to use Pinterest to their advantage, and what businesses should be using Pinterest in the first place? To use Pinterest well, you need to first use the Pinterest site correctly, and second, make sure your website is Pinterest-optimised.

A number of businesses were very quick to take advantage of Pinterest, with clothing lines asking consumers to pin their products and then re-pin them, food companies posting recipes, and travel networks re-pinning impressive holiday and travel photographs. Those who are innovative, or even offer something just a little bit different, get ahead on Pinterest.

The same rules apply to using Pinterest as with other social networks – interaction is essential and shamelessly plugging your own product by pinning your own web content alone is never going to help. You may have to feel comfortable re-pinning or liking other images, which aren’t necessarily related to your own business or brand.

Interestingly, businesses that don’t sell products can take advantage of this because while Pinterest naturally lends itself to product-selling companies, it can be a useful way to add a human touch to a service-based industry as well. By re-pinning or liking other people’s images, you can add a cultural element to your business, without seeming inauthentic or pushy.

Want to make like GAP and get your products ‘Pinned’ all over the site? One of the most important tools is the ‘Pin it’ button – this can be added to your main site, on your photo galleries, and on your blogs. The more content you have being pinned, the further your social reach, which also means you need to start thinking about the kind of content you are uploading.

If your blog naturally lends itself to image-based content, make sure it is original and as eye-catching as possible. If you don’t have the time commitment in your team to use the Pinterest network, then optimising your own website for the social network can be a happy medium to promote your business online.

Not all businesses will be able to use Pinterest to their advantage and, like other social media, it requires time to be invested in it to use it well. There are definite business uses for the current most talked about social network, but as with the others, if you’re getting on Pinterest just because you think you should, you’re probably going about it all wrong.