Can Pinterest be used for business? The simple answer is yes. Any social network with exponential recent growth and 18 million monthly users has the potential to be fertile ground for companies and brands.

The skill is in using the image-sharing site effectively, while fitting in with the Pinterest community’s mission statement, which is to “organise and share all the beautiful things you find on the web”.

“How hard can that be? My company produces ‘beautiful things’,” thinks the socially-minded CEO of (fictional) “Let’s plaster them all over this hot, new (well, not that new actually) social network and watch the money/recognition/followers roll in.”

Except it doesn’t work like that, of course.

There is a price to be paid for success, however you choose to measure it, and that price is payable in resource, ideas and incentives.

  • Resource because, as ever with social networks, it is no good just starting up a page, populating it in a frenzy for a week and then leaving it fend for itself. Time, energy and constant nurture are vital.
  • Ideas because the onus is on companies – which always run the real risk of being viewed as interlopers on social networks – to be smart in their use of Pinterest boards. They must use them to mark out a credible, ownable territory, and, in effect, to justify their very presence on the site.

Etsy – if the cap fits…

This may be relatively straight forward. For example, Etsy, the second most followed Pinterest brand, sets itself out as the “world’s handmade marketplace”, recommending and selling products with style and provenance and distancing itself from big retail. It is not much of a reach for Etsy to translate this core positioning to Pinterest, by working with its community to source, display and provide the means to acquire “beautiful things”. And it does so successfully, commanding 67,000 followers.

Oreck makes cleaning fun

For many businesses, the fit is far less neat. Kudos here goes to the lateral thinking of Oreck, manufacturer of vacuum cleaners, a product not synonymous with visual inspiration. Its “Furry Friends” board is a tribute to our darling pets (and their mess, which, by the way, can only be properly cleared up with a good vacuum…) and commands far greater social collateral as a result.

  • Incentives because brands have learned that the quickest way to a social advocate’s heart is through reward. I recently read one of those “top 10 Facebook campaigns” blogs and no fewer than eight of them fundamentally relied on a giveaway. The same will apply for brands on Pinterest. For all the good intentions and best laid plans, a healthy competition – and they are starting to pop up all over – can generate awareness, engagement and, who knows, maybe even return on investment.

There, I said it. ROI – that most elusive yardstick of social media success that every marketing director is reaching for and most find hard to grab. Assuming a business gets the resource, ideas and incentives just right, how will Pinterest pay it back?

How to win friends and Pinfluence

The answer to this is predictably more difficult. Social influence trackers (and Pinterest already has its own “Pinfluence” tracker in Pinpuff) are fun, but they are unlikely to constitute hard ROI.

For an Etsy-type brand, there are presumably some easy sums to be done. How many people, referred to its website from, for example, its “gift ideas” board, go on to make a purchase. Referral traffic is the golden egg for Pinterest and a tasty one at that. The site drew level with Twitter in January, with 3.6% of all referrals, according to Shareaholic data. This statistic is especially impressive since Twitter, at the time, had 20 times its user base.

That said, most brands will have to work harder for their business gratification.

One sensible option is to package Pinterest activity as part of a broader brand experience. Host an event, sign people up to a related Pinterest initiative, synchronise it with Facebook or another brand-friendly network, collect some data and then try to track whether happy engagement with your brand leads to future purchases. None of this is easy.

So will Pinterest be used effectively by businesses?

Probably not in the majority of cases. But there will be success stories. I expect some small, niche businesses, especially those planted in visual industries, to see big spikes when they get their strategies spot on. I expect big brands to make ripples that contribute to larger social media waves across many platforms. A great example of this is Peugeot’s recent puzzle hunt, which calls on people to match and pin images found on their website or on Facebook to a dedicated Pinterest board.

Female focus

Big brand or small brand, there has to be particular potential for those aiming at a female audience. An estimated 80% of users are women, and although this will balance out a bit as time goes on, marketers would be foolish to ignore this severely-skewed demographic. Fashion is likely to win out over football, for now at least.

Whatever the subject matter, this will be no gravy train. There will inevitably be disappointment and head-scratching when carefully-orchestrated Pinterest campaigns bomb. And the window of opportunity could be limited. Pinterest is very much here today, but it could be gone tomorrow (not least if concerns about copyright infringement grow), replaced by a shiny, new alternative network.

That’s the way it should be, in my opinion. Social media is not a brand science. It is for the people by the people. And that’s in everybody’s Pinterest.