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BW Businessworld

Just A Pin Away

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I first began to notice Pinterest when Pinterest Word Play began to make the rounds online. Deciding to check it out, I headed over to www.pinterest.com and asked for an "invitation". I promptly got one and got access. Of course, I really need another social network like I need oxygen.

It was easy creating an account — social networks need users, after all — and the moment I saw Pinterest I realised it was a visual treat. I also figured it was a virtual pinboard, a place to pin your interests. Now that I'm familiar with. When we were young and had plenty of time to do what we liked, my cousin put up a giant pinboard taking up most of a wall in her bedroom. She covered every inch of it with photos of people she liked and little stickable things — a piece of cloth in a colour she liked, a tiny toy she thought was funny, a fragment of something or the other the story of which only she knew. Anyone who visited her would spend quite a bit of time absorbed in her board looking at what was new and checking if they still featured.

That pinboard is exactly what Pinterest is, only you don't have to get up on a chair to arrange all the items on top. Just as my cousin's pinboard expressed the person that she is, so does a Pinterest user's boards say something about his or her (but mostly her) personality. I don't know if pinboarding is something women take to more than men do, but that's what has happened with Pinterest, which women just love. Men make up less than 20 per cent of the users but are just about beginning to get more curious about Pinterest.

Social Curation
Pinterest users' pinboards are different from my cousin's in a crucial way though. My cousin pinned her own photos and the collection of bric-a-brac was her own. Pinterest users mostly pin stuff from each other (80 per cent, according to RJMetrics) and from a large spread of websites such as Amazon and Etsy. This seems a strange pastime for everyone, but this "social curation" is, according to experts, set to be the next wave in online content.

While you may be among those many who think Pinterest is just another online time-wasting activity, almost 11 million registered and addicted Pinterest users will beg to disagree. They happen to be thoroughly enjoying themselves pinning photos of fashionable apparel, books worth reading, interesting home DIY projects, etc. Everyone gets comments and likes, and just as with other networks, you have followers. Creating a board — and you can make several for many subjects — is dead easy, with the result that even older, not-so-tech-savvy women are comfortable on the site. An iPhone (doubles up for iPad) app and a bookmarklet in your browser will make pinning things you come across a one-click matter. Well, two or three maybe, as you also have to choose the category and board. Trying Pinterest out, I found it can be an absorbing activity, though I stopped myself to get back to work on other things. What with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Quora, Instagram, Foursquare and now Pinterest taking up time, I would soon be doing little else.

No one can be blamed for asking why we need another network. Facebook lets you share photographs and links that show up in your Friends' newsfeeds. There's Flickr that all about photos. And there's the extremely popular Instagram, which also is all about photo sharing. But Pinterest has gone and found itself yet another gap to plug. The focus on this network is not so much on people or engagement as it is on things. There are already many Pinterest clones, but once a big one gets it right, mere copies don't easily stand a chance.

What has made Pinterest "catch" is something no one can say for sure, but one can speculate. Specially if one is an ex-psychologist. For one thing, it's like a giant wishlist. It's about collecting things that you think define you, but you can't have. Not all of it, for sure. Being able to gather these things in a visually attractive way and connected to you is irresistible. For instance, I may pin a picture of a slim girl in an even slimmer dress on a board called My Style. Once it's pinned, it looks like my dress — or even me. When the comments and compliments pour in, it's almost like they are for me. Undoubtedly, that feels good.

Another reason why Pinterest is so popular could be because you are a person with hobbies and you love those hobbies. They not only define you, but complete you. And you are compelled to share them and validate them with like-minded people. Pinterest is also a ‘social discovery' site, and is also about getting ideas and inspiration from others.

Whatever makes a social network like Pinterest tick, it's something businesses need to take into account in their social and online strategy. On Pinterest, when you click a photo, you get to see it in a larger view. Click again and you will get to the origin site. And sometimes a price. So you have, all in one place, people who are expressing their specific interest in what products they would like to own or recommend.

The Auto Crowd And The Brand Wagon
Pinterest is by no means without its share of problems. Along with many other firms and sites, it's being scrutinised for the way it uses and (or) stores user data. I was flattered, for example, to find a lot of people following me until I realised this was an auto-following. Sure enough, I found I too was following a whole lot of people I never intended to. Google had tried this with its Buzz, with dramatic fallout, so I'm surprised anyone should want to try it again. Another aspect very questionable about Pinterest is whether pinning images from here and there, at full size, is a violation of copyright or not. It's a tricky one. You are not cutting and pasting or lifting off any content but only linking, as even search engines do, but at the same time, this sort of usage is new and different.

Yet another controversy centres on the method by which Pinterest will make money — through the clicking of links to paid products. Pinterest is said to be driving more referral traffic than YouTube, LinkedIn and Google+ combined and that is encouraging e-retailers and adding to privacy watchers' concerns. Shopping sites are beginning to grow ‘Pin It' buttons (the army of buttons is driving me up the wall), which really shows optimism, considering Pinterest has itself only sprouted up. Of course, one can't ignore the fact that it has 145 per cent more daily users since the beginning of 2012. Because Pinterest images can link to buyable items, big brands are getting on board, as I suppose, they should. Pinning images from their boards will after all be the highest interest consumers can show, short of dropping these into a shopping cart. Brands can study what happens to each pin. Over 100 brands are now using it, including Pilsbury, Whole Foods, Gap, Diapers.com and Threadless.

Pinterest integrates with Facebook, so what you pin can appear on your timeline as well, spreading the net further. Ninety seven per cent Facebook pinners are women. The likelihood that the ‘Pin It' button will become as used as the ‘Like' button is very real. The activity around Pinterest is so frenzied that search engine optimisation experts say marketers should begin using it to improve their rankings.

Meanwhile, Pinterest continues to grow, and does so much faster than other networks did so early in their lives. Its users not only like it but spend a lot of time on it and, for its ease of use, are happy to do so. Whether Pinterest will grow as big as Facebook no one can say, and whether its users will get pin-fatigue one cannot predict. For now, they are pinning away.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-03-2012)