Not too long ago, someone thought up Orkut and long-lost friends were reunited. Facebook arrived and took the idea further. Twitter made everyone's opinions compact and more audible on the internet. Socially, internet is becoming a great leveller. And where society gathers, can brand marketers be far behind?
Brands and their marketers kept a close watch on the changes in the virtual world and attempted to make the most of every new opportunity that emerged, taking social conversations to a level where 'nothing is personal, just business'.
Amidst the chaos, appeared another kid on the block called Pinterest. Ever since its arrival just about two years ago, it has been riding a wave. Crossing the 10 million monthly unique users faster than any other platform (according to comScore) and bringing in increasingly more referral traffic to websites, Pinterest is screaming for attention and probably getting it too.
What is the opportunity that Pinterest is throwing up for a brand? And have brands, especially Indian ones, included it in their social media mix yet?
Pinterest for dummies
Pinterest is nothing more than an online version of the scrapbook that most of us maintained back in school. It could also be the board in your office cubicle where you pin up pictures, newspaper cut outs and post-it notes.
People love collecting pictures and referring back to them for private leisure viewing. The no-brainer is just an online extension of this offline behaviour. Users 'pin' images and other media content that interests them on their categorised online pinboards. Images can further be 'repinned' increasing the viral nature of shared content.
What works best for the platform is the simplicity in which it operates and the ease with which images can be - and are - shared or repinned.
A simple 'Pin It' button installed in the browser, allows one to grab images from any website and add it to pinboards. Copyright issues are also tackled with the simple fact that the source link is also grabbed and the creator is duly credited with the content.
A Pinterest enthusiast and the digital head of JWT India Group, Max Hegerman reveals how he takes a break from his daily work schedule and spends 20-30 minutes on the website every day. He also admits how he "gets lost" very easily. "People connect better through images. Pinterest quickly communicates your interest through pictures. It is easy and that is why it has caught on, particularly with people who might not usually connect on social media," says Hegerman.
Aman Mishra, strategic planner, digital and new media, What The Hell?, exclaims, "It is a marvel of ingenuity that rivals Twitter in reach and impact, leapfrogging into the top three social media platforms in record time. In many ways, it is even more powerful because its ability to integrate e-commerce into all the pins and postings is exceptional."
Consider one simple factor: On Facebook, the newsfeed changes rapidly with every passing minute. In Twitter, a fresh number of tweets are loaded on the timeline all the time. Miss an update and it is lost among the many. With Pinterest, the visibility of content only rises as the content is a permanent fixture on pinboards with all the 'constant repinning'. Does that make Pinterest more interesting than FB or Twitter?
The 'India' connection
Pinterest touched the 20 million unique visitors mark in April 2012 - up from just five million in May 2011. Of this, 4.5 per cent are from India. This seems paltry, compared to Facebook's 46 million users in India and 900 million globally. Probe a bit deeper and one realises that Facebook's user base in India is also close to five per cent of the global user base.
Facebook has done its own bit to contribute to Pinterest's growth. Interestingly, the number of Pinterest users rose sharply by late 2011 - this was roughly around the same time that Pinterest integrated Facebook Open Graph and the new Application Programming Interface (API) that allowed Pinterest to scale up the 'shareability quotient' of its content.
Preetham Venkky, business head, KRDS (the Facebook Marketing Agency that also develops applications) says Pinterest used the Open Graph to its advantage. "Every Facebook activity has a viral impact; the activity appears on the ticker of your friends, it appears on your friends' news feeds and your own Timeline. Open Graph made it easy for Pinterest to use all three effectively. Your Pinterest activity becomes a permanent one on your Timeline, there for everyone to see and experience for themselves," says Venkky.
He explains that a lot of start-ups ride on the Facebook Open Graph that was created to tap into the large portion of social media users who did not interact much with their newsfeed. Social media enthusiast and head maven, Windchimes Communication, Nimesh Shah welcomes the trend and simplifies it. "New players thrive better when you have existing key players pushing them. They are not eating up each other's space but are only helping to grow the market," says Shah.
Are marketers listening?
Picture this. A brand might not even have used Pinterest to showcase its products. However, a user might have pinned a picture of a product he uses and endorses. A conversation has already started without any effort from the brand's end. Now, it depends on how much a brand can steer that conversation in its favour.
Most people agree that a platform such as this lends itself excellently to businesses such as retail, lifestyle, clothing, ecommerce that can visually showcase its various offerings. Consider the example of the high-end clothing and apparel brand, Diesel. Pallavi Barman, marketing and communications manager, Diesel Fashion India Reliance says that Pinterest works very well for the brand.
The social strategy of Diesel is controlled internationally and the brand is present on Pinterest, showcasing its catalogue across different boards. In India, however, the same is done for the brand's loyalty programme, Diesel Cult. "When it comes to marketing online, pictures appeal. Pinterest is just the platform for that. You are not forcing anyone to like your product but the medium is the message. Pins and repins help the brand a lot. If we use it wisely, I am sure it will turn into a forum," says Barman.
Another interesting and well-known characteristic of Pinterest is the favour it finds with the fairer sex. This must certainly appeal to lifestyle and clothing brands, and the categories where women influence the buying decisions.
Venkky, who safely puts the ratio to be at 80:20 in favour of women, explains the idea saying, "Women have forever maintained scrapbooks and are extremely social. They tend to collect things, maybe much more than men. Pinterest combines the idea of personal collection and the art of scrapbooking, making it very interesting for them."
There are other aspects of Pinterest that also are a tad underutilised. Videos, for example. Pinterest provides for sharing videos as well, along with images that also open up immense opportunities for marketers. Yet another feature is how Pinterest allows the user to change the embedded link of any image and video. With most content on Pinterest being repinned, this feature enables a brand to keep the image the same and yet route users to a new campaign, if required.
Pinterest has its fair bit of championing done by communication experts as well. Identifying the potential, they stress on active engagement on the medium.
Says Navin Kansal, group creative director, Grey Digital, "Brands that allow a peek into themselves resonate well on this medium. But they must put consumers at the centre of engagement. A token presence will not suffice. If users retain images about the brand, they must be offered exclusive content. Interesting contests must be run on a regular basis."
According to him, the timing for Pinterest has been spot-on, as the virtual world became increasingly visual. Technology, too, is making it easier for users to click, post and share better quality images online. And the simple interface makes the interaction even easier.
Karl Gomes, co-founder, AgencyDigi says, "Unlike Flikr (an image and video-hosting website), not everybody creates content on Pinterest. That is where it works. A lot of people just repin. Any or every brand can be present on Pinterest." He opines that it is not just about selling products but engaging with a ready consumer base that is already present on a platform.
"The good thing is that people are pinning things they like, irrespective of a brand's presence. The more people use it, the bigger the idea will get. Today, you need evangelists of the brand. Not all brands can fight their own battles. They will need the consumer to shape perspectives," explains Gomes.
JWT's Hegerman affirms that Pinterest, although new and fresh, cannot be dismissed as a flash in the pan. "You take a Facebook strategy to clients and they might roll their eyes asking, 'What is new that you have got?'. We are taking Pinterest to them and keeping ideas fresh. This is like a visual Google search," he says.
Independent digital consultant Shubho Sengupta minces no words when he says that Pinterest does not interest him much as he does not find it too user friendly and even "slightly clumsy". "My main interest in Pinterest is its ability to push up the brand on search rankings. Personally, I am struggling. I have limited time and with so many platforms, I might get a bit confused. It has been proved how you are sorted if you have Facebook, Twitter and Google+, as a part of your strategy. Currently, in India, internet connections and Facebook accounts are rising at the same pace," Sengupta says although he is quick to add that it might not be a very wise move to ignore Pinterest in its entirety.
It is still very early days for Pinterest in India. Brands are merely testing the waters. However, there are enough case studies of foreign brands using the medium innovately and effectively.
A popular example is that of Kotex's 'Woman's Inspiration Day' campaign in Israel. Fifty 'influential' Pinterest users were identified and handcrafted gifts were made for them based on their Pinterest boards. With surprised users pinning images of the gifts across social networking sites, the campaign fetched 694,853 impressions for Kotex.
Yael Linen Zuchman, owner and chief executive officer of Smoyz, the agency that designed the campaign says that they chose the unique and unconventional activity to encourage women in Israel to talk about the product and rethink their habits and attitudes towards a brand that is considered to be the underdog in the feminine category in Israel.
"Pinners were found to be the best candidates when we were looking for an innovative social platform for women to express themselves freely. The idea to create unique and personal gift boxes came from the insight that in order to be relevant for the consumers, you have to create true value for them and personalisation is a great way to do it," he says.
Internationally, there are brands like Fab.com, Etsy (furniture and houseware retailers) and west elm (a US-based food supermarket chain) that have used the platform well. Among Indian brands, Mumbai-based Fashion and You and Chennai-based Basics Life (Hasbro Clothing) have used Pinterest as bulletin boards. However, there has been nothing beyond this. Moreover, many Indian brands that afaqs!Reporter spoke to feel that the awareness levels in India are not that high to warrant a full-fledged Pinterest strategy.
This is what Suhail Sattar, director of Hasbro Clothing has to say. "We are yet to see the potential in it compared with Facebook as a social marketing tool . The content on pinterest is the same as as Facebook."
He agrees that it is a great "personal tool but I don't know whether it will be as effective for brands as Facebook has been. Much like Twitter I think its great for individuals."
Sattar confesses that he doesn't know how many Indian brands are successfully using Pinterest as a medium. And it has nothing to do with the numbers - whether it is page views or unique visitors - being touted around. But won't brands want to go where their audience is? "I can see Pinterest growing slowly in India. We could see a huge difference in the next 12 months maybe?" he signs off with a question.
The road ahead
Pinterest is still an invite-only platform. How much it can grow further depends on how soon it chooses to open up, spread itself across platforms and become more engaging.
The key lies in reinvention and innovations. The social sphere is one, where the fatigue factor settles in rather quickly. It is anybody's guess how long people would enjoy just putting up images. "If innovations (a la Facebook and Twitter) do not happen, sites like these will enter what I call the 'floopy zone'. You cannot just pull the plug. And if you have to be a serious social player, you have to look at 100 million-plus active users," says Venkky.
"We must create and curate content such that it becomes more male-female neutral. This will help both, brands and Pinterest," adds Hegerman. There will be an explicit need for Pinterest to become a 'platform' and develop an API where developers are allowed to integrate content. Twitter, for example, sees a lot of user access from third party applications and very few Twitter regulars actually tweet via Twitter.com. This has worked rather well for Twitter.
Pinterest will also need to play its mobile strategy right to garner more users and interest. Currently, only available on the iOS (Apple), it will surely be looking at other mobile platforms.
Monetisation also is a concern on people's minds. While venture capitalists have not turned a blind eye towards Pinterest, stress on returns must be dealt with patience. "Facebook and Twitter have passed the baton to marketers wherein brands are pushing the platforms with campaigns and engaging content. The same thing needs to be done by players such as Pinterest. There must be investment to get the marketers excited about you," says Shah of Windchimes. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation at the moment. But there is a lot of enthusiasm.
Pinterest could also think of solutions that Facebook (with its Sponsored Stories) and Twitter (with Sponsored Tweets) have come up with, although it must take care to not become intrusive or spoil the user experience. What's really important is that the Pinterests of the world must continue experimenting lest things stagnate.