A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Pinterest is trying to find ways to make it worth thousands (or millions) of bucks.
The rising social network, which is growing faster than any other site in the history of the Internet, serves as a "virtual pinboard" for photos and videos, setting Pinterest apart from other popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter that focus more on words.
"Photos are everything on Pinterest," said Francesca Chambers, social media manager at Red Alert Politics. "It's just a bunch of pictures and people are pin, pin, pinning pictures. It 100 percent revolves around that."
Pinterest's novel approach to social media has users buzzing about sharing photos and videos with their friends. In February, it began generating more referral traffic than Twitter, according to a study from Shareaholic. It already had surpassed other popular social networks such as Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn.
The success is not lost on Pinterest, to the point where it's embracing a different business model.
Most social networks wait years before they even think about making money. Facebook and Twitter, for example, focused on increasing the number of users long before they began selling advertising, which is often seen as "polluting" a site.
Pinterest is not shy about wanting to turn an early profit, and even risked the ire of its users by selling sponsored links.
"I think it's happening more quickly with Pinterest than it did with Facebook and Twitter, because at this point, we're all used to the idea of social media," said Steph Parker, community manager for social media at Neiman, a marketing firm.
"Pinterest is new, fresh and exciting to people who want a new way to be social. Twitter, Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn are all pretty complex social ecosystems, and they've all been around for a long time relative to Pinterest," she said.
Pinterest declined requests for comment on its marketing strategy, but social media analysts say the eternal problem of selling ads without angering users could prove tricky.
"It is probably a bad idea for Pinterest to try to profit so early," said Colby Almond, head of the Pinterest marketing division at 97thFloor.com and author of "Pinteresting Secrets." "It's a turnoff. If you're a new social network, you want to be completely dedicated to establishing the user model first, the revenue second."
Pinterest crossed that line recently by working with Skimlinks to turn a profit, Mr. Almond said. Pinterest caused an uproar when it was discovered that it was modifying user "pins" that linked to e-commerce sites with affiliate tracking codes. If a purchase was made from the site, Pinterest got paid.
The backlash has since led Pinterest to discontinue the practice. The problem wasn't so much that Pinterest was making money from this sneaky process, Mr. Almond said, but that it kept it a secret.
"If they go about making money the wrong way," Mr. Almond said, "there is a negative impact."
As Pinterest looks for less-controversial ways to turn a profit, many expect the site to turn to advertising. It won't be easy to place ads on the site without disrupting its appearance, Mr. Almond said, but users will get over it.
"Facebook went years without monetizing, and as soon as they did, there was an uproar about ads, but within a few months nobody really cared," he said. "It takes awhile for the users to understand that the networks need money to survive."
Others have suggested placing "sponsored pins," or ads, in user streams. Ms. Chambers even suggested that Pinterest find a way sell products on its website.
Pinterest presents a unique opportunity for marketers to reach women, who make up the vast majority of "Pinners" with one estimate, from the Web metrics site AppData, ranging as high as 97 percent. Internet tracking firm comScore puts the percentage of women at closer to 68 percent of Pinterest's 11 million unique monthly users, but added that women drive 85 percent of the site's traffic.
So marketers must reconsider their traditional social media strategies to engage users with visuals on the site, Ms. Parker said, citing the old Hollywood maxim: "Show, don't tell."
"Companies should be trying to figure out how they can make their products more visually appealing," Ms. Chambers said. "It's going to be a lot easier to be successful on Pinterest if you're a business that has better pictures."
On the other hand, posting pictures just for the sake of posting pictures can lead to a boring pinboard.
"If you don't have interesting photos on Pinterest, you're dead on arrival," Ms. Chambers said of business profiles. "You're not going to get any traffic."
To this end, Pinterest CEO and co-founder Ben Silbermann announced at the South by Southwest Internet fair in Austin, Texas, this week, that profile pages on the virtual pinboard site will soon get a redesign. He also announced a new iPad app.
The rise of Pinterest also reflects a broader social networking trend toward pictures and away from text, leaving more-established rivals trying to catch up on the visual front.
"It's not just Pinterest," Ms. Chambers said. "Facebook is moving in that direction with Timeline. Tumblr is also moving in that direction. Those are three social media platforms that are widely used that are making images and graphics a big part of their strategies."
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