What is Pinterest? And should your brand climb aboard?

The social media site is a sort of reverse Twitter; most messaging is done with images, and text is secondary. It could be a great communication tool, some say.

A visit to Pinterest.com can be a little overwhelming at first. Users see several columns (the number changes depending on how big your browser window is), all of which display photos, most of which have captions. Under the photos, there are comments from users and notes that folks have “pinned” those photos to lists they create.

You can think of it as sort of a reverse Twitter. Whereas Twitter focuses on text but enables users to post photos, videos, and links, Pinterest’s main focus is on the visual. As a result, many of the brands that have established presences on the site fall into the realms of things that make for pretty pictures—fashion, crafts, and food.

But the social media platform has potential beyond those categories, say communicators.

“People are really looking toward imagery now,” says digital marketing communications specialist Julia Cantor. “People can consume this information in a much quicker way.”

Figuring out your place

Pinterest is a “very lifestyle-based” platform, says Drew Hawkins, social engagement manager with Digital Innovation Group, which separates it from other social media. “It’s not going to be a sort of turnkey solution, like Facebook,” he says.

It’s up to you to find common interests between your own audience and the other audiences on Pinterest, Hawkins says, and then reach out with the parts of your brand tied to lifestyle. Avoid being too “brand-centric,” he says. Posting nothing but pictures of your products won’t cut it. “One thing they would want to see is, what’s that experience?”

He adds, “If people see your brand there, they know you’re selling something. You don’t have to tell them.”

Cantor says people are more likely to believe a sales pitch from a peer than from a company, so your messaging on Pinterest should skew more toward the informational than the big push.

Laura Scholz of Scholz Communications says communicators should determine whether Pinterest fits in their broader brand strategies before jumping in. She asks, “What are you trying to accomplish? Drive traffic? Increase sales? Reach a new demographic?”

Communicators shouldn’t be put off by the site’s current “girly” vibe, she says. “My husband uses it for images of cycling gear, so it can be whatever you want.”

Uses in action

A nonprofit organization with whom Scholz works, CURE Childhood Cancer, could benefit from using Pinterest, she says. “We have a campaign every September that features over 50 local children in an effort to raise awareness and funds,” Scholz says.

“Think about the story you could tell with images via Pinterest. At this point, they might actually stand out against the crockpot recipes and DIY projects.”

Pinterest could just as easily drive people toward charitable giving, a website, or a restaurant as it could to an online fashion store, she suggests. “A lot of people are visual learners.”

Justin Palmer, online awareness director at Sevenly, a T-shirt retail site that donates money to charity for each purchase, says his company strongly believes the site is the next big social hub. “Because Pinterest is invite only, we’re actually offering to send invites to our customers who are not yet on the site,” he says.

The company posts a daily “social good” quote image, Palmer says, as well as images of its T-shirt of the week.

Ann Ehnert, marketing coordinator at SteadyRain, says her company’s been looking at Pinterest as a search-engine optimization tool.

“Once a person ‘pins’ an image or video, there are several opportunities to create valuable, do-follow links that can help link building efforts,” she says. “This would be a result of the statistics surrounding Pinterest’s Google Page Rank, traffic, and existing backlinks.”

On top of that, having a presence on Pinterest creates one more area of the Web where your brand can be viewed as having expertise in your field, Ehnert says.

Pinterest is a big traffic referrer, says Brooke Gabbert, director of public relations and social media at Service Magic, a site that matches homeowners to contractors.

“We thought we would experiment with pinning all of our blog photos and adding a Pinterest plug-in to encourage others to pin our photos on their Pinterest in hopes it would drive traffic to our blog,” she says.

The company’s building a Christmas album to go up this week, Gabbert says.

Pinterest tips

Pinterest is a lot like other social networks in some ways. Just as it is on Facebook and Twitter, says Scholz, “reciprocity is key.”

“Share others’ content, comment and interact with others,” she says.

Hawkins says curation—finding users’ buzz about your brand, repinning it, and categorizing it—is as important, if not more so, than creating your own content. And while you’re looking for people talking about your brand, follow them, says Palmer. Many will follow back and become ambassadors for you.

But you should know, says Hawkins, that it’s hard to measure any results from Pinterest just yet. Follower counts aren’t always accurate, and there’s no analytics tool yet. “There’s a huge data gap,” he says.

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com, where this story first appeared.

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