Is Pinterest the poor relation of the social media world? While companies enthuse about their followers on Twitter, their Facebook 'Likes' and their LinkedIn Groups, Pinterest frequently attracts jibes about only being fit for recipes and pictures of cupcakes.
Take, for example, the popular meme 'Social Media explained' which attempted to explain the role of all social media platforms through the medium of doughnuts. Where someone would write on Twitter I'm eating a #doughnut, or someone on Facebook would say I like doughnuts, the meme stated, someone on Pinterest would say Here is a doughnut recipe.
Then there's the pie chart that did the rounds on Facebook, stating that the vast bulk of people who used the site were 'women who were planning their wedding', followed by 'women who wish they were still planning their wedding', 'wannabe foodies', 'designers' and last (and very much least) men.
Despite all of the ribbing, there is evidence that Pinterest is beginning to step out of the shadows of its big social media cousins. The social network, which relies upon users 'pinning' and 'repinning' each others' images on online pinboards, is driving more sales and engaging more people than ever before.
Evidence for this includes recent research from 8thBridge, the social media consultancy, which revealed that Pinterest buttons on company websites have for the first time overtaken Facebook 'Like' buttons over the past 12 months. Shareaholic, which tracks the influence of various social media platforms, described the site as one of the three 'social media power players' together with Facebook and Twitter.
In the last year, Pinterest has grown faster than its rivals in terms of traffic referrals, with nearly 67 per cent more referrals from Pinterest, compared with 59 per cent from Facebook and 54 per cent from Twitter.
Data released by Piqora, which analyses the influence of companies on Pinterest, suggests that a consumer's 'pin' may be worth more to a brand than a 'Like' or a retweet. The consultancy has issued a report stating that a single pin generates on average $0.78, which is an increase of almost $0.20 on last year.
The Piqora data states that, on average, each pin delivers two website visits, six page views, and more than ten re-pins, where the retweet rate on Twitter is only 1.4 per cent.
Despite this stellar growth, many brands are still unsure about Pinterest. Paul Sutton, head of social communications at BOTTLE PR, says that many of his clients are not keen to use it.
'It works for some companies but not for others,' he says, stressing that in some sectors such as fashion and food, Pinterest is very popular. 'There are certain uses of Pinterest that tend to dominate. It is very visual in nature and lends itself to some brands more than others.'
Sutton advises that, if a company joins Pinterest, they need to use it regularly, otherwise it looks bad. 'I've seen a lot of businesses use a board as a kind of bookmarking tool, just posting corporate images,' he explains. 'You have to use it to really engage people - not just as a platform for publicity.'
When companies get Pinterest right, however, they get it very, very right — and the results can be amazing. Take Topshop, which last year ran a major Christmas campaign through Pinterest, encouraging shoppers to pin their favourite products to their Pinterest boards, creating a personalised 'ultimate gift guide'.
The most pinned products were featured on the Topshop homepage, and shoppers could enter their Christmas-themed Pinterest boards into a competition to win prizes at the store. Visitors to the flagship London store over Christmas saw giant screens displaying Pinterest boards, as well as tags on items stating that they were 'most pinned products'.
Random House, the world's biggest publishing house, is another Pinterest success. The company has been on Pinterest for around a year, and entered into a formal partnership with the site late last year. Popular Random House boards include Best Book Covers, Literary Weddings, and Epic Adventure Stories, while the publisher has over 1.4 million followers.
'We get lots of feedback from people in reading groups so I think they are the main people who use our boards,' explains Alice Palmer-Brown, who runs the UK Pinterest boards for the publisher. 'Our boards only feature our Vintage Classic range as we feel the Classics brand is more compatible with the Pinterest crowd. Our boards are split thematically and mainly used as a place where consumers can find recommended reads based on themes they enjoy.'
Palmer-Brown says that, to an extent, Pinterest lives up to its reputation of being 'very female focused'. The average Random House Pinterest follower is older and female. 'I like to think it will become more flexible in the coming years and will be used by a larger portion of the market,' she says.
'You can't really interact with people on Pinterest, whereas that is our main use of other platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It's rather about Pinterest being the end point - somewhere you drive people to from another platform.'
Random House has become one of the first companies to use Pinterest's latest tools for businesses - APIs (Application Processing Initiatives) that allow companies to integrate their websites fully with the Pinterest experience. These long-awaited interfaces were launched in November, and are being used by other big partner brands including Nestlé and Disney.
Using an API has allowed Random House to feature the social network's most popular pins related to books at the centre of its website. The integration will include 'Pinterest Favourites' which will highlight the most popular pins from different time periods, as well as prominent links to Pinterest through related boards. There is currently a 'discover your latest book, Powered by Pinterest' prominently displayed on the publisher's homepage Randomhouse.com.
Christine McNamara, vice-president and director of partnerships at Random House, explains that the partnership between the two organisations will help people to 'easily discover books and authors as they surface through Pinterest activity, and if they see something they like, they can pin directly from the site'.
'Pinterest's ongoing innovations in online discovery and community make them an important and desirable partner for our authors and we look forward to continuing to work closely with them on future endeavours,' she adds.
By launching APIs, Jason Costa, head of developer relations at Pinterest, claims the site is 'just starting to work with partners to bring you great experiences on and off Pinterest. Stay tuned for more!'
Many are interpreting his comments as a sign that the site will finally become more business focussed, as many companies complain that it is currently difficult to measure brand success. Paul Dyer, chief commercial officer at San Francisco-based W20 Group, which measures social media for brands, admits that Pinterest's new APIs for companies are currently 'weak' in the same way that those launched by Facebook initially were. 'Pinterest hasn't put enough detail in - but it is still in the early stages,' he adds.
While it is possible to get a lot of data from Facebook and Twitter, analysing how a brand is perceived on Pinterest is often done by hand or by using basic scraping tools, says Dyer, adding: 'It's basically a hodge podge.'
BOTTLE's Sutton agrees that Pinterest lacks the evaluation tools necessary for businesses. 'When it comes to Facebook, you have Facebook Analytics which is very robust and gives you lots of detailed information. With Twitter there are lots of third-party tools that can give you loads of information. With Pinterest a lot is hidden. It has opened up a bit, but the analytics are not the same. There isn't the same level of detail as you might expect on other platforms.'
Other signs that Pinterest is changing include the introduction of new 'Place Pins', which allow people to drop maps of locations onto the site. Dyer predicts the company will roll out better analytics and other features in the coming years, as it begins to exploit the buzz around visual storytelling.
'Image analytics (which are used to analyse images shared on social media) are still in very early stages,' he explains. Much of the talent involved in this area is locked up in companies such as Facebook and Twitter, where, according to Dyer, it is currently being used to work out whether there is nudity shown in pictures rather than helping brands assess their presence on a site.
If Pinterest can solve these issues, Dyer believes that the opportunity for brands to make money on the site is vast. 'Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Pinterest isn't about what you are doing with your day - it is about updating people about the products you like. It's relatively unique in how directly it applies to commerce, and refers clients directly to sites,' he adds. The message to companies seems clear. Get pinning.