Firms learning how to profit from Pinterest

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At the monthly webinars that SnapRetail holds to answer questions from small retailers about social media marketing, one subject keeps coming up.

"It seems that small retailers are really, really attracted to Pinterest, much more so than Twitter, for example," said Jessica Moretti, marketing communications manager for the Strip District company. "They really seem to love it and want to know how to leverage it for their business," she added.

Few of the small retailers that work with SnapRetail actually do much with Pinterest, Ms. Moretti said. They don't have a lot of time and resources to devote to it -- what they do have for social media is probably focused on Facebook -- and they're not quite sure how to best use the site that lets users gather images and pin pictures on online bulletin boards.

Ever since Pinterest pinned its way onto a prominent spot on the social media industry's billboard, sometime in the last year or so, companies have been trying to figure out where it fits into their marketing strategies. Some research indicates the site sells stuff better than other social media -- which would be useful as the holiday season approaches -- while other statistics indicate that it doesn't reach a very large audience.

That mixed message is illustrated by a September study from Denver-based e-commerce firm RichRelevance that looked at 700 million shopping sessions on U.S. retail sites. The data showed shoppers clicking through from Facebook accounted for more than 86 percent of the traffic, with Pinterest accounting for just over 11 percent and Twitter about 3 percent.

Shoppers that started at Facebook browsed more and bought more frequently, but those who came through Pinterest had average orders nearly double those of the other two social media sites, according to the study.

The Pinterest symbol has now joined those of other social media sites on retail outlets such as Amazon and eBay, allowing users to share their choices. Retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Kohl's, Macy's and Whole Foods Market have all created Pinterest boards. Facebook is testing a "Collections" feature that some tech publications have said owes inspiration to the pinning site.

But even businesses with time and resources to share cool images and ideas with their fans and customers are waiting for Pinterest to either take off and gain a larger audience, or to cede its status as a hot social media option to the next cool thing that comes along.

"We look at social media as kind of a moving target," explained Michele Loeper, marketing manager handling retail and brand strategy for Ten Thousand Villages, the nonprofit chain created by Lancaster County-based relief and development agency Mennonite Central Committee.

In the last year, the operation hired a full-time person to work with marketing through social media, but people had already been busy pinning its product images on their Pinterest boards.

Ten Thousand Villages, which has a store in Squirrel Hill, added the Pinterest widget to its website this summer, a move that makes it easier for pinners to share its merchandise on their bulletin boards. "I think that is our greatest strategy when it comes to Pinterest," Ms. Loeper said.

The seller of goods made by artisans around the world seems to be a natural fit for the site, which has a scrapbooklike feel and is popular among craftspeople and those interested in design and home decorating. Ten Thousand Villages' jewelry and personal accessories seemed to be pinned regularly, but sustainable goods as well as art pieces also attract pinners.

"It's a great fit for us because it's very visual," Ms. Loeper said.

As is true in other social media settings, she said Pinterest users respond better to a less formal tone than companies are often used to taking. Rather than just create a board to tout the latest goods, Ten Thousand Villages made a board filled with images from around the world. One set of photos, for example, showed the making of bamboo bowls, including the stage where the bamboo is shown drying in the mud.

"We treat the boards as if they are telling a story," Ms. Loeper said.

The Penguins organization started dabbling with Pinterest around the beginning of this year, at the suggestion of a graduate assistant. It's still not entirely clear where the site is going to go, but the visual focus works well for hockey fans, said Melissa Marchionna, new media coordinator for the Penguins.

One popular board is "Weddings on Ice," she said, and a fan posted a great image of a wedding cake shaped like the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup. Participating in those kinds of boards isn't really about selling gear, but about creating relationships with fans, she said.

Any images of Penguins merchandise that the team organization posts on Pinterest are linked to the NHL shop, but the league splits revenue among the teams, so that doesn't directly generate a lot of money for the Pittsburgh team.

Ms. Marchionna estimated she tries to work with Pinterest about three times a week, spending 20 minutes or so playing with images and finding new content to keep the boards fresh.

"We see tones of Pens' manicures," she said with a laugh. "I think I pinned three today."

The pinning website seems to overlap well with the kind of merchants who populate Etsy, a website that describes itself as "the world's handmade marketplace." That site is also very visual, with lots of images of items made and offered for sale by artisans and craftspeople, many of whom are small business people.

In Ms. Marchionna's opinion, small retailers are right to take a look at Pinterest because it can be very engaging. "We see higher click-through rates on Pinterest than Twitter. But the scale is so much smaller."

A small investment of time might pay off for small merchants, even if it's more of an outreach effort for the Pens, she said.

Forrester Research analyst Darika Ahrens, who blogged about Pinterest earlier this year, thinks marketers and retailers are right to take an interest but not to focus a lot of effort there, because Pinterest doesn't have the impact other things do.

"We suggest brands enjoy, learn, experiment but ultimately don't get distracted by shiny new things," the London-based analyst said in an email. "Pinterest is not a priority."

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Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018. First Published November 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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