Nailing Down the Future of Pinterest

Can Pinterest stay interesting?

The two-year-old social-media site — an online pinboard where users create profiles featuring their own photos and other images found on the web — has generated major excitement during the past few months.

Brands and retailers across all categories and price points are using Pinterest as a marketing and sales vehicle while shoppers continue to embrace the platform in huge numbers. The site had more than 17.8 million unique visitors in February, according to ComScore Inc., a huge leap from only 418,000 in May 2011.

While the growth numbers are impressive, it remains to be seen if the site has long-term staying power. “[Pinterest] is a new thing,” said Remi Carlioz, head of digital marketing at Puma, which joined the site about three months ago. “It’s a work in progress, and we have to see how it evolves.”

In addition, Pinterest has already faced questions about its revenue stream and copyright policy. Its leadership is also in flux, with co-founder Paul Sciarra last week announcing that he was leaving the company for a position at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. (He will retain an ownership stake.)

But for now, those issues aren’t deterring footwear players. “As a sales tool in social media, Pinterest is my favorite platform right now,” said Laura Willison, who heads up social media for Seychelles and BC Footwear. She said Pinterest was a good fit because her brands have never pursued traditional advertising, instead preferring a grassroots approach.

“We are very subtle, and we are really careful about not making [our image] all about ‘shoes, shoes, shoes, buy, buy, buy,’” Willison said. “We want to become the go-to source for anything in fashion.”

Kate Spade New York, which joined the site in January, uses its profile to post pinboards based on lifestyle themes, including “Decorate Colorfully,” “Dress Colorfully” and “Travel Colorfully.”

“Pinterest shows customers the Kate Spade New York point of view by immersing them in an inspirational world, where it isn’t just about sharing the brand’s images and product,” said Kyle Andrew, the fashion house’s SVP of global brand marketing. “It’s all about sharing the various sources that the team looks to [for creating the brand’s] voice.”

Loeffler Randall recently added a pinboard dedicated to espadrilles, featuring not only its own images of staff members wearing the label’s footwear but also re-pins from blogs, magazines and other Pinterest users’ photos of Loeffler Randall espadrilles. “This puts the shoes into a whole new context,” said Stephanie Draves, e-commerce director for the brand.

One of Puma’s goals was to spread its message of sustainability and connect with potential customers who share its eco-minded ethos, so the brand added a pinboard called “Love Thy Planet” to its profile, featuring everything from recycled furniture to lush foliage.

Also in the athletic category, New Balance arranged its profile around its tagline: “Let’s Make Excellent Happen.” “We have a board that celebrates New Balance lifestyle product from around the globe, comprising original pins as well as re-pins from other creators,” said digital brand marketing manager Stacey Howe. “We also have two boards that celebrate domestic craftsmanship, [including one that] showcases consumer designs of our custom US574 [sneaker style]. Another board, titled ‘Excellent Makers,’ is a curation of work by a variety of artists … who inspire us with their talent and vision.”

Crocs, which signed on to Pinterest about a month ago, has another vision for the platform: It’s using the site to reposition itself as a more fashion-driven brand. “[Crocs] has gone through a big transformation, and the general public still has this image of us as a one-shoe company,” said Michael Martin, the firm’s director of marketing for the Americas. “Pinterest is a perfect way to help change [that perception] and put our brand in context to our consumers’ daily lives.”

Additionally, Crocs and many other brands are courting young, trend-savvy female shoppers — the site’s largest demographic.

“What’s really exciting about Pinterest is that, unlike other social platforms, 80 percent of its users are women,” said Maureen Mullen, director of research and advisory services at consulting firm L2 Think Tank.

“The median age demographic is 25 to 34 years old, with 40 percent of users over the age of 35, so this is a group with significant purchasing power,” said Mullen, speaking on a panel at Columbia Business School’s recent Retail & Luxury Goods conference.

“The consumer intersection is pretty magical,” added Marcy Massura, digital supervisor at PR firm Weber Shandwick. “You can take a look at someone’s board and, in an instant, not only can you see what they like [within] your own product [mix] but you can also see what else they like. You have an instant snapshot of who they are. Brands do so much work trying to understand the consumer and fashion trends, and Pinterest is a goldmine for that.”

But in the end, it’s sales that matter, and some experts said it’s difficult to measure the site’s influence. “It drives a lot of traffic to brands’ websites, but they are still trying to figure out other [measurable] ways to use it,” said Alex Mendoza, a partner at interactive marketing agency Stylophane.

Massura pointed to new tracking services that have recently popped up to help users measure their Pinterest reach. “Now you can get a snapshot of your best brand promoters,” she said, predicting that other analytics tools are on the horizon. “We just have to wait these things out.”

Beyond questions regarding demographics and measurability, Pinterest also has been the subject of media criticism over its hands-off approach to copyright infringement issues. Pinterest itself is protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the site’s policy leaves users legally responsible for their own content, simply admonishing them to post only content to which they have the rights. That seems contradictory to some, given that the site encourages sharing through re-pinning.

Pinterest recently responded to questions about its policy by releasing a new privacy statement detailing simpler ways to report infringements.

And brands are developing their own methods of dealing with intellectual property rights. “Consent-to-pin has rather quickly become a pretty standard part of [companies’] contracts with bloggers, influencers and even celebrities,” Massura explained. “Copyright is an issue, but with a little bit of effort, that can be overcome.”

Pinterest’s under-the-radar attempt to generate revenue from referrals to e-commerce sites raised a few eyebrows earlier this year, but the site has since stated that it was only a temporary test.

And the brands that spoke with Footwear News said those concerns were not deal-breakers. “[Pinterest has] a huge audience, and they are probably just figuring out how to commercialize it without compromising that,” said Crocs’ Martin.

The future of the site might simply come down to ironing out the kinks. “We’re still learning about our followers, this platform and the unique opportunities [that Pinterest] affords,” said New Balance’s Howe.

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