Brands want to know how consumers are using Pinterest. And the fact that the image-based social platform doesn't offer a public API hasn't stopped scrappy firms from helping them find out. Curalate, which grabbed $3 million in Series A funding last month, works with more than 300 brand clients including Gap, Nieman Marcus, Benjamin Moore Paints and Campbell's.
While Curalate has had early success in the Pinterest measurement game, the fact is the company can't collect information on which products people add to their Pinterest pages or measure for trends on the picture-posting site directly from Pinterest. Instead, because the popular social platform has not unveiled a public API, Curalate and other Pinterest analytics companies such as Pinfluencer must crawl the site to gather data.
"It's hard, hard work," said Apu Gupta, Curalate CEO. Despite Pinterest's lack of a public API, he continued, "We still went ahead and built this.... The lack of an API in some ways creates an opportunity for companies to help solve a problem."
APIs -- or application programming interfaces -- are becoming a crucial part of the digital ecosystem. Put simply, they're the technologies that allow application developers to build tools for popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Apple.
Pinterest's decision to hold off on releasing a public API makes sense, suggested Mr. Gupta. "It's reflective of Pinterest having the realization that when you provide API access you are allowing people to build platforms on your platform."
While offering building blocks that could unleash a slew of services -- and potential headaches -- for Pinterest, the absence of an API creates obstacles for companies like Curalate. "It's challenging because with the lack of an API any changes to their site can affect the way we crawl it." A small layout change to the site, for example, could disrupt the crawler because it's looking for particular pieces of information in precise places.
"It creates a challenge that you wouldn't otherwise have," he said. Still, he said a Pinterest API isn't necessarily a panacea.
Pinterest aims to launch new tools for brands and businesses in the future, according to a Pinterest spokesperson, who said those "may include analytics or access to an API, and we'll continue to build things that help businesses and developers get the most out of Pinterest."
The use of APIs by thousands of app makers and analytics firms has increased so much that API management services have sprouted to assist social platforms in handling the influx of developers that want to work with their technologies. API management firm Gnip, for instance, is a conduit to data from Twitter, Tumblr, Hulu, Reddit, and other sites.
Curalate processes tens of millions of images each day, examining the pixels in each one to match it against images in its database to determine what the image is. Unlike tracking keyword-heavy text-based platforms, image laden sites such as Pinterest do not have many product SKUs or meta data associated with them, making for a daunting measurement task. Though people typically pin product images directly from e-commerce sites that do include such data, the information is lost and taken out of context once images of cableknit sweaters and gruyere-laced casseroles are added to their Pinterest pages.
"When people pin photos they don't use a lot of words," said Mr. Gupta, "They don't say I love this sweater SKU 12345 #H&M."
Still, brands from retail and luxury to CPG and even energy are fascinated with the potential of Pinterest and what it can tell them about what consumers think of their products. For instance, although many of the largest CPG brands don't have much representation on Pinterest -- think toothpaste and soap makers -- food brands are big.
Photos from Campbell's recipe site Campbell's Kitchen are popular with pinners, said Mr. Gupta. The company can use analytics tools to see how it matches up against competitors, he suggested. For example, if the data show that people are keen on posting dessert photos, the classic food brand might want to develop dessert recipes for its recipe site -- or may realize the sweets recipe brand is not a direct competitor after all.
Instagram is also popular with brands that not only produce their own content for the Facebook-owned photo tool but aim to better understand how consumer-created Instagrams affect their brands. Curalate will use its recent funding to launch an Instagram analytics service soon.