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Digital A-List 2012

Ad Age Digital A-List: Pinterest

Elegant Design, Simple Concept Has Marketers, Publishers Rushing to Jump Onboard Fan-Filled Bandwagon of Fast-Growing Social-Media Startup

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Pinterest is the Jeremy Lin of social-media platforms, a phenomenon with an exponentially growing fan base that seemingly came from nowhere. Launched in March 2010, the fastest stand-alone site to reach 10 million unique visitors a month appears to have staying power, and brands and publishers are hard at work figuring out how to tap the magic.

Pinterest founders (from left) Evan Sharp, Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarra.
Pinterest founders (from left) Evan Sharp, Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarra. Credit: Jimmy Turrell
The secret to Pinterest's success lies in its elegant design and simple concept. It's an online pinboard where users can organize and display their favorite objects from across the web.

Unlike many web startups, Pinterest skews overwhelmingly female. Photos of Ryan Gosling and wedding-planning tools are ubiquitous "pins." According to ComScore, 68% of the site's 11.7 million unique visitors in January were women, accounting for 85% of page views. The Pinterest audience tends to be upper-income, between 18 and 34 and Midwestern. They are also highly engaged with content -- Pinterest ranks No. 3 in time spent on social-networking sites -- an average 98 minutes in January. (Users spent 453 minutes on No. 1 Facebook and 158 on No. 2 Tumblr.)

Ben Bloom, senior digital strategist at Wunderman, said that the browsing behavior on Pinterest resembles and "digitally replaces" the way people look through a magazine.

Unsurprisingly, magazine publishers have been some of the quickest brands to get onboard, looking to pump up their traffic through Pinterest referrals.

Early success stories include Real Simple, a title that uses its own photos for boards like "Best Slow-Cooker Recipes" and "Best Uses for Old Things"; and BHG.com, Better Homes and Gardens' online destination. However, even tonier publications are staking out real estate on Pinterest; The Paris Review has a pinboard showing memorable covers.

Female-focused publications, especially those with strong photographic content, clearly have enormous traffic opportunities. Among Conde Nast titles, Glamour.com had 385,000 uniques referred from Pinterest in January (the site got just 380,000 from Facebook); Self.com had 300,000 page views referred by Pinterest in January -- when it created a page -- vs. 97,000 from general Pinterest traffic the previous month.

Many magazine sites have integrated "Pin it" buttons to enable users to pin content to their own boards.

It's still early days for brands on Pinterest, though many may eventually have a squatter problem. (Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover and Lexus are among those not owning the Pinterest handles using their names.)

Colin Sutton, director of social media at OMD, said requests for a Pinterest solution began coming in about six weeks and have ballooned, with clients like the CW Network and Lowe's creating a presence in that time.

"The act of "pinning' is creating its own role in terms of what brands can do in the social ecosystem, providing quick bites of info, like a combination of Instagram and Tumblr," Mr. Sutton said.

Early adopters include General Electric, which joined Pinterest in January and has more than 500 followers and boards such as "Badass Machines" and "That's Genius!" featuring quotes from Thomas Edison. GE's executive director of global digital marketing, Linda Boff, said the female-dominated following led her team to pause briefly before executing on Pinterest.

"We're a brand that people get more excited about the more they learn about [it], and one of the best ways to help people learn about GE is to bring our brands to life in a visual fashion," said Ms. Boff. She noted that in a 30-day period between January and February, GE.com got as much referral traffic from Pinterest as from Twitter, where it has more than 55 times as many followers.

Pinterest is well-capitalized, with $37.5 million in funding, and has done something previously unthinkable for early-stage social startups: figure out a profit model. It has been working with Skimlinks, a service that finds links to e-commerce sites with affiliate programs that share revenue with referrers. Skimlinks modifies the links to contain Pinterest's affiliate tracking code. A recent back-of -the-envelope estimate by The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal suggests Pinterest could be making decent money -- $45 million a year, based on an average 3.75% cut of sales through the links and the 10 million users' spending an average $10 a month through affiliate links. Pinterest has not discussed long-term monetization plans, but speculation has been abundant. One idea being floated is Pinterest's selling sponsored pins and boards, similar to Twitter's "promoted" products.

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