PIN IT
TO
WIN IT
Pinterest bets big on shopping
By Garett Sloane
Illustration by Yiffy Gu
Published on September 23, 2019
Pinterest bets big on shopping
By Garett Sloane
Illustrations by Yiffy Gu
Published on May 13, 2019
Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann has been trying to crack digital shopping for at least a decade. In 2009—before most people were ready to buy clothes from their phones—he founded the shopping app Tote, which asked people to save images of products and stick a digital pin in them as a reminder to buy them later. Sound familiar? Tote failed, but Silbermann kept at it. Since its founding in 2010, Pinterest has been experimenting with one shopping tool after another. In 2015, the company thought it would capture commerce with “buy” buttons that appeared on Pinterest posts, giving consumers a way to click to purchase directly on the platform. But the buy buttons were flawed. Marketers say the buttons were technological pains to integrate; they were limited to selling one product at a time, when consumers might want to fill up a shopping cart; and retailers lost control of the transaction. (“I don’t think the buyable pin delivered for the user exactly what they wanted,” says Jon Kaplan, Pinterest global head of partnerships.) Now, Pinterest is developing a new way to connect consumers to goods. Instead of “buy” buttons, there is a “shop” tab. Pinterest is about to roll out updated business pages, run by retailers and brands, with a new section called “shop,” where it hopes companies will showcase a more comprehensive catalogue of products. But instead of buying the furniture, clothes or food right on Pinterest—as a buy button would allow—the shop pages lead back to a brand’s website for checkout. That allows retailers to keep a direct connection to a consumer rather than hand it off to a platform such as Pinterest or Amazon. The updated business profiles are just one of the shopper-friendly updates Pinterest is set to unfurl this week during Advertising Week in New York. Another change Pinterest is touting is more personalization, so that when consumers visit a retailer’s page they will see a smattering of product images tailored to their tastes. Pinterest will also roll out a new ad format based on “shop the look” posts, which highlight multiple products in one image. Previously, “shop the look” posts could not be sponsored, but now brands can pay to get them more exposure in the U.S. Taken altogether, the shopping updates offer a more complete look into where Pinterest is going after becoming a public company this year. “Our goal here is to make all of Pinterest shoppable,” says Kaplan during a recent interview at Pinterest’s offices in Manhattan, “and make every pin, and the products inside of a pin, make those all shoppable.”
Checking out aspirations If Amazon is the world’s store, Pinterest wants to be more like the world’s product catalog. Pinterest is already a place where people look for ideas—what meals to prepare, what outfits to plan, what furniture to decorate with. And users pin shopping plans to their Pinterest pages. But the “buy” button experiment taught Pinterest that retailers prefer to close sales on their own websites. “What I like about Pinterest’s overall story is they don’t have checkout aspirations,” says Kieley Taylor, managing partner and global head of social at GroupM. “They’re not trying to bring the transaction onto the platform, but they are looking to facilitate transactions.” At a time when Amazon dominates e-commerce, acting as both a retailer and a marketplace, brands are understandably nervous about power dynamics and platforms. If the platform conducts the sales it gets the data on consumers, the credit-card numbers and their attention. Brands want that activity on their own websites and apps. This year, Pinterest hired Jeremy King, Walmart chief technology officer, as senior VP of engineering. King is now six months into his new job, and one of his most important tasks is to get retailers and brands onto the platform. Pinterest has undertaken a monumental engineering challenge to try to make it easy for brands to upload product catalogs to their business pages and keep them up to date, so prices and availability are always accurate. “Mass-catalog ingestion is really what we’re after,” King says. “We want you to load up your catalog for us even before becoming an advertiser,” King says. “That way when people are running through Pinterest, they’ll have an organic view of the product.” Pinterest is working with brands including Home Depot, Ikea, Target, Ulta Beauty and many others to get their product listings into the system, which is no easy feat, King says. Most retailers are not platform-ready. For instance, a retailer might have product photos, like a lamp with a white background, but for Pinterest purposes, it would be even better if the lamp was featured as an accessory in a fully furnished room.
Illustration by Yiffy Gu
Scene-setting product images also fit neatly into Pinterest’s plans for “shop the look” ads. “When I find that thing on Pinterest, I want to be able to buy it,” Kaplan says. “So we’re trying to really push the retailer and our product to fulfill on that.” It’s easy to see how Pinterest’s shopping hooks can serve its advertising and user growth goals. If the company can sign up more retailers and brands to integrate with the service, they become more likely candidates to buy ads. It’s free for advertisers to sign up for Pinterest business profiles and to sync their catalogs, but Pinterest makes money from selling ads to brands that join. And the more those ads lead to direct sales, the more valuable the platform becomes. These marketers also help keep Pinterest awash in new images, videos and articles for users to spend more time with the service.This year, when Pinterest went public, one of the warning signs for investors was that the platform was overreliant on too few core advertisers. The company said that in 2017, one marketer accounted for 10 percent of its ad revenue. Pinterest has never disclosed which advertiser was its main benefactor. However, after just two quarters as a public company, the ad business appears to be heading in the right direction. In the second quarter, Pinterest generated $261 million in ad sales, an increase of 62 percent year-over-year. The company also forecast its ad sales would top $1 billion in 2019. Pinterest touted a growing group of advertisers at the time it went public but did not disclose the exact number. Pinterest has also gone after new markets overseas, pushed into new marketing categories like auto and financial services, and is focused on getting small- and medium-sized businesses onto the platform. “We’re a growing brand, and aggressively growing,” says Samie Barr, VP of marketing at furniture retailer CB2. “We have always dabbled a bit in Pinterest, but in the last year or so is when we really started to build on the organic side, and we really diversified some of our ad spending and invested more heavily in Pinterest.” To achieve its goals, Pinterest needs marketers like CB2 to convert into paying advertisers. “Everyone is trying to drive shoppable behavior,” Barr says.
Pinterest can help the brand understand when users are searching for different varieties of furniture, like when they are in the market for outdoor accessories. “Pinterest gives us more direct access to what people specifically search for and what trends they are looking for,” Barr says. CB2 has studied ad performance on Pinterest, and Barr says that the brand sees better results than the average marketer on the platform.More than 90 percent of searches on Pinterest don’t include a brand, Kaplan says. That means users are searching for ideas but they are not wedded to any particular brand, opening an opportunity for marketers. CB2 has worked with “influencers,” taste-makers on Pinterest who share design ideas from the brand with their followers. CB2 recently teamed with GQ, using insights from Pinterest’s data, “to hit a more design-minded male audience that is on the beginning of their style journey for furniture,” Barr says.
Shared Vision It might be fitting that Silbermann’s parents are ophthalmologists, because Pinterest is nothing if not a visual search engine. It uses computer vision—artificial intelligence that analyzes images—to power its commerce ambitions. Computer vision personalizes brands’ pages for individual consumers. When a Pinterest user shows an interest in a certain type of clothing, computer vision can digest the components of the image and serve up more recommendations. It’s a technology in which Pinterest has been investing for years. In 2017, the company launched a visual search tool called Lens. People could take photos and have Pinterest find similar items to any products they captured. “The consumer shopping experience in the traditional sense is all about the visual experience,” says Amy Vener, Pinterest head of retail. “You walk through stores with your eyes. Consumers on Pinterest are having a highly personalized visual experience.” Computer vision is essential to getting brands to buy into the platform, because it makes it easier to upload their product catalogs and images. Computers can categorize products much more quickly than humans. Pinterest’s goal is to curate all brands and their products, but at this point it’s only scratching the surface. To get a sense of the scale, King points to eBay, noting it lets sellers link 80 million products to their accounts. Pinterest is starting much smaller, at 5 million products per retailer. Still, King said, there are hundreds of millions of products with links that allow purchase. And there are many products already on Pinterest that just need to be shopping-activated, King says. Pinterest’s computer vision tech can identify 2.5 billion products in pins, related just to the fashion and home categories, that could be converted to links for shopping. That’s if all the brands take advantage of uploading their product catalogs in the way Pinterest is pushing. If brands can sync their products with the system, then those images can become compatible with shopping. Some advertisers say it won’t be easy for Pinterest to convince all retailers to join forces. The “buy” button proved challenging because it required lots of technical expertise, says one digital ad agency executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. The exec is skeptical of Pinterest’s appeal. “The barrier to set up the buy button was quite high,” the exec says. “So it was a heavy lift for brands, and ultimately the consumers didn’t respond to it.” If Pinterest’s latest push into shopping is successful, however, it could become an ad platform for retailers and brands to meet sales goals. Instead of just running video ads that create general awareness about brands and products, the platform could prove its worth as a direct-marketing channel. That’s an area that advertisers say has been lacking, which Kaplan acknowledges. “Advertisers see the potential in this platform to be more transaction-oriented,” Kaplan says. “Where we spend a lot of time with them is helping them understand this inspiration and planning behavior on the platform. Now, they’re asking us to make that transition to more of a performance orientation.” And for Pinterest, that would mean a whole lot more than pin money.
Web production by Corey Holmes.