This article was originally published in Brand Quarterly.
In the summer of 2014 Pinterest unveiled its much-anticipated business model, Promoted Pins. The company recruited around twenty beta partners, such as Target, Kraft, General Motors and Expedia, each of which invested significant dollars to get first taste of this new media channel. Six months later on January 1st, 2015 Pinterest announced that the program was a success and that it would expand. Something must have worked.
Our company had a chance to work directly with a significant percentage of the beta partner marketers. We worked with brands to set strategy, source content, and optimize pins. While specific results are proprietary data, Pinterest has started to share impressive numbers publicly. Through our work with brands’ earned Pinterest accounts over the past two years, we have also learned several lessons on what it takes to succeed in this exciting new media.
Marketing Must Be Meaningful
Easily the number one lesson from Pinterest is that informative and useful pins are the key to winning on the platform. People use Pinterest to find inspiration and ideas, so marketers win by offering content that meets these needs. In fact, according to Pinterest, a majority of all pins come from businesses. These are not ads and product images, but useful content such as recipes from a food brand or lip-gloss looks from a makeup product. On Pinterest, brands can be more trusted and appreciated than content from other sources.
If you look at the collection of Promoted Pins on this board, you will see that marketing messages take a second priority to ideas and inspiration. Financial services companies do not pay to pin their loan rates, but instead share tips on how to plan for buying a home. Travel brands do not pay to pin airfares, but instead share tips on what to see in Thailand. Our experience suggests that including branding on a pin is neutral to positive, but make sure you are delivering added value first.
Re-Pin Rate is the Prime KPI
Since success on Pinterest comes from delivering value, the best way to judge the performance of a pin is the number and percentage of people who chose to re-pin it. Getting a re-pin is very powerful; it combines the best features of a search (sends traffic) and social (drives shares). In our experience, Pinterest’s re-pin rate is highly correlated with the click-thru rate, so optimizing for one tends to get to the other as well.
There are various ways to judge re-pin performance. This is straight-forward with a promoted pin buy, as Pinterest reports the percentage of people who saw a pin and chose to re-pin. If you are just looking at activity from your brand’s earned activity this is a bit tougher, as total pin impressions are not reported. In these situations we prefer to look at the number of re-pins (the number you see tallied on the pin itself), divided by the total followers of a Pinterest account. While less precise, followers can be a way to estimate initial impressions.
Earned Activity Informs Paid Success
Many promoted pin beta brands had been active on the platform for months or years by the time they launched a paid campaign. They discovered that frequent pinning allows the best content to bubble to the top and be worthy of promotion. Our research shows that 18% of pins drive 80% of engagement on Pinterest, meaning the best content gets viral-like growth. As a result, advanced brands pin often across a variety of content to let the most successful pins rise to the top.
Interestingly, you do not have to own a massive amount of content in order to be highly active and gather insights to maximize results. Active Pinterest marketers pin to external content multiple times a day across their boards. By watching how their Pinterest audiences react to this external content, they can see what is resonating and then direct their creative content resources accordingly for branded pins.
Paid Drives an Earned Bonus
Perhaps the least-publicized but most amazing benefit of Pinterest is that it is the first marketing platform where paid media can lead to a massive amount of earned activity. In other social media, like Facebook or Twitter, sharing is a secondary user choice; we read the promoted item and must choose to click a share button. But with Pinterest, a social share automatically happens whenever something is pinned to a personal board. According to Pinterest, promoted pins saw an average 30% bonus in earned (free!) impressions. Since that’s just an average, it suggests that companies that work hard to optimize can see even stronger results.
Even better, this earned bonus does not stop when your Pinterest campaign ends. The pins you promote at scale continue to sit on thousands of people’s boards. Traffic and re-pins continue weeks, months and even years later. Your effective CPM keeps dropping and ROI keeps rising with promoted pins.
Little Things Mean a Lot
When you closely examine Pinterest from the consumer’s perspective, you learn that it is much more of a search tool than a social media platform. People decide to open the Pinterest app when they are looking for ideas and planning for projects. They frequently type into the prominent search box at the top of the Pinterest app. Even when scrolling through our home feeds, we are unconsciously scanning images and descriptions for relevant needs.
Just like search engine optimization, successful Pinterest optimization depends on attention to the little things that mean a lot. Marketers that win take the time to crop images, carefully craft pin copy, and ensure their mobile landing pages are optimized—after all, 75% or more of the traffic from Pinterest is mobile.
ROI is a Work in Progress
Probably the biggest challenge for marketers is that return on investment with Pinterest is still a work-in-progress. For ecommerce companies it can have a noticeable impact, but others still need to fit it within their measurement programs. The good news is that Pinterest connects with consumers across the purchase funnel, and people use the platform with high intent to buy.
One mistake is to immediately throw Pinterest into the direct response budget and compare last click economics. The problem here is that people often see your brand content months before buying, but most marketers lack long-term purchase measures.
Another error is to assume that the CPM price of Pinterest should be the same as a programmatic banner ad buy. People want to interact with your brand content on Pinterest, while banner ads are wallpaper at best and interruptive at worst. As any salesperson can tell you, this warm content lead is much more valuable than a cold call pitch list.
In addition to the fascinating lessons of how paid pinning performs, we learned that the Pinterest partnership team is passionate about marketing. While some startups look at advertising as a necessary evil, Pinterest has built a team of brand strategists that are looking far beyond how many media dollars they can book this month. This commitment to partnership with agencies and brands is key for long-term success of the platform.
The year ahead will be a big one for Pinterest. The company recently announced new advertising features, such as more precise targeting and access to intent data. Now could be time for your brand to apply these lessons and begin the learning journey.
Bob Gilbreath is co-founder and President of Ahalogy, a leading Pinterest marketing company, and author of The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect With Your Customers By Marketing with Meaning. Follow him on Twitter. More