Friday, February 24, 2012

Analyzing Pinterest's power


Pinterest's traffic-driving stats, compared with more established social networks in terms of 2012 traffic (so far) compared with 2011:

According to Mashable, YouTube has had modest growth from 0.98% to 1.05%, Google+ fell from 0.24% to 0.22% and Gmail fell from 3.69% to 3.62%. Facebook, currently the top traffic-driver, went from 25.6% to 26.4%.

Last year Pinterest was responsible for generating 0.17% of traffic. In 2012, it is responsible for 3.6%, the biggest change in any network this year.

This puts it just behind the microblog giant Twitter, which drives 3.61% of referrals. For a website to emerge from nowhere to just a hundredth of a percent behind Twitter is stunning. But for a website to have reached this level in less than half the time of Twitter (the first Tweet was sent on March 21, 2006, whereas Pinterest was launched as a closed beta in March 2010) is unprecedented. Clearly, Pinterest is the Next Big Thing - and it is nowhere near its full potential.

While Pinterest may not drive the most traffic, it is experiencing huge traffic increases, and jumping aboard now could be in your best interest. For example, between September and December 2011, Pinterest experienced a 329% increase in traffic, one of the biggest booms ever experienced by any social network.

Why it works:

Pinterest is easy to learn, but why it's so popular - and how to best use it to generate useful traffic  - are complex and interesting subjects. The ease of use, of course, is a big factor in its acceptance. And because the images are curated by humans rather than either machines or business interests, the images chosen by the best curators (pinners) tend to be of better and more consistent quality than those found by other means.

The old saw has it that a picture is worth 1,000 words. We're also warned not to judge a book by its cover, yet we inevitably do. To the human mind, a picture is a far more efficient information carrier than words. A picture is generally less precise, and more open to interpretation, than 1,000 words can be. However, a picture may be interpreted, and an impression formed, far more quickly than those thousand words. In an age of information overload, this means a lot.

Because of this, there is a real and significant raw power in Pinterest's simple stacking of image thumbnails. For example, here is a list of book covers from the Philip K. Dick site, and here is my Pinterest 'board' of those covers. While one can find a cover by book title very efficiently on the PKD site, in terms of finding an intriguing cover (i.e., the way most people ultimately choose a book) Pinterest has it beat.

Another example is the very popular pop artist Shag. Here is Shag's handsome and well-organized site, where a great deal of his work resides. Here is my Pinterest board of Shag's images. Now: Which site lets you see Shag's work at a glance?

A Google Image Search resembles a Pinterest board. But the better Pintarest 'pinners' (image curators) offer better image finds, and unlike Google they link directly to the image source. (Google is no doubt aware of this rapidly-emerging competition for its service.) Note also that Pinterest makes the identification of the more-popular images easy, via 'likes' and 'repins' (the sincerest form of Pinterest flattery).

Why (smart) site owners don't object to Pinterest's pilfering:

See Stats, above. Pinterest drives traffic to these sites like nobody's business. And I suspect that this traffic is highly-motivated rather than random. These folks are seeing something that they want more of.

But what do the pinners get out of it?

For many, Pinterest appeals to the 'scrapbooking instinct'. About 80% of the site's users are women, and this demographic skews similarly to scrapbooking, which is a huge business in itself (and has been for a decade or so now). These folks want nothing more than to collect images of things or ideas that appeal to them.

But beyond that, the real secret of Pinterest is that it has found the key to enforcing link responsibility. And it has done this brilliantly, by making it painless and almost completely transparent.

In other words: The copying of images, videos and text - intellectual property - is a rampant problem on the 'net. The pressure to drive numbers and create new content quickly has had three unhealthy side-effects: (1) It has led to a great deal of rushed, throwaway content (and precious little thoughtful analysis). (2) It has led to outrageous, wholesale plagiarism often without so much as a link to the original source. (The Huffington Post, to name only one example, has become synonymous with this, and the situation is unlikely to improve since their AOL acquisition.) This is a tremendous disincentive for the creation of original content. (3) It has led directly to a Federal crackdown on file-sharing sites which has had a chilling effect on legitimate file-sharing. This effort is certain to continue, and historically likely to overstep its bounds.

By contrast, Pinterest is designed to automatically assign credit (outside links) where credit is due. These links are clearly effective in terms of Pinterest's demonstrable traffic-driving capabilities. More significant than even this, though, is the fact that Pinterest ensures link responsibility within the site as well.

This is the wellspring of Pinterest's power. The site makes it extremely easy to swipe images from other users. In fact, Pinterest downright encourages this. On its surface, this would appear to work against the interests of anyone doing the heavy lifting of mining the web for the best image content. After all, why bother doing hours of grunt work if someone can come along and swipe the fruits of your labors in minutes?

Here's why: When users acquire an image from within Pinterest, the image's finder (as well as the outside link) is linked. This means the most popular images propagate many internal links as well as outside links. This rewards both the original source of the image and the best curators ('pinners'). Users who grok this and want to move up in Pinterest's hierarchy will tend to avoid swiping images already found on Pintarest, and instead hunt down new ones.

For instance, this Batman board of mine has drawn an enormous amount of re-pinning (image swiping).  Each swipe is also a link which brings new traffic to the board. In its few days of existence, this board has attracted over 100 followers. Many of these followers also become followers of my other boards. How many followers 'Batmania' might attract, in a year when Pinterest is growing like a weed and a major Batman film is to be released, is hard to say - but this modest-sized board of 60 tattoo images has racked up over 90,000 followers so far.

Of all social sites, Pinterest is the lone pure meritocracy

This may be a hidden reason women are drawn to Pinterest: Its inherent fairness. If you've been nurturing an old-boy network since college, if you're a TV star, if you're richer than Soros or trendier than Lada Gaga or if you're on the NY Yankees, your popular standing will drive traffic to your Facebook page or your Twitter feed.

But such matters cut no ice for Pinterest users. All they want are the best images of the subjects that interest them, and frankly it seems unlikely that Derek Jeter or The Donald could be bothered to hunt for them. If you have the taste, the time, the inclination and the right subject, you could be living in a van down by the river and still rack up 100,000 or more Pinterest followers in a relatively short time.

But... why WOULD you want to be a prolific pinner?

What's the point of building a Pinterest following? Good question. The whole 'business model' of this is only now emerging. Crass commercialism is frowned upon by the Pinterest brass, but Pinterest power-users nevertheless are finding innovative ways of leveraging their investment of time and effort. This woman, for example, has so far earned nearly 120,000 followers (and a dollop of notoriety) for a board that features attractive St. Patrick's Day cards she sells online. If we live in a world where 1,000 fans can make a career (a theory admittedly in some dispute), perhaps 120,000 followers can at least earn Charmaine Zoe a little side income.

Stat source: SexySocial Media, which cited - but ironically, did not link - Mashable.

BONUS: A Pinterest board with guides for using Pinterest.

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