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Social savvy | Pinterest, visual search and you

What Pinterest's visual search means for advertisers and content marketers.

Two-thirds of pins on Pinterest represent brands and products. A ‘digital catalogue of ideas’, this relatively unassuming platform has recently launched a series of updates, presenting a fresh set of opportunities for content marketers.

“Everything on Pinterest is visual,” said Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann at the company’s headquarters in February. “That’s the thing about a good idea, you know it when you see it. Visual discovery is all about the tools to find the ideas that are your taste and your style.”

Because of its relatively slow growth against meteoric competitors Snapchat and Instagram, along with its hype-avoidant founders Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp, the Silicon Valley startup is most often than not glossed over by tech commentators. Some have even ventured to say it’s suffering from a lack of ambition – that it hasn’t the chutzpah to survive in an aggressive tech world. Until recently, it’s been easy to view it as a place where stay-at-home mums go to cobble together ideas for their DIY yarn art project for the upcoming school fair. (Watermelon blankie, anyone?)

Pinterest disagrees. Though it has forecast revenue at $500 million for this year (up $200 million from 2015) an internal document revealed that in the future, it sees itself raking in billions. With 93% of active pinners using Pinterest to plan for purchases, and 87% saying it has directly led to a purchase, it doesn’t sound so impossible. As the company continues its foray into machine learning, AI Lens technology, and expands its advertising display options, Pinterest is proving itself to have intriguing potential for image-orientated marketers into the future.

Heads up: Pinterest is not a social network

Even prior to these announcements, Pinterest was uniquely suited to some content marketers. While misidentification lingers, the company has – “emphatically” – not positioned itself as a social network. Instead, it considers itself more like a search engine – a whimsical yet still targeted Google that prioritises the image as a launch-point for ideas, inspiration and discovery.

It’s this distinction that makes it most interesting for its marketing partners. Unlike Facebook, Instagram or Snap, more than half of Pinterest users classify as potential buyers – and would have no issue identifying themselves as such. Their purpose in visiting the site, in other words, is not so much to express themselves to others or hang out with friends. They are using the platform to assist them in a purchase decision – where pinning an image is a ‘wishlisting’ act for a certain item or project idea. In this sense, Pinterest gives marketers the ability to tap into what buyers are looking for at each stage of the cycle – while capitalising on the remarkable proximity between discovery and sale.

As TechCrunch writes, “Many of Pinterest’s recent product updates are geared toward inching users closer and closer to that “do” moment. If it can get a user there organically, it can give advertisers a window into user behavior that they might not get on Facebook or Google.”

Visual discovery

Worked upon by a tiny engineering team, Pinterest is quietly leading the way when it comes to developing computer vision technology. It’s a smart move in our Pokemon Go world, where the borders between the digital screen and the external surroundings are increasingly porous. In February this year, the company launched Lens – an AI feature that enables users to upload photos of real world objects to search for information related to that object. So, for instance, if you bought a lobster at a fish market on a whim and didn’t know how to turn it into something delicious when you got home, you could point your camera at it, upload the snap to Pinterest and get returns for an assortment of different lobster recipes (along with various other images of lobster, the prices for lobster at different locations, and/or articles on lobsters – according to the filters you’ve applied).

There is still some way to go before the technology is able to first recognise what’s in the picture, and second, intuit which precise elements in a busy picture the user wants to find related pins. The company is staking much on machine learning – where the app learns how to get better at what it does based on user input and interaction. Already, it’s moved beyond food to incorporate fashion-related searches – promising not only to identify the type of clothing featured in the photograph but the label, designer and maker behind it, as well as giving recommendations of marketplace items that would ‘match and mix’ well.

What it means for content marketers

Even in these early stages, the incentive for content marketers is to work information-rich and high-quality images to their websites to increase the likelihood of them appearing in visual search results. In doing this, they can leverage the platform as a springboard to their site, serving useful content to individuals far more ‘hot’ to buy than your average social media scroller.

Let’s take YD’s ‘Technology’ Pinterest board as an example. With 751 pins and 75,675 followers to date, the magazine company (specialising in international product design excellence) has cultivated a Pinterest presence of remarkable elegance. Each pin depicts a single product, beautifully shot from multiple angles, obviously by someone who knows how to work a high-powered DSLR camera. Many are incredibly useful in illustrating how precisely a product can be used, with minimal use of text for a super-clean tutorial and easy comprehension. Few could bear to read the words ‘ergonomic ATM’ or gives a toss how it functions – but as a visualisation, it’d make even those of the non-geek persuasion start to sweat.

As another example, take this pin representing the ‘Halcyon phone’. A flip mobile that bends at the middle like a wallet or a super-limber Pilates instructor, to gaze upon it here is to grow dreamy-eyed with awe. Those shopping for future-ready nostalgia products may take a snap of a flip phone in the real world, upload it to the Pinterest platform, and by virtue of the new AI developments, stumble across this gorgeous product. The fact that it can be viewed in a range of perspectives makes a whole lot easier for the machine to match it up to the original image search too.

pinterest visual search - halcyon phone

As the seams between the digital world and the ‘lived-in’ world are being unpicked, marketers must weave together a brand presence which allows a seamless journey across both. The forward momentum of Pinterest gives added proof to the increasing emphasis on visual content in marketing, and the need for brands to pivot towards a user-centric approach.

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