Selection of Jeremy Lin Pins

Four weeks ago, an unassuming Taiwanese-American kid walked onto an NBA basketball court and did the unthinkable. Seemingly out of nowhere he smashed through a ceiling placed over him by scouts and coaches since high school.

Now, this undrafted Harvard grad is sharing a spot with basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal in the record books and leading the New York Knicks on a string of wins. His name is Jeremy Lin and people are calling it Linsanity.

Nearly three months ago, a tiny Palo Alto startup, popular among American women, broke into the mainstream.

Now, the site is the darling of tech sites like Mashable and TechCrunch. And it drives more referrals than YouTube, LinkedIn and Google+ combined. Let’s call it Pinsanity.

What is Pinterest and what makes it special?

Pinterest is an online scrapbook. Find something you like online? Set up a Pinterest bookmarklet and you can start pinning images to the bulletin boards on your page. People can choose to follow you (like Twitter) and can comment on your pins (like Facebook).

There are lots of popular sites similar to Pinterest. Sites with web-native names like GetVega, olioboard, and stylmee. But they differ from Pinterest for two reasons: They tend to be niche sites (go to stylmee if all you want is fashion or olioboard if you’re interested in interior design), and they’re a lot smaller.

Pinterest, on the other hand, lets you post pretty much anything on any topic. You can be a gaming geek and pin images of your favourite RPGs or you can be a bride-to-be and pin your fantasy Vera Wang dress.

It also happens to be addictive. That’s what the super users are saying, anyway. The company’s mission statement says it all: “connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting.”

As it turns out, it’s pretty easy for brands to find out what people like and convince them to buy them, as the site’s high referral traffic attests to.

The back story

Before we get into how brands can engage with Pinterest, here’s a little background.

Back in 2009, startup incubator Cold Brew Labs began developing the site out of Palo Alto, Calif. Co-founders Paul Sciarra, Evan Sharp and Ben Silbermann launched the site in beta status by March 2010 and shortly after began operating the site as an invitation-only open beta. And then it started growing. Fast.

Between September and December 2011 the site grew by 429 percent. In December it had 7.2 million unique visitors (that’s according to PR Daily). By early February, TechCrunch was reporting that Pinterest had “hit 11.7 million unique monthly U.S. visitors, crossing the 10 million mark faster than any other standalone site in history.”

According to a Sharehaolic study, Pinterest now drives more referral traffic than YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn combined. It’s still behind Google, Twitter and Facebook – though not by much (well, a lot behind Facebook).

TechCrunch awarded it a “Crunchie” for 2011 startup of the year and it was named among the top five social networking sites of 2011 by Time magazine.

Tell stuff, don’t sell stuff

Like Instagram, Pinterest lets images do the talking, which means when people visit Pinterest, they are less concerned with showcasing themselves as showcasing the things they love. That notion is reflected in the search hierarchy. The results are organized by pins then boards and finally, people.

Search results appear in the order of Pins, Boards and People

If you are into Gap’s style, for example, you don’t go to Pinterest to find out what Gap is selling. That’s what Gap’s website is for. You go to Gap’s Pinterest because you want to discover what Gap thinks is cool (actually, Mashable says Gap goes a little too far, using Pinterest as an online catalogue rather than providing value-added content).

And that’s the first lesson. Remember the adage “pretend your brand is a person and ask yourself whether you’d want to invite it to a party?” Well, Pinterest is a place where that’s not a tired cliché: It’s actually kind of true.

Take this advice from Mashable, for example: “Pinterest etiquette clearly states that it’s not a platform for self-promotion – it’s not a broadcast mechanism like Twitter or Facebook – so brands need to approach the site a little differently.”

So what does that entail? It means taking a content marketing approach and using the platform as a way of building a lifestyle around your brand.

Whole Foods is often touted as a standout brand on the site. They have a couple dozen boards with titles such as “Eat Your Veggies,” “Delicious Art,” “strength” and “Whole Planet Foundation.” Almost none of the pins link back to Whole Foods (save for the Whole Planet Foundation which links to their charity site).

Instead, on display are curated visual lists of recipes, gadgets, motivational photos and gardening tips. It’s a value added content experience without the annoying direct advertising.

Given the way the search function prioritizes pins over pages, if Whole Foods does a good job tagging, people may visit the Whole Foods page by accident, and stay because they like the content. And that’s how you get a new customer – or at least some brand awareness.

Turning Pinterest into a focus group

Pinterest isn’t for everyone. If you’re a venture capital firm, chances are your customers won’t really care as much about your lifestyle choices, and your following will be limited (unless, it turns out, they’re from the UK, where there seems to be a great deal of “pinterest” in VC).

image by monetate

But if you’re a sports franchise, or an emerging tech company (despite what TechCrunch says), it might be a novel platform to showcase what you do, what you think is neat or to engage people without preaching to them.

Tech company AMD, for example, uses its page to appeal to women by featuring feminine laptop carrying bags, gift ideas, and even a board titled “Pretty in Pink.” Given that the site is free to use, putting a little effort into marketing to those outside the target demographic isn’t such a bad idea.

The site also works as a focus group for marketers. The more followers you have, the more you can look at what your followers are doing on Pinterest, which gives you a glimpse into their interests.

While the analytics here aren’t exactly scientific, at least they offer some broad strokes intel, which might be carried over to other social media platforms. If you notice your followers are posting a lot about a certain photographer, for example, you might post an interesting link about that photographer on your Twitter feed.

Is Pinterest here to stay?

Despite copyright issues already cropping up, Pinterest is tantalizing for consumer brands because the commercial element is built right into the platform; the site features a “Gifts” browsing link on its homepage, with nearly every pin leading back to an e-commerce site.

That said, the jury is still out as to whether Pinterest will be more than just a flash in the pan.

There’s been some grumbling about how the company makes money (adding an affiliate link to some pins – this story was pretty big for awhile), it’s still invite-only (though it’s pretty easy to sign up) and there’s lots of design kinks it has to work on (like crashing).

The bottom line: Don’t expect the hype to diminish anytime soon. Chances are, as long as Pinterest’s referral traffic keeps growing, marketers will stay interested. Pinsanity, indeed.