How Pinterest hopes to catch up to the e-commerce boom

Long before the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom, marketers saw a gold mine in Pinterest that many felt was left nascent. But as the platform has hastened its expansion of advertising offerings, media buyers say it has a ways to go to compete with every other platform entering the commerce race.

Pinterest, founded in 2010, has been known as a place where millions of people pin everything from weddings and home projects to food and fashion. Now, the company is in the midst of giving advertisers more of what they’ve asked for: ways to market and sell around users when they’re planning online.

The efforts are starting to pay off. Earlier this week, Pinterest said revenue from shoppable ads is growing twice as fast as overall revenue and 1 billion shoppable products are now in the company’s system. And although its second-quarter results showed slower total revenue growth and a declining user base globally in the U.S. and Canada, the average revenue per user increased 17% globally.

Despite the progress, marketers also think Pinterest could have gotten into the social commerce boom much earlier. While describing Pinterest as more brand-safe than other social channels and even a “happy corner on the internet,” some ad buyers think it still has a ways to go as it now faces increased competition with other social networks that are rapidly building out their own offerings.

“It is a marathon and maybe one day Pinterest will catch up,” said Duane Brown, CEO of the Toronto-based agency, Take Some Risk. “But right now they are in last place.”

Pinterest chief revenue officer Bill Watkins said he wants to diversify the company’s advertiser base through shoppable products along with more automated bidding and insights-based media-buying. It’s also trying to tap into the creator economy that the platform hasn’t always focused on.

“If it’s a core product experience or an ad product experience, I need to make sure that we’re building to facilitate for those two things,” Wakins told Digiday in an interview last month. “Because if not, then we’re not building the best experience for our users and we’re not building the best products for advertisers.”

Over the past few years, Pinterest has introduced new tools for users, creators and advertisers to entice them to the platform:

  • In 2020, it introduced Story Pins and later Idea Pins to let creators and brands create content with the app’s first video-focused format.
  • Last year, it released Pinterest TV which let people watch shoppable shows.
  • In March, it began beta testing a new native check-out tool.
  • In June, it rolled out Idea Ads to let brands use video for promotional and informational videos and images.
  • In July, it added a new Pinterest API for Shopping that let companies add product tags, a video catalog and a “Shop” tab.

After playing catch-up — at least on paper — Pinterest has been earlier than its rivals in other ways. For example, it introduced buyable pins back in 2015. Then in 2020, it began letting Shopify merchants turn products into shoppable pins; Shopify didn’t integrate with other platforms such as YouTube and Twitter until this summer. However, some say Pinterest hasn’t done enough to promote the value of its visual search tool, which debuted in 2015 and lets people take photos in real life to find similar items within the app. (Google and Snapchat didn’t introduce similar features until 2017 and 2019.)

“It’s one of the best DIY tools out there,” said Geoffrey Colon, an independent marketing consultant and former head of Microsoft Advertising’s Brand Studio. “For how much everyone raves about TikTok, Pinterest is perfect for the creator economy. I don’t know why they haven’t played this up more.”

Like other social media giants, part of Pinterest’s strategy has been to copy what works on other platforms. That’s clear in its recent pivot to video. Thanks to products like Idea Pins and various content partners, video-viewing made up 10% of the total time users spent in the app in the second quarter. However, in the company’s most recent quarterly filing, it said new formats such as video ads “may be more engaging and users may spend less time browsing or searching on our platform, which could adversely affect our revenue.”

Idea Pins are “almost like TikTok meets Instagram stories” in terms of content style and purpose, according to Janni Widerholm, social creative lead at TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles. She said the format helps keep people watching content from creators and brands rather than driving them off-platform. But it’s a delicate balance, as the copycat method “actually dilutes their positioning not just for marketers but for consumers as well,” said Rachel Mercer, co-founder and chief experience officer of Proto, an innovation and design consultancy.

Although some social networks have allowed automated ad bidding for years, Pinterest only introduced the feature in 2020 and has plans to further expand. Ad pricing, however, does set Pinterest apart. CPMs were 53% cheaper than on Meta in the second quarter, according to Tinuiti. (For comparison, Tinuiti said CPMs for TikTok and Snap were 25% and 58% lower than Meta.)

Pinterest has other unique strengths, too. Mercer pointed out that the app’s user experience and hold on such a niche market have helped Pinterest own “a lot of upstream inspiration” and condense the path from browsing to buying. The ways people use the app for browsing and planning also let advertisers reach people based on interest and intent — giving Pinterest a “longer-tail defense” against giants like Google and Meta that have faced ad-targeting challenges from Apple’s privacy changes.

Greg Swan, chief creative and strategy officer at the Minneapolis-based agency The Social Lights, said Pinterest has been able to iterate the core product and enhance curation without alienating current users.

“The challenge for Pinterest is finding opportunities for users to open the app and spend time there repeatedly and outside of those traditional use cases,” Swan said. “Pinterest didn’t invent discovery browsing, but they refined it. Their next move will have to level that up.”

It’s still early when it comes to the convergence of social media and e-commerce, and how people use various platforms for shopping continues to evolve. A few days ago, Facebook announced plans to shut down its live shopping feature just a few weeks after TikTok reportedly pulled back. But as Pinterest continues to evolve as a brand, it could face pressure to maintain its core identity while also appeasing advertisers.

“You were going to Pinterest because it was a place of inspiration,” said Ellie Bamford, R/GA’s global head of media and connections. “And it was a place to share … your dreams and your aspirations about your wedding or your travel, not because we wanted to buy something a little bit. I know it feels a little bit sad that everything has become about trying to sell you something.”

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