They say a picture says a thousand words. And users of Pinterest, a pinboard-style social content sharing website, and e-Commerce marketers alike are vouching for it.

Over the first couple of months in 2012, Pinterest has witnessed a near 60% growth in the number of unique visitors, which stood at 18.7 million at the end of March. And this, despite the fact that it is still an invitation-only social network! Such phenomenal and consistent growth has been unprecedented since the early days of Facebook and Twitter. What I believe has worked in Pinterest’s favour is its appealing visual layout and the growing loyal user base comprising largely of well-educated females aged between 25 and 44.

So the obvious follow-up question is: Is this rapid growth in Pinterest subscribers translating into benefits for brands and marketers?

And the answer is, a big YES.  Pinterest is not only driving significant traffic to online publishers but is also the fastest growing social media traffic source for e-commerce websites in terms of revenue. A recent study has found that Pinterest sent more referral traffic to publishers than Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn combined, falling just behind Twitter. More noteworthy is the fact that while in Q2 2011 Pinterest represented just 1.2% of social-media revenue for e-commerce sites; it accounted for 17.4% of social media e-commerce transactions at the end of Q1 2012. This makes it- at least so far– a one of its kind social network which not only delivers traffic, but also revenues and new customers for retailers.

A number of brands have already made Pinterest an integral part of their social commerce strategy and are witnessing reasonable success. Companies such as GE, Southwest Airlines, and Whole Foods are using Pinterest largely for soft promotions, others such as Gilt (online fashion retailer) and Wayfair (home goods retailer) are aggressively leveraging the platform to sell their merchandize and offer exclusive discounts. For instance, the new social commerce feature of Gilt, “Pin it to Unlock”, enables users to avail special discounts if a product on Gilt’s site has been pinned 50 times. Similarly, Pinterest referrals on Wayfair are 10% more likely to make a purchase than visitors who arrive from other social networks.

However, as with any new digital success story, I believe marketers will face 4 challenges in embracing Pinterest, these are:

  1. It is still early days for us to work out whether this is here to stay, or just another trend that will come and go. The site was launched (in closed beta) only in March 2010, and it needs to be seen (with eyes wide open) whether it can sustain the existing growth rate and witness similar traction outside of the United States.
  2. It is heavily skewed towards female users with nearly 78% of its subscriber base consisting of women. Even though the percentage of men has increased from 20% in Jan 2012 to 28% in March, and in some geographies such as the UK, this number is as-high-as 56%, it needs to be seen how soon Pinterest can have a more balanced demographic profile making it more attractive for a wider range of marketers and brands.
  3. Pinterest user communities are largely focused on and interested in Arts and Crafts, Fashion, and Food and Beverages. For instance, new data from social media marketer Tamba indicates that Fashion Designers & Collections, Music Art & Memorabilia, and Vineyards &Wine Tourism are the top 3 categories of audience interest on Pinterest. The challenge for retailers therefore is: how to leverage the platform to create traction for more product categories?
  4. As Pinterest looks for ways to monetize and become a successful social commerce platform, there are obvious concerns from its subscribers around privacy and user experience being potentially compromised. While the network has clarified that it will not sell user’s ‘pins’ – their posted content – to advertisers in order to make money, it remains to be seen whether and how Pinterest can marry user content and interests with revenue.

I believe that Pinterest has all the right ingredients to become a true social commerce success, given that it can continue to expand its user base, diversify its user demographics, and strike that elusive balance between monetization and user experience. For brands, it is all about harnessing the visual appeal and interactivity of the platform not only for marketing and promotions but also for subtly guiding users towards making buying decisions.

What are your thoughts on Pinterest? Are you an active Pinterest user? Is your brand leveraging Pinterest for commerce? Do you think Pinterest can trigger a breakthrough in social commerce?