Feb. 29, 2012 at 6:24 AM ET
By Lydia Dishman
I would have written this article sooner, but I was busy on Pinterest. If you are still among the uninitiated, the social platform for collecting, sharing and commenting on photos of personal passions is uniquely engaging, absorbing and addictive.
The human instinct to collect things — be it baseball cards, miniature spoons or teacups — is as old as stuff itself. But it took Pinterest to perfect this process online. So no wonder it’s having a moment: comScore found that Pinterest just hit 11.7 million unique monthly U.S. visitors, who spend an average of 98 minutes a month on the site, compared to 2.5 hours on Tumblr, and 7 hours on Facebook. It’s also driving more referral traffic than Google+, YouTube, Reddit, and LinkedIn — combined, according to Shareaholic.
But why would Pinterest, which has been around since 2008, be attracting such swarms of devotees now? Fast Company turned to the experts to uncover the psychology behind Pinterest’s winning formula, and why it’s resonating with thousands of new users.
Finding your happy place and sharing your ideal self
Dr. Christopher Long, a professor at Ouachita Baptist University teaching a course in consumer psychology this semester, says some of his students expressed concern over an assignment to use Pinterest to pin their own examples of content relevant to each chapter in the textbook. “They were trying to wean themselves because they were concerned with how much time that had spent on the site last fall. One even said her New Year’s resolution was to cut down on Pinterest,” Long says.
Long believes that Pinterest, like Facebook, relies on people generating content that interests other users, so once a critical mass of people comment and re-pin, it reinforces others to generate content. The more content is generated, the more it makes sense for users to frequent the site.
It’s more than just a critical mass of users, though, that’s driving Pinterest’s growth, says Long. “Pinterest boards are like its users’ personal happiness collages. (They represent) things that I appreciate, that I desire, and that express who I am, whether the things are cupcakes, shirtless David Beckham or an inspirational quotation,” he says.
In contrast to Facebook, Long believes Pinterest is a refuge from relationship status, check-ins at restaurants or pictures of kids. “It’s not a place where I have to worry about being bombarded by other people’s oversharing of uninteresting or annoying daily experiences or about accidentally revealing intimate details of my day-to-day life,” he says.
In an ironic way, Long says, this frees many people to be more public about who they really are and who they want to be, because it’s less focused on the kind of personal content that sets off privacy and security alarms. “Pinterest is a place where we can demonstrate: ‘If it weren’t for all those mundane things that I do that I post on Facebook, this is what I would be doing and consuming. Here is my real self,’” he explains.
Perfecting the art of collecting
Though he doesn’t have his own Pinterest account, Ken Carbone, an acclaimed graphic designer whose clients include Tiffany & Co., Herman Miller, the Museé du Louvre, and the W Hotel Group, spent half an hour dissecting the design of the platform, after which time he admitted he’s jealous of everything from the logo to the generous but restrained size of the photos.
Carbone says Pinterest trumps Google image search because most of the images appear to be from original sources and art-directed photography, which makes products looks terrific.
“Not only does this stuff look great in the way it is presented, it takes me to this different world. I could waste a lot of time here. It’s visually very engaging,” says Carbone.
Though many social platforms have a tendency to lean toward content-rich density, Carbone says “That translates into busy and repulsive for me.” Pinterest’s secret weapon, he says, is its simplicity. “It’s generous in the way the graphics appear. With scrolling you can have a lot of content but not in the one frame. They’ve carefully built an interface with subtle touches of gray framing that is just enough.”
The proportion of the comments is also well-designed. “It is a clear sign the images are the hero and we are going to make those look as good as possible,” Carbone says.
Secret sauce of sharing
Long doesn’t know why some images get shared more than others. “I assume someone at Pinterest does, and that they are staying up late figuring out how to turn that into more users and more revenue.”
He does say that users seem to respond differently to pins from brands than the same one posted by an individual. “On Facebook newsfeeds, brand communications often take the form of sponsored stories or other ads, clearly indicating that this recommendation is being placed in your newsfeed because the brand wants it there.”
Long says that because Pinterest boards are essentially collections of “Likes,” the expectation is that users curate these more carefully than they may curate their Facebook Likes. “When I pin or re-pin something related to a brand, I am saying that I care about this content enough that I want to hold onto it or that I want to show other people that it is important,” he explains. “If Pinterest can keep enough eyeballs on people’s boards, those pins can functions as a more powerful and permanent recommendation than will my Facebook newsfeed’s transient mentions of what I listened to on Spotify or what brand of coffee I liked today.”
Carbone concurs. “The whole thing is advertising, but I don’t feel like I’m being sold anything directly, even though each pin will eventually take me to the source. I feel like a service is being provided for me to totally enjoy something that I am passionate about and find images I didn’t know existed.”
Room for improvement
That said, Carbone has one suggestion. For decades, he’s kept versions of Pinterest’s mood boards in paper journals. “My own way is analog and private. I don’t necessarily need to share all my stuff,” he says. But for design and development, private Pinterest boards would be an excellent tool for professionals. “I would buy a subscription to that.”
Are you listening, Pinterest?
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