Big Interview: How Pinterest hopes to boost sales via eCommerce

When it comes to advertising on social media platforms, Facebook remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room – doubling sales in the last quarter to $10.1 billon (£7.7 billion). In contrast, Pinterest is reported to be on track to make $500 million (£382 million) revenue for the whole of 2017.

While that is no paltry sum, it still clearly has some catching up to do. (In fact, Facebook recently announced it is testing a feature called 'Sets’ that lets users share photos and videos in one post – much like Pinterest's ‘Boards'. Facebook, clearly, is planning to turn up the heat on the ad spend competition still further).

However, Adele Cooper, country manager for the firm in the UK and Ireland, believes Pinterest remains a unique proposition for retailers – and is often wrongly lumped into the same 'social media' category.

“It’s a platform that’s used for your own individual planning. So it's not about portraying a public view of yourself, it's more personal... I think that is what differentiates us. Businesses know they can reach people at the earliest stages of planning. So paid ads fit naturally into it without being jarring.”

The firm is relatively new to advertising, something it launched in the UK just one-and-a-half years ago. (Cooper joined in 2015 after five years at Facebook, to help get the British and Irish side of the business off the ground).

Pinterest doesn’t take a cut of any sales made through its platform – all its money comes from sponsored content.

The site currently has 10 million unique users in Britain, an increase of 30% in the last year. This increased audience reach has attracted some big brands, including Tesco, John Lewis, Asda and B&Q. Although Cooper says a number of much smaller businesses are also advertising on the platform.

eCommerce: a mature market in the UK

When it comes to eCommerce, the UK is further ahead than the US, she says. “Mobile commerce in particular is more significant in the UK. I think retailers here are very willing to innovate, and try new things."

Cooper cites a recent in-store campaign by Cath Kidston as an example of eCommerce innovation. Using Pinterest’s camera search tool, ‘Lens’, the retailer has placed colour-coded QR codes next to its bag displays. Each corresponding item is linked to online boards with different content, such as ways to style and accessorise the products.

That is reminiscent of the ‘make it thoughtful’ campaign by John Lewis for Christmas last year, which featured paper pins in store pairing products with ideas. So customers looking to buy a pair of socks were given suggested walks they could go on with the recipient, while kitchenware items such as casserole dishes were paired with recipe suggestions – with a visual cue prompting customers to go online and find more ideas.

Not surprisingly, Cooper believes every product could benefit from being featured on its platform.

“One Pin that did very well organically was about a duster. It was a very small company, and rather than just talk about the duster, they did a Pin on how to tidy your house in less than five minutes. You can take almost any product and work out how to put content around it that is interesting to the person using the platform."

The company has also ramped up investment in the technology behind its platform over the last year, including its visual search tools such as the ‘Lens’ app. "So if you are out and about and see a lamp in a restaurant you like, you can take a picture and it will show you a picture of a similar lamp of interest,” she says. "I can see us doing a lot more around visual discovery, it's an area that is becoming increasingly important.” The goal of such technology is to help bring together the online and real world in new, useful and surprising ways.

It has also refined its ad targeting to more accurately increase the number of boards and topics they appear against. "So that means for a business or retailer the number has gone from 400 to over 5,000. As such click through rates have increased by 50%."

It’s hard to gauge the full extent of Pinterest’s take-up with retailers, as the firm does not break out its UK figures (although Cooper says growth has been “tremendous”). Currently the London office has about 20 people in it. “It is still quite small, but we're growing. In fact we’re hiring now,” she says.

Perhaps if Pinterest does decide to go down the route of a stock market flotation, a move that has been rumoured, there will be more visibility of its footprint here. It might even begin to measure up to the giant footprint of a certain 800-pound gorilla...