Since the recent explosion in popularity of Pinterest, many marketers have been experimenting with how they can take advantage of it for business. And as evidenced by the success of HubSpot's new ebook on how to use Pinterest for business, which has been downloaded by over 37,000 people, it looks like a lot of you are interested in figuring out how to leverage this new social channel for your marketing efforts, too, regardless of whether you're a B2C or a B2B company.
It's no surprise. At HubSpot, we've been noticing some very interesting trends from our own Pinterest presence. We compared the conversion rate of our presence on Pinterest to that of another fairly new social network you may have heard of: it's called Google+. And in the month of February, our visitor-to-lead conversion rate for Pinterest has been nearly double than that for Google+: 16% from Pinterest vs. 8.4% from Google+. Turns out traffic from Pinterest converts pretty darn well for us, even though we're a B2B company.
But a recent comment thread on one of HubSpot's pins -- interestingly, a pin of our new Pinterest ebook we just mentioned (how meta, right?) -- has raised a fascinating debate. Should websites like Pinterest be off-limits to marketers?
The Pinterest Marketing Debate
First, let's take a look at Pinterest's Etiquette regarding self-promotion:
Sounds pretty vague and lacking a definitive stance on whether/how marketers can use Pinterest, right? Just the fact that Pinterest calls these guidelines "etiquette" rather than something more concrete like "rules" or "policies" implies a lenient point of view regarding how the site should be used. And if you focus on the keywords "try" and "purely" highlighted by us in red above, you might start to realize why Pinterest isn't exactly slamming down on marketers' presence on Pinterest. And there are quite a few out there.
If you'd like to read the whole comment thread debate that resulted from HubSpot's controversial pin, which has accumulated 40 comments in the past 5 days, you can do so here. The gist of it is, there were a few people who believed that because the nature of Pinterest is to "curate and share things you love," the site is meant for users to share content they come across on the web, not for marketers to share their own content. And because HubSpot posted content that was deemed by some users to be violating Pinterest's etiquette of "avoiding self promotion," those users were disapproving of HubSpot's behavior.
Opponents of brands on Pinterest aside, many other Pinterest users came to HubSpot's defense. They raised the point that HubSpot wasn't pinning images of its paid product, but rather of its free, educational content. They also mentioned that HubSpot wasn't using Pinterest purely for promotional purposes, pointing to HubSpot's other pinboards of non-promotional content that are used in alignment with the Pinterest vision of sharing the things you love with people who share your interests.
As one commenter pointed out, what is the difference between HubSpot pinning its valuable content and hairstylists pinning images of their beautiful hairstyles? Hairstylists may seem to have a more acceptable presence on Pinterest because their styles are more visually appealing than, say, an ebook cover; however, it's no less promotional, which seems to be the crux of the issue. And for a Pinterest user who could care less about hairstyles but loves reading educational ebook content, following HubSpot's pins would provide more value to them individually. In other words, value is the eye of the beholder, and as another commenter said:
The debate on HubSpot's pin is just one example to illustrate a larger, more interesting discussion topic: Should certain websites or channels be off-limits to marketers? Even more so, can channels that are completely devoid of marketing ever exist? The short answer? Probably not. Here's why...
Social Media Sites Need a Way to Monetize
As we've seen with most other social networks, marketing tools aren't usually built into new social networks right off the bat. Just look at some of the most popular social networks. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn ... all of these social networks now provide tools specifically designed to enable businesses to better leverage those social networks' marketing potential (e.g. internal advertising platforms, business branded pages, etc.); but none of these social networks launched with these tools available.
I could be wrong, but it seems like Pinterest's vague guidelines regarding self-promotion weren't exactly an oversight. It's likely that Pinterest wants to see how people naturally use the social network and watch how that usage evolves over time. As one commenter on the HubSpot pin noted:
Pinterest may also have intentions of leaving itself open to future ways of monetizing its site. While Pinterest was unique in that, unlike many other major social networks, it monetized its presence early on through the use of Skimlinks, I wouldn't be surprised if down the line, Pinterest started offering tools and functionality specifically geared toward marketers, like an advertising platform and brand pages, just as the other major social networks before it have done.
Social Networks are Permission-Centric
As I mentioned, the major social networks that still exist today have thrived because they've been able to monetize their existence through advertising. Although some users may like to think that social networks should be void of intrusive ads and outbound-style marketing, these sites simply wouldn't be able to exist without it. In other words, they require an element of intrusiveness to thrive. That being said, with better personalization and targeting that is evolving around online social advertising, advertising and marketing on social networks can still be less intrusive than other offline, outbound marketing methods.
What was particularly interesting about the comment thread on HubSpot's controversial pin was the fact that the few people who were against marketers' presence on sites like Pinterest seemed to be making the point that brands' organic presence there is already intrusive. And as a company that strongly believes in the concept of inbound marketing, which is built on the principle of permission-based marketing, this point of view was alarming to us at HubSpot.
All major social media sites are built around the concept of following the users you want to follow so you see only updates that are interesting and relevant to you. In other words, you can subscribe to the content you want to see, and avoid the content you wish not to see. Communication like the phone and email, on the other hand, is not necessarily permission-centric. While he or she may be breaking the law in doing so, technically a marketer can email and call you if they have your contact information, whether or not they have your permission. However, with an organic social media presence, a marketer cannot share messages directly with you unless you follow them/their brand and give them permission. Therefore, the social media user is the one in control in social media (it is permission-centric), and that is what makes social media inherently inbound and different from communication methods like the telephone and email.
So how could HubSpot's organic presence on Pinterest be considered intrusive? If a user has chosen to follow a particular brand on Pinterest or any other social site, is this not permission-centric? If the users who were angered by HubSpot's pins weren't following HubSpot's account, why should they feel so violated? As one user commented:
The fact of the matter is, social media sites are building in content other than what users specifically subscribe to as part of their models. On Pinterest, for example, users can choose to view "everything" that has been pinned on Pinterest, regardless of whether they're specifically following those pinners or not (although the keyword there is choose).
This is likely how some of the disapproving users found HubSpot's pin in the first place. Another likely scenario is that those users were following pinners who re-pinned HubSpot's original pin. A similar dynamic occurs on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter, as users can share and retweet other users' updates. But is this not the nature of a "social" network? Surely, users of social networks should understand that this is how all social networks generally function, and that it's under the networks' -- not marketers' -- control.
How Marketers Should Adapt to New Channels
As marketers, we'll always be on the lookout for new ways to reach our target audience and spread awareness for our business, and it's unrealistic to think that this will ever change. While most consumers understand that marketing is pervasive these days, the takeaway here is that marketers need to modify and adapt their strategies based on the platforms and channels they're leveraging as well as how their audience uses them. It's important to understand that each social channel comes with its own nuances, which require marketers to customize their strategies to suit those individual subtleties. In our introductory blog post about how to use Pinterest for marketing, for example, we advised that marketers use the new network similar to the way people are naturally using it -- and the way Pinterest frames its vision -- emphasizing that marketers should use Pinterest to highlight the lifestyle their brand promotes, not the products it sells.
Furthermore, when it comes to new channels like Pinterest, marketers should watch how users are adapting and using the site overall. As we mentioned before, Pinterest likely left its guidelines so vague in order to see how the site would evolve and how different types of users would leverage it. So if you launch a brand presence on a new social network like Pinterest, monitor it closely, and be receptive to the feedback from your followers and other users. When we noticed our HubSpot pin had sparked an interesting discussion and debate, for example, we chimed in to learn how we could improve and adapt our Pinterest presence to provide our followers with the best value.
As with any new social network, it will take time for marketers to settle in and find their place, but I doubt any social network will ever be completely devoid of marketing.
What do you think about marketers' presence on Pinterest? Should marketing ever be 'off-limits' in certain channels?