Have you heard of Pinterest? If you're a woman, chances are most of your friends are on it - and you will be too. There are men there as well, of course (although many of them might be looking for what it is that that their lady friends find oh-so-irresistible). Every tech, marketing and social media blog that’s worth its salt has been debating about Pinterest: Whether it's good, whether it's useful, whether it's "the next big thing" and whether it will last. Meanwhile, brands and businesses of all shapes and sizes are trying to figure out how to develop a presence on Pinterest that will enhance their marketing and sales. With Pinterest, that's the tricky part. Because while users love it, how to make it pay off isn't something most businesses have been able to, well, pin down. Here we'll look at some of the ways Pinterest can be used in sales and marketing. But keep in mind that all social media - and perhaps especially visual social discovery sites like Pinterest - are more art than science. (Get more tips on how to use social media effectively in Jedi Skills for Social Media Management.)

What Is Pinterest?

Pinterest calls itself a "virtual pin board" and in essence, it's little more than that. It allows users to categorize and share things - largely images - online. It has commonly been used to plan weddings, get home decorating ideas and share and organize recipes. But it's also been taken up by other niche audiences who are into everything from comics to cars. This where the social aspect comes in, as users can also connect with other pinners, take a look at what other people are pinning on their boards, and repin whatever they like on their own boards.

Pinterest's Influence

Pinterest's rise has been meteoric. Matt Silverman at Mashable reported that in May 2011, Pinterest had fewer than two million visitors from the U.S., each of which spent an average of 20 minutes per month on the site. But by January 2012, the site had racked up more than 10 million visitors who were spending 100 minutes per month pinning. Globally, Pinterest users spend 89 minutes per month on the site. That's second only to Tumblr and Facebook, making it the third most engaging online social media site.

Pinterest also reached those 10 million monthly visitors at a record breaking pace. And although growth was slowing by March 2012, it's still happening at an enviable pace.

If anything is evident on Pinterest, it's user engagement. A Shareaholic study in February 2012 revealed that the site drives more traffic to websites than more established sites, such as Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit and Myspace. Surprisingly, Pinterest lost out to both Twitter and Google Search by only a small margin at .01 and .02 percentage points, respectively. For marketers, that means Pinterest holds major potential.

Marketing on Pinterest

It's safe to say that Pinterest isn't a good fit for all businesses, although it's a great fit for some. If Facebook and Twitter marketing brings a lot of return on investment, Pinterest's potential looks to be even better, thanks to the user engagement that's typical on the site. But that doesn't mean it's a slam dunk.

The question is: Just how do you effectively and correctly market on Pinterest? The following are some key best practices. Of course, real success on Pinterest also involves a dose of something special.

  1. Determine whether your business is right for Pinterest.
    Pinterest is a highly visual site. As such, it works best for companies that have a strong visual component. Companies that sell clothes, food, fancy electronics and other items with appealing photographs have been hugely successful on this platform, as have magazines, which historically have relied on impactful imaging - in print and online.

    But what about businesses that are not visual, such as roofing contractors, or insurance providers? Pinterest could still work, but it'll take a lot more creativity. For example, roofing contractors could show before and after photographs of their work. Or they could make a board filled with pictures of roofing suggestions. Is this likely to go viral? Not necessarily, but it could win over a few customers, and for smaller businesses, that may be more than enough to make their efforts worthwhile.

  2. Use good quality photos.
    On Pinterest, great photos stand out. Remember that when people browse the site, your images are presented alongside dozens of others. If you make use of small photos or those with bad quality, you could lose out to others. Also, your photos will give users an idea of how well you do business and could make or break your reputation.

  3. Make your photos interesting.
    Your photos should be able to tell a story, showcase your products and service, draw people in and market your company - all at the same time. For example, if you run a bakery, posting photos of your bread will quickly tire your visitors. Imagine having to go through pages and pages of nothing but bread.

    So why not spice up your photos by including boards on how to bake bread? Or you can get creative by showing bread in different and unexpected situations, like having a croissant masquerade as a moon, or breadsticks being used as light sabers!

  4. Make use of themes.
    Themes are an easy way to group your images into boards and make them more compelling. Take a look at the top clothing brands that are making waves on Pinterest, such as Nordstrom. Instead of just putting up photos of their clothes, they use themes geared toward helping shoppers get the look they want.

  5. Target those who are interested.
    More than the just people you know, target people that might be interested in what you have to sell. To do this, study your target consumers and figure out what they want to see and learn. For example, if you sell baby products, check to see if mothers in your area are interested in what you sell, and what it is they would be interested in seeing from you.

  6. Create images that are pin-worthy.
    When you write a blog post about your product or company, be sure to include an interesting photo that your readers might pin to their own boards. This will give you more exposure to their friends and help boost the popularity of your blog post. More importantly, make your images easy to pin. Project Nursery, a nursery and party themes blog, has a ton of great images on its site. The company has also added a Pin It! button, along with other social sharing buttons to encourage user sharing.

  7. Launch new products or market your events on Pinterest.
    Special events or product launches are great marketing tools on Pinterest and can help drum up business awareness and interest. Pin a concert poster or product shot and have people share with their friends.

  8. Get your customers involved.
    Another way to get people interested in your product is to solicit input from consumers and their networks. Ask your customers to upload and share photos of themselves enjoying your products and services. This will help you engaged with your customers while capturing the attention of their friends!

"Pin It" to Win It?

Social media is a great way to market products and services, but it isn't exactly easy as pie. Because it's so inexpensive and has so much potential, everyone's doing it. And that makes succeeding a whole lot more difficult. If you do take the plunge and add Pinterest to your marketing mix, it's important to know and apply the best practices that are proven to be effective in this space. That said, there is one crucial ingredient you'll have to cultivate on your own to find a winning strategy: Creativity.