Pinterest Isn’t A Social Network


Pinterest has snagged a round of headline fascination, as various segments of the tech press have been touting the apparently surprising revelation that Pinterest is no longer thinking of itself as a social media platform.

With some structural changes underway, Pinterest has thrown down the gauntlet and said that it does not want to be known as the social media site where (generally young and female) users go to create vast digital collages of their favorite things.

Instead, Pinterest aspires to be a tool by which users are organizing their real lives — as opposed to their digital lives.

“The number one challenge is getting people to understand that Pinterest isn’t a social network. The hope is that you’ll get ideas for your real life, and you’ll close the app, get off your phone and try those ideas,” said CEO Ben Silbermann during a Bloomberg’s Decrypted podcast interview.

And though media sources have met the announcement that Pinterest no longer considers itself a social media site with some raised eyebrows, the degree of surprise is itself somewhat surprising, given that Pinterest is not exactly new to this messaging.

Well, at least we weren’t.

Not Social Media

A quick glance over the interviews and product rollouts from Pinterest over the last few years offer the clearest indication that Pinterest rebranding away from social media is not exactly a new phenomenon. In fact, it seems the site has spent much of the last two or three years trying to position itself as a social discovery site, or a visual search engine, as opposed to a social media company like Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat (which, in fairness, considers itself a camera company, not a social media firm).

“At the base, we are a visual bookmarking service that helps people really cover things that are related to their interests,” Pinterest’s Head of Business Development Gene Alston told MPD CEO Karen Webster in a podcast interview on the day that Pinterest rolled out its Buyable Pins feature in July 2015.

“We want people to take action on their passion,” Alston said.

Pinterest as the natural starting point for users to “take action on their passion” has been a tune the firm has been singing variations of for some time — and that tune has been complemented with product rollouts designed to make it easier for consumers to “take action” on the things they see on Pinterest.

Last summer — about a year after the buyable pins launched — Pinterest followed up with the rollout of a shopping cart that made it easier to buy directly from the site when confronted with something desirable. That feature was paired with some big upgrades to its visual search that made it possible for users to collect images from other Pinterest accounts, from around the web, from their own cameras and then use those images to search products and find where to buy them.

“We hear people say all the time, ‘I found this on Pinterest, but I don’t know where to buy it,’” Michael Yamartino, Pinterest’s head of Commerce, said at the time, “so image detection and camera visual search will help with that.

Pinterest has been moving for some time to cement its reputation as a visual search site that enables consumers to make commerce connections to their passions. And while they’ve been talking about it for a while, it seems they are now officially ready to start talking louder and more publicly.

Going Forward

Pinterest will boldly go where they have never gone before this summer — the wild world of advertising.

The reason for the foray is simple. With an abundance of digital locales on offer online, users on the fence about Pinterest are, according to its CEO, asking the wrong question: why should I join another social network?

Pinterest’s first major advertising campaign in the U.S. will take on that idea and use billboards, websites, newspapers, magazines and maybe even television to get the message across that it is not just another social media platform looking to drain users’ time.

“While other companies want you to live in a virtual world, Pinterest encourages people to live in the real world,” a spokesperson wrote. “We like to say, be yourself and not your selfie. There are many services out there with the mission of helping you connect and share with friends; we’re the one app exclusively in the visual discovery business.”

And it isn’t just a branding effort — Pinterest is also changing its platform to draw an even finer comparison between Pinterest and the social media players out there. Pinterest officially killed its like button last Friday, saying users actually interact more with unliked Pins, and that users had a tendency to confuse “like” with “save.”

According to Silbermann, though advertising can do something to raise public awareness of the product — and what it does — at the end of the day, Pinterest’s future resides in the tiny site refinements (removing “like”) that allow the site to better differentiate itself from players like Facebook and Instagram.

Still, amid the rising competition, Silbermann says the most effective way to add users isn’t advertising. It’s improving the product.

“Especially as a smaller company than the tech giants like Google and Facebook, it’s not negotiable that we have to move really, really quickly,” Silbermann said of the need to be constantly improving on the Pinterest ecosystem. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose.”

What would it look like for Pinterest to win? Current speculation is that Pinterest’ sudden interest in distinguishing itself and getting its name out there are foreshadowing a potential IPO run — though there are no official, or even unofficial, confirmations on that speculation.

But whatever its end goal, Pinterest is certainly concerned with the right now — and getting the word out there: They are not a social media platform.

And maybe not a commerce platform either. Getting out there and living that digital life could suggest buying the stuff you need to do that. But it’s still quite clunky punching out to buy things on Pinterest — or even getting to simple things like a recipe.

Silbermann is right. Improving the product is what is needed, especially if living that digital life in the real world also means paying for it.