By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
For Shawn Wall, the 35-year-old reigning champion of Pittsburgh Pinterest users, hopping onto the site's bandwagon in 2012 was low on a list of priorities.
At the time, the 3-year-old San Francisco-based social media upstart where users save photos, block quotes and other digital images onto boards shared with friends had built a somewhat frilly reputation.
"I saw a lot of recipes, hairstyles, clothes, things like that. I thought it was a female-driven site," said Mr. Wall.
But once the mobile developer began sharing screen shots of new iOS apps, modern architecture, contemporary furniture and the ongoing renovation of his vacation home, a spike in followers that eclipsed 1.7 million in less than two years proved Pinterest had a reach far beyond what might have seemed possible at first glance.
In an age where using the Internet and social media has become essential to businesses, Pinterest is hitting home nationwide with entrepreneurs as a potential source for targeted advertising.
And Pinterest has responded to the need in kind, with business accounts featuring analytics showing small businesses how many people Pin from a website or click on items for sale.
The company also provides a "Pinning Principles" breakdown telling businesses to assess followers' desires for Pins, to design targeted boards, to share Pins posted by other companies and to show off the inspiration behind products for sale.
In October, the company began allowing companies to use Promoted Pins, an option to pay high-profile Pinners to Pin certain images -- an option that Mr. Wall briefly exercised.
Add to that an email marketing plan that Pinterest claims helps retailers gain thousands of new followers, and the site gives small businesses the potential to promote their brand to new customers without using direct advertising. The only real cost is the investment of time.
"Marketing on Pinterest isn't about interrupting people or blasting out brand messages. It's about identifying how your business fits in with a person's interests and becoming part of how they participate and pursue that interest," said Pinterest representative Mithya Srinivasan.
It's about time specialty retailers and bloggers got the message, said Danny Maloney, CEO and co-founder of Oklahoma City-based Pinterest analytics firm Tailwind.
"Pinterest is different from other social networks because on Facebook and Twitter a lot of it is about volume of content, doing things like contests and sweepstakes.
In the Pinterest community, the conversation is much more geared toward quality, and about finding and creating high-quality content that speaks to your followers," Mr. Maloney said.
Although Mr. Wall hasn't used his swelling of Pinterest traffic to gain business for his East Liberty mobile development company TwoTap Labs, Mr. Maloney said the mobile developer is in a perfect position to do so.
Noting that Pittsburgh's second most followed account -- "How Sweet Eats" by food blogger Jessica Merchant -- beat out both the Andy Warhol Museum and American Eagle Outfitters by at least 75,000 followers, Mr. Maloney noted that it's also a great way for small businesses to get out the shadow of their corporate counterparts.
"It would be pretty hard for a business like How Sweet Eats to reach 160,000 loyal followers on an ongoing basis on another site, but they're able to accomplish that on Pinterest," he said.
For Mrs. Merchant, who said she opened the How Sweet Eats business page after starting with Pinterest for personal use, the road to new followers was paved with conversation. Pinning 20 to 30 times a day about subjects ranging from last night's meal to '80s and '90s fashion, she said people gravitated toward her page because they were passionate about what she was passionate about.
"I really think you have to love everything you pin. Readers come to you because they can relate to you," she said.
Mount Pleasant resident Alycia Palmer, whose 19,196 Pinterest followers have increased traffic to her online wedding and baby planning business Before the I Do's, tenfold since joining in 2012, said diversifying the types of Pins shown has drawn more users, but being consistent has kept them.
Now a daily Pinner who said the process has become "addictive," Mrs. Palmer advises novices to hit the ground running to promote their businesses.
"If you're new to Pinterest, it's important to get out there, to hit some boards and get some Pins up. Don't think you're going to have a strong turnaround if you have 10 boards and maybe two or three Pins per board," she said.
"Whatever your interest is or your brand is, get that out there."