As Pinterest moves towards monetization, is the user experience suffering? (What the pinning community say)

Illustration by Rose Kinloch Copyright 2013

Heralded as the fasted growing newcomer on the social media scene, Pinterest is free from ads, selfies and relationship updates.There are plenty of other image sharing sites out there, so why have they not experienced such a boom? Pinterest somehow captures the rose tinted glow of Instagram without an accompanying string of hashtags. I couldn’t put it better than Huffington Post Tech columnist Bianca Bosker, who notes the development of a culture slightly less ‘look at me’, and rather more ‘look at this’. Recent stats reported by Curalate also seem to support this notion; images containing faces receive 23% less repins and constitute a fifth of all images. Bosker believes that we have simply become sick of one another, and I can’t help but agree. Pinterest seems to encourage the pursuit of dream wardrobes and DIY idea swapping, rather than social life one upmanship. Couple this with the lack of ads and we have a winner.

With this in mind I can’t help feeling that Pinterest’s steps towards monetization via ‘promoted pins’, though of course both somewhat understandable and inevitable, may burst this bubble to some extent. By placing serious monetization on the back burner for the last couple of years, the site has been able to build a loyal user base and ingrained site virality; 80% of pins are in fact repins (check out some other top Pinterest facts). Pin promotion is not the only retail based change to occur on the site; it joins the list of  other site enhancements designed to connect customer and company; so called Rich PinsPrice NotificationsWeb Analytics tools to name a few. As the retailer appears to become the current focus of the site’s attention, does Pinterest run the risk of putting off the very users most likely to become end consumers?

What do the pinners think?

So, now that Ben Silbermann’s (CEO and Founder) plans to roll out ‘tasteful’ and ‘relevant’ ads (promised to be a far cry from Facebook banner type horrors) have been set in motion, what do the users themselves have to say?

Image used to demonstrate promoted pins on Ben Silberman's announcement.

Image used to demonstrate promoted pins on Ben Silbermann’s announcement

Responses from pinners (as ascertained by the roughly 80 viewers who elected to comment on the blog post) reveal mixed attitudes towards the news. Whilst the majority of commenting users seem to appreciate the need to earn from the site, many schools of thought exist concerning who should be doing the paying, and how this might manifest itself. In many cases throughout the feed, strong user loyalty is demonstrated; repeatedly pinners claim that they would far rather pay an appropriate subscription fee (one such user put the figure at around $10 a year, though this is clearly a much debated price), rather than have their experience tainted by advertising. In fact, the lack of ability to ‘opt out’, even for a fee, appears to rank highly on the list of irritations users are experiencing regarding the new system. If the promoted pins must feature on the site, their appearance should be contained to search feeds rather than personal home feeds, suggest some site members, and be clearly separated from genuine search items.

Conversely, many pinners accept and even embrace the concept of the changes. However, a number users describe their disappointment that the promise of relevant and feedback-improved (e.g. the result of ‘show more/less pins like this one’) promoted pins has not materialised within their own personal home pin feeds. One such recurring complaint regards the ability of the site algorithm to predict which pins may be of interest to a user. Whilst some note a complete mismatch between previous pinning activity and suggestions (the ‘show less like this’ option failing to improve the situation), others cite food allergy as an example to highlight the challenges in providing a seamless product suggestion experience. The ratio of suggested pins to organic search results has also come into question; whilst this balance seems to vary between users, one pinner reported that a third of her feed was accounted for by new advertisements and suggestions.

Of course it is important to bear in mind that these comments may represent a small minority of attitudes within the Pinterest community; it is likely that only those who felt strongly dissatisfied were compelled to speak out. Having said this, and maybe I’m biased, but the one thing that does reverberate throughout the responding posts is the clear passion felt for the user experience. Evidently Pinterest has succeeded in designing an environment which users have come to love, and indeed are willing to pay for. By Eric Ries standards (author of the fantastic The Lean Startup), the product is clearly demonstrating two of three key performance indicators of growth; Stickiness (akin to Dave McClure’s Retention phase) and Virality. As Pinterest experiments with the third stage, Payment, it is yet unclear what their priorities will lie. Might they choose to uphold the user experience in the future, maybe with an optional ads-free paid subscription? Or will they consider further commercial alignment? Either way, I’m sure this is not the last we will hear of the issue.

 On another note

As a site built from user generated content, Pinterest is not without problems concerning pin credibility, accuracy and quality. However, a generation of genius bloggers have turned this problem on its head with the creation of light hearted pokes at such pins, all of course providing more coverage for Pinterest.

Potentially the most famous spin off is Allison Tyler’s triumph WTF, Pinterest; a satirical blog highlighting the very best DIY fails, backwards diet fads and mind boggling comment arguments to name a few. They only trick the site has missed is not yet installing endless scroll! An honorary mention also goes to The Pintester herself, Sonja Foust, who has created a blog dedicated to taking the ‘yourself’ out of DIY. She shares with you the satisfaction of completing a Pinterest project without having to undergo the hassle of actually doing it. Wondering if that recipe really does produce such photography-ready treats? That’s ok, live vicariously through Sonja.

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