Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Powerful Potential of Pinterest

No matter how many social media platforms you have accounts on or are actively engaged on, you surely have at least heard mumblings of how social media is changing the way we interact, browse, work and live. And like all forms of social media, much like new technology, there is a lifecycle of early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Some forms of new technology can be immediately useful to the very first users, while others require participation from other customers before it becomes useful. Social media, I'd argue, is rarely useful until everybody else is on it. Pinterest is perhaps the best exception to that rule.

Take the telephone for example (notSmart Phones, now, or even cell phones; I'm going way back to the original telephone): it had absolutely zero use to the very first user, because he had nobody to call. What a lonely set those first few customers must have been! But as the technology was adopted by more users, it became more and more useful. Then providers could improve upon the technology and add features, and make the service cheaper. Many new technologies had to be made flexible enough to accommodate the telephone system, because it became so critical to our lives.

The most exciting part of new technology, to me, isn't the technology itself, but the way it can be adapted to previously unthinkable applications. The Internet, as I saw it in my youthanyways, was a storage place for information, and an ugly one at that. But as it gained momentum, people started to figure out how to use it. TheSmart Phoneis another example; it didn't appeal to me at first, because the apps were mostlysub-parversions of websites, or clocks, or dumb games. Initially, app developers didn't see the big picture of how people could useSmart Phones, so apps didn't differentiate themselves from computer software. Now, there are apps that I feel like I couldn't live without; or would need a second, clunkier device in order to accomplish the same thing. The apps are quickly replacing clunky devices and computer software altogether.

I'm not sure if there is a name for this phenomenon: it's like there was a steady climb up a hill where nothing really made sense and didn't prove its worth, early adapters raved about its potential, they just didn't know what that potential really looked like, and then one day thelight bulbgoes on and suddenly we understand how to apply the technology to vastly change and improve our lives, usually in ways even the early adopters couldn't have imagined. I shirk away from calling this a tipping point, because I don't think it's the same thing that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his book by that name. I'd venture to say its even beyond the "chasm" that Geoffrey Moore talks about in the life cycle of a product. Rather, it's like a moment of clarity that only comes after tons of people are using it poorly.

So what does all of this have to do with Pinterest? Well, Pinterest may not be new to many of you, and maybe you've steered clear of it because of what you've heard about it. Regardless, I think Pinterest has some seriously untapped potential that we have yet to see spread throughout its users.

Newbie Mistakes

I'll admit that as a new Pinterest user, realistically like a new user to any social media platform, I didn't know what I was doing when I started. You could even say I used it "wrong". The first board I created was for my Life List, which had previously existed in several forms, including a facebook app that disappeared into some cyber black hole, and luckily, it was also stored on my computer on a simple Excel worksheet. Being the Excel guru that I am, I happen to dislike the life list apps I've found because they aren't as clever or functional or useful as my Excel spreadsheet, with its filters and notes and dates and possible locations, came to be. Still, since I didn't know what to do with Pinterest, I decided to Pin my entire 147-item Life List into a designated board. I'll admit in hindsight it was a big waste of time. I get very little utility out of it being on Pinterest except for one aspect: visualization. That was what was missing from my Excel sheet! The exciting and sometimes comical images I picked to represent my life list goals has a profound impact on me when I see it. I still refer to my Excel list regularly, but when I tell others about my Life List, I show them my Pinterest board because it just looks so cool.

I say this is the "wrong" way to use Pinterest for several reasons. First, I had to seek out and find every image, many from Google because I couldn't find them on Pinterest itself. The value proposition, and indeed the addicting nature, of Pinterest is that users will discover things that others have posted. Thus, having my list already created, and choosing not to add to my list, means I was rejecting and ignoring Pinterest's most valuable features. What a shame. Second, Pinterest isn't really just about visualization; its about information, too. Most of my pins are merely images, with no valuable content behind them. Don't even bother clicking on them; they will lead you nowhere. Thus, my Life List board serves no higher purpose than a clever way to display inspiring images. Third, a Life List is, by nature, a checklist, whereas Pinterest is not. Thus, other than editing the pin, either by writing "DONE!" after the caption or moving it to a new "Completed Life List" board, there is no action I can take to check the box, because Pinterest wasn't meant to be a checklist.

Pinterest is perhaps best known for collecting DIY/craft ideas and recipes. I cook about once per year, so recipes are not of much interest to me, but I'd argue that they're not even all that useful to the most common pinner. I've seen some people with dozens of boards on just recipes; they'll have one for desserts and one for chicken entrees and one for mushroom soups. However, there is a kind of hoarding going on, and this worries me. With no barriers to "keeping" pins, like price or space, pinners tend to just pin everything they see, without actually curating or evaluating the value. It's a little bit like holding on to clothes you never wear. I see pins that capitalize on this by saying, "Pin now, read later."If you're not reading it now, and you're just pinning things that might be useful, you'll probably never return to read those pins that didn't pique your interest the first time around. You don't need to pin "10 Ways to Remove Grass Stains from Carpet" just because it seems like someday it could be useful. If the time ever comes that you need to remove grass stains from carpet, you can Google it, look it up on YouTube, or heck, search for it on Pinterest. If it seems pin-worthy to you, then read it over once before pinning, and you're likely to recall the solution if it ever becomes a need.

The hoarding effect has gotten so bad that people joke about it, "Look I finally used a recipe I found on Pinterest!" I think mindless hoarding is Pinterest abuse, and I'd strongly discourage it. Not only does it clog up your boards with recipes you'll never cook and links you'll never click, it clogs up my feed. So rule #1 against hoarding is, if its not worth reading the first time, it's not worth pinning. Rule #2 is, if you don't actually find yourself going back to reference certain boards, then those boards are hoard boards; they should be deleted and you should stop pinning those types of things.

That being said, I think there are still bigger and better applications of Pinterest that haven't been fully realized. I have been playing around with this, seeing what is useful and what is not. One such board is my "Companies / Websites to Watch" board. This is a home to the really exciting "next new thing" things that I see, can barely contain my excitement, and otherwise don't really know what to do with. I have yet to decide if this is really of value or not, because I don't find many times in my life where I am triggered to return to the board, like I do with my "Places to Try" boards. On the contrary, here are some useful ways in which I think more people should use Pinterest.

Reference Lists

What I realized is that Pinterest is a unique and incredibly functional way to organize thoughts, activities, desires, etc. Perhaps the most utilitarian use is creating a Wish List which you can then refer your friends and family to when it is birthday and/or Christmas time. The problem I faced pre-Pinterest was that I knew I wanted things that I wouldn't necessarily splurge on, but when my parents asked me for a list for Christmas, I drew a blank. Even when I managed a thought or two, they certainly weren't my biggest desires. Somehow I couldn't remember what it was I wanted most. Sure, I could have kept a list in OneNote (which I used to use) or Evernote (which I now use), but that list was tacky and became difficult to update because some items were bullets and some were pictures and some were links and it was just ugly. Sharing it was even harder, because if I updated it, then I'd have to send it out again. And if I ended up buying something from the list, I'd want to tell my parents to disregard that item. Pinterest is nice, because it is made up of links naturally, it can display prices, it maintains a consistent format, and it can be shared and updated with ease. And Pinterest is beautiful to look at!

Another great idea for Pinterest boards is the "Things to Do In..." or "Things to Try" concepts. How many times have you been sitting around with your significant other wondering where you should go to eat or what you should do? This is my remedy. When I see or hear about a cool local restaurant or venue, I pin it to my "Places to Try in Phoenix" board. That way, when the "what to do" question comes up, I have an immediate list of places I've already decided I want to check out. I do this for other cities, too, because chances are I'll forget all the cool things I've heard about by the time I actually get there. So as I'm planning my next Vegas trip, I can refer back to the accumulation of cool things to do in Vegas on my Pinterest board. FourSquare lets you create checklists, so I have used that from time to time if I'm mostly concerned about collecting a list of places to go in a different city; there are a number of drawbacks to using FourSquare, though, and perhaps the only benefit is the ability to link directly to a Nav app.

I'll submit a caveat here that I think is important. When creating Reference Lists, I find it helpful to be very specific. Not just, "Things I want to do someday", but "Things to do in Las Vegas for free" or "Places to Eat in the Phoenix area" or "Day trip ideas". The reason I find this helpful is because when a board is too generic, I start thumbing through it and get turned off by the things that don't apply to my specific situation. I might even walk away with less of an idea of what to do than when I started, because my board was too generic of a collection.

Another way I've used Pinterest is to pat myself on the back and remind myself of some of the extraordinary things I've done. Specifically, my "Hiking Conquests" board is made up of, as you might imagine, hikes that I have completed and thus want to remember. When you hike five or six places, you can probably remember them pretty well. But as you hike more and more places, you don't always remember them, and then you're talking to a fellow hiker new to the area, and you can't remember all the places you might recommend. Does it belong on Pinterest? Maybe not; an Untappd-like app specific for hiking might be cooler. FourSquare allows you to check in to hiking locations, but doesn't differentiate them from other check ins. Maybe if FourSquare grouped past check ins and saved them in a useful format, this could be the end-all solution. In themealtime, Pinterest is the best solution I have found for this purpose.


Ultimately, I think Pinterest works well as a collector of research. I still assert that you should be discriminatory about what you pin, and not just blindly post anything related to what you're looking for. Used properly, you can quickly accumulate a list of links that you found valuable on a specific topic. Why use Pinterest instead of a list in EverNote or Excel? Captioning, for one. I rarely remember the title of an article, and based on the title or the URL, I almost never remember what it was I found useful in it. Thus, with a regular set of links, I might be clicking all the way down the list until I find that one nugget I was looking for. Pinterest requires a description or caption, which prompts me to think what it is I want to say about it, thus capturing the main idea before I move on to the next source. Yes, a description or note about the value of an article could be captured in EverNote or Excel, but Pinterest requires something, which I think is of at least minor value. I think the big bang comes from that visualization I liked so much early on. While I might not remember titles or URLs, I do remember visuals. Any graphics that are displayed while reading an article get tied to the concepts, ideas and values of that article; even if they aren't obviously related. So by Pinterest purposefully requiring an image, I can utilize boards to quickly identify the link that I'm looking for.

I'll give you an example of such research. My "Genius Marketing Ideas" board is dedicated to out-of-the-box, never-woulda-thought-to-do-that marketing examples. This serves as inspiration whenever I am looking for a new angle in my marketing, whether it be for the non-profit I work with, a personal business, or a new startup. Some of them I found by chance on Pinterest or elsewhere on the Internet, and some of them I created a new pin for based on something I read in a book. My favorite of these is the hand-written board outside a cafe that says, "Come in and try the worst Thai tea that one guy on Yelp ever had in his life." I find this hilarious, because it is turning a negative review almost into a challenge, as if to say, "Really guy on Yelp? Is it that bad?" It almost puts him out there as a target to throw darts at. I could imagine that others would be more prone not only to try the tea, but to then go on to Yelp and disprove of the negative review, than they would if it just said, "Give us a review on Yelp!" It also hints at one of Cialdini's weapons of influence, authority; by admitting a very minor negative, namely, one guy didn't like one of their products, they actually increase their credibility as a coffee shop / cafe.

On the other hand, one major flaw I see in Pinterest is its increasing inability to identify images on websites that I'm trying to pin. I suppose this is because websites are becoming more sophisticated, with embedding or references that just didn't exist or weren't popularly used 15 years ago. So I can be starring at a page full of images, and Pinterest can't find one. Thus, I can't pin that page. I have a work around, it's more of a band-aid than a cure, and that is to take a screenshot and manually create a pin referencing the website in the caption. There is no link when done this way (sad face). This is both time-consuming and frustrating, and what's worse is that I cannot do this on my mobile phone, which is a major part of my pinning activities. If Pinterest would automatically take a Snippet and maintain the linking feature, instead of rejecting my ability to pin, that would solve a world of hurt in my pinning experience. Please, Pinterest, please! Read this and take action!

Enough about that. I mentioned earlier that one of the reasons my Life List was using Pinterest wrong was because I essentially rejected the Pinterest discovery process. But here's the problem: if nobody else is using Pinterest for research like I am, than the only things I can discover are recipes and crafts. Like the telephone back in the day, I need someone to call, or in this case, follow, to see what they're finding in their research on similar topics. To be fair, there are a few out there with boards of interest. Usually if I find a pin that I re-pin into one of my research boards, I'll review the entire board it came from, and if I find myself re-pinning once or twice more, I become a follower of that pinner. So I have a few people who help me discover, and I have hope that this number can grow. Just imagine if 7 followers/followees were researching the same narrow topic of collaborative innovations as I was. That would be some seriously powerful collaboration, by total strangers who could care less what the others do with the information.

So my challenge, then, is to figure out what Pinterest is really good for. Hoarding is silly; it's a powerful platform with tons of potential, and I just don't think it has reached that moment of clarity yet.

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