Scott Martin, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO - Pinterest's popular online image scrapbooks are fast becoming a retailer's best friend.
"Pinners" are sharing at a feverish pace photos of jewelry, clothing, furniture and other admired items that make Pinterest the destination du jour for socializing specifically around products.
Pinterest as a result has emerged as social photo-sharing's rising star as a merchandising vehicle for marketers.
Take Nordstrom. The retailer has more than 4.5 million followers on Pinterest. People can follow shoes there under a particular "Pin Board" dubbed "Shoe Lust." That's garnered more than 141,000 followers alone.
"Customers are telling us what content is interesting and exciting for them. So it helps us listen and respond to what's compelling to them," says spokesman Colin Johnson.
Nordstrom has tested popular items on Pinterest in its stores on floor displays. It's even put Pinterest tags on in-store items to let shoppers know what's resonating with online clicks.
Nordstrom has also put iPads into the hands of sales staff who use an internal store app to view products that are most pinned on Pinterest and the store's current inventory. "We see some favorable results overall," Johnson says.
Home-improvement retailer Lowe's has 3.6 million followers on Pinterest and has been watching Pinterest's Rich Pins feature, which allows pinners to post more specifics on products, such as dimensions and prices. Pinterest is being "really smart about how they're evolving the product," says Brad Walters, Lowe's director of social media. "We would consider" an advertising platform from Pinterest if it were an option.
Pinterest, which today makes no money and remains focused on building the site, has marketers and investors salivating over its digital advertising prospects. That's because brands know exactly which items people like on Pinterest.
"That represents a level of buying intent that we've never really had before ... essentially targeting that is down to an individual item at an individual. That's not knowledge that anyone else has," says Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate, a marketing platform that applies image-processing algorithms to help brands understand what images mean. "They know exactly which products you like."
Facebook, Google and Twitter don't have the same understanding of consumers' product interests, he says.
"For a long time people have been talking about social commerce, but we never quite saw it come like people were prognosticating. The dots never connected - then Pinterest came along," says ComScore analyst Andrew Lipsman. He says an advertising platform or affiliate marketing fees for click-throughs to retailers are an obvious path.
"They've got time to figure it out and make it the best possible monetization engine eventually."
Pinterest reached 46.2 million people in the U.S. in July for desktop and mobile, according to measurement firm ComScore. "It was the fastest we'd ever seen come out of the gate."
Pinterest, which has nabbed $338 million in venture capital, has a reported valuation of about $2.5 billion.
"The tricky part is how do you create an ad unit that is part of the user experience," says Pinterest investor and board member Jeremy Levine, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners.